Care and Feeding

Let’s Talk About Boundaries

My future in-laws have none. What should I do?

Photo collage of an angry bride and groom in front on torn paper.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Voyagerix/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My partner and I are having a sudden wedding. There’s no pregnancy or otherwise forced factor in this—it’s a choice we’re making for each other, and we’re very pleased with it. The problem is my in-laws. My parents and I developed strong boundaries as I transitioned to adulthood, but my partner and her parents did not, and they are taking our decision to marry in this way as a personal affront, despite the fact that they are invited to the wedding and will have a place of honor in it. Their disgruntlement still comes up in every call and text.

If these were my parents, I would tell them not to contact me until they got over it. If I told my in-laws that, they’d have no problem contacting my partner to complain about me, with a side of the same old guilt trip. She’s in therapy for this, but it’s slow going. Part of me wants to just suck it up and deal with their snide comments until the wedding passes, but I will have them in my life for a very long time and I feel like this is the right time to start setting boundaries with them. What should I do?

—It Is Impossible to Have A Drama-Free Wedding

Dear Impossible,

This one is not your battle to fight; these are not your boundaries to set. And you don’t get to decide how fast your partner’s therapy should be going.

I’m afraid that you do have to suck it up. You will indeed have them in your life for a very long time, and it sounds like there may be a lot of sucking up ahead. You might as well start practicing for it.

Meanwhile, no one says you have to talk to your partner’s parents on the phone if their calls upset or anger you. Let their calls go straight to voicemail; be too busy to return them. Let their passive-aggressive texts remain unanswered—or pile up—for a few days and then respond, So busy right now—sorry! This is a perfectly reasonable response to a hostile message that cannot reasonