Care and Feeding

Back Off, Mom

My mom thinks she’ll help care for my first child, but she couldn’t be more wrong. How do I make this clear?

Grandma talks to Mom, while the granddaughter observes.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by fizkes/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Email careandfeeding@slate.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband and I want to have our first kid soon. Before we start trying, we need to figure out how to handle my mother.

We aren’t close at all. I maintain a polite relationship with her to minimize guilt trips and dramatics that arise when I keep the much-greater distance I would prefer. She’s learned that there will probably be a kid eventually, and she’s become obsessed with moving near me and being “Grandma’s Babysitting Service.” I’ve tried telling her that wouldn’t work for us, but she says, “You have no idea how hard it will be, especially after the second” or “Why have babies if you’re going to dump them at some day care?” or “You can’t afford good child care.”

We can afford day care, and while it’s expensive, more importantly, it’s not my mother. She was a big believer in corporal punishment and severe “Tiger Mom” parenting methods. I would never leave a kid with her unattended for even a few minutes.

We have major differences in values, and she thinks it’s her responsibility that her grandchildren participate in her religion (she embraces its most judgmental and hateful aspects), which is unacceptable to my husband and me. I don’t want her “help” raising my child, and I don’t want to deal with her guilt trips, unsolicited advice, and other intrusions into the happy and stable life I’ve built for myself.

She claims all her friends live near their grandbabies and take care of them when the parents have to go to work, and that it’s not fair that she might not get to do the same. She has started looking at homes in our area (where she knows no one but us), and, as she can’t afford to live in the city, she’s started telling us to move to the suburbs and get a house with enough room for her to live with us. This is not happening. Is there a way to handle this short of full estrangement while she’s living in a fantasy world and not my metro area?

—I Need My Space

Dear INMS,

Becoming a parent can be clarifying. Everything changes—your priorities included.

That is to say: When you have your child, you may well discover that the “dramatics” you expect from your mother when you maintain your distance suddenly affect you much less. What feels dire to you now may feel like mere annoyance. You might lose interest in keeping the peace; you might not care about being estranged. Your child will matter to you so much that you simply won’t have the same bandwidth to deal with your mother. I see this as liberation.

I’m sorry about your mom. She sounds difficult, and cruel, and deluded. You’ve tried to be clear with her. I would nip this in the bud by being louder, more firm, and very direct. Tell her you don’t want her child care help and that you do not intend for her to live with you. Whatever her counterarguments, just stick to that point. This may well lead to the full estrangement you fear, and I am sorry if it does.

Later, when your child is actual and not theoretical, its existence might lead to a rapprochement. Your mother might cool it with the child care stuff because she wants to see her grandchild. You might find that you want her involved in some capacity as a grandparent.

It’s also possible you might find you’re more at peace not speaking to your mother and that that is what is best for you and your family. It’s hard to say now, and I hate to think of you stressing yourself out about this scenario before you even have a child.

It’s normal for people to confront memories of their own childhood as they embark on parenthood. As you sort through these feelings, find a professional who can help you deal with them. Everyone in society could benefit from therapy, and you’re no exception! I think you’ll find it really helpful. Good luck.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I have two precocious girls—one is 4 and the other will be 3 in a few months. The younger one has developed a taste for potty humor and name-calling. Some of it’s benign (calling me a crocodile). But at other times, she’ll randomly pipe up with less-delightful statements like “Poop on your head!” Or, if she’s mad or frustrated, she might call us or her big sister a “pooper bum.” (It’s hard not to laugh as I read this, but in practice it is less amusing.)

I try to ignore it, or stop to remind her it’s OK to be angry or frustrated but that it’s not OK to call people names when you’re upset. My husband especially dislikes this and tells her very directly to not speak to him that way.

Her sister never did this. I’m sure it’s a phase (and may likely have been picked up in preschool from other kids—this language or name-calling definitely wasn’t developed at home) but is there anything else I can or should be doing? The kids are home for the summer, but I’d rather the younger one not address her lovely teachers as tooter-butts when school picks up in the fall.

—She’s Bumming Me Out

Dear Bumming,

I definitely think this is a phase. Your strategy sounds great—sometimes ignoring it and generally teaching her to express anger in some other way (counting to 10, walking away, etc.) is very wise. Instead of underscoring what not to say, try to reinforce what words you do use in your family (a good heck might help) and other ways you can acceptably express your feelings.

But I suspect your kid is as delighted by the power of her words to get a rise out of you as she is to express what she’s feeling. Take it as a sign of your daughter’s intelligence—she’s found something that gives her power over the adults in her life. If she’s mature enough to push your buttons, she can probably handle some mild consequences—whatever you usually do in your household.

You’ve got an older kid, so you know that getting through each child’s phases requires vigilance and patience. But you have a few weeks before school, and I’m sure you can get her on the right course. And if it makes you feel any better, I’m sure plenty of teachers have had toddlers call them much worse things than “pooper bum.”

If you missed Wednesday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My older brother and his wife have a 2-year-old son; he and my son are more like brothers than cousins.

My issue lies with my sister-in-law. Her relationship with her parents is deeply strained. She barely speaks to her father and gets very angry with her mother, often screaming at or mocking her. She has controlling tendencies and often belittles my brother, which she pretends is just joking. We don’t think she is funny, but cruel.

She is very close to C., her aunt. C. has no children of her own and has latched onto my sister-in-law and acts like a surrogate grandma to my nephew. She has become competitive with my mother, his actual grandma. If my mom buys her grandson a little pirate hat, C. will buy him a large pirate play-ship. You get the idea.

Asking my nephew to call her Great-Aunt C. or Aunt C. was out of the question. For months, she has been mulling over what special name she wants to be called. The last time we visited, C. was there, and I heard my nephew calling her “uela.” When I asked what he was saying, C. said his name for her is abuela, Spanish for grandma.

When I asked her why she chose this—she is not a Spanish speaker—she gave a racist reply involving Hispanics and cleaning services. I was shocked. My nephew is still calling her this.Every time I hear it, I feel a knot in my stomach. My mom says it’s not my place to comment on it and it’ll just hurt my relationship with my brother, so I’m coming to you. Can C. really not see the cultural stereotype associated with her cutesy nickname? Do I talk to my SIL, who will no doubt defend it? My brother? Or should I just let it go? Is this even a problem?

—You Aren’t Even His Grandma!

Dear YAEHG,

Your nephew’s great-aunt upstages your mother. This troubles you. But you don’t say whether it troubles your mother? If your mother says it’s not your place to comment on it, I wonder why you feel agitated enough by it that you’re writing this letter?

Your real issue seems to be with your sister-in-law: You sense that she’s choosing her family over yours, and that she’s cruel to your brother.

You’ve got legitimate concerns. First off, C.’s racism is definitely not great, and it’s more than fair to discuss her honorific with both her and your sister-in-law. Whether they’ll hear you or not is another matter, but you can try. I also think it’s fair to defend your brother if his wife is belittling him in front of you. You could always talk to him privately about what you feel is his wife’s tendency to denigrate him. This, too, is something neither he nor she may be able to hear.

The tug of war between your mother and C., by contrast, doesn’t seem like something worth discussing; it doesn’t seem like a real problem, and it’s certainly not your problem.

One thing I will add, though, is to remember that there’s no such thing as too much love. That the nephew you adore is adored by two women who are his elders is a blessing. He is young enough, sure, to be more impressed by a pirate ship than a pirate hat. But kids are smarter than you think. They’re good judges of character, and they love without condition.

You can roll your eyes privately. You can gossip with your mom about what a nut C. is. But remember that she loves your nephew just as much as you do, and there’s no harm in that. That particular family dynamic is what it is. Try to respect it and maybe in time it won’t bother you quite so much.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m a 41-year-old woman who has never raised a child. I recently moved into a house-share where one of the other tenants has an 8-year-old son I’ll call David. David is extremely bright. He realized quickly that I’m delighted by his intelligence, and that I’m often happy to play with him, and that I listen to what he says and take him seriously as a person.

David now follows me everywhere, talking nonstop. He scrutinizes every tiny move I make, and he loves correcting me. I can’t start the laundry, take out the recycling, or lock the doors at night without being told what I’m doing wrong. In addition to the correcting, David likes to flatly (and loudly) contradict things that I say. (I’ve tried engaging him in whatever task I’m doing: “Hey, let’s finish doing the dishes together and you can show me how you like to do it.” He hasn’t shown any interest in that.)

I’ve been trying not to take this personally. I tell myself that it’s just a sign of David’s wonderful intelligence and interest in the world around him. I try not to assume it means that he doesn’t respect me or that he thinks I’m stupid and/or incompetent. (If I treated another person the way he does me, that’s what it would mean to me.)

But my patience is wearing thin. I wish David would just relax and take it for granted that I’m as smart as he is. I want him to continue feeling comfortable with me, but I need him to back off and quit bullying me. How can I get him to stop supervising me without shaming or scaring him? Have I brought this on myself by teaching him that I respect his opinions?

Is relentless “correcting” normal behavior for an almost-9-year-old? (If it’s just a natural developmental phase, that’s another good reason why I shouldn’t take it personally.) If so, what’s the best way to handle it?

—At My Wit’s End

Dear Wit’s End,

I call this boysplaining when my sons do it, but it’s possible that it’s developmental, independent of gender. My older son loves to give me pointers on parallel parking. It’s incredibly irritating!

There’s a lot you can tell your young critic. You can point out that some opinions stay in our heads because we don’t want to hurt people’s feelings. You could tell him that adults generally deserve the deference of younger people, and part of that is not critiquing what they do. You can remind him that you’re friends and that friendship entails mutual respect, and that correcting or constantly commenting on one another’s actions is not respectful.

He sounds genuinely bright and you seem very thoughtful; I’m sure you can have this conversation in a way that doesn’t hurt his feelings or make him feel ashamed. In fact, you’ll probably have this conversation more than once. I think you’ve handled this with a lot of grace and you sound like a great adult for any kid to have in his life. I would absolutely not take this personally, but it’s also plenty valid for you to try to correct it.

—Rumaan

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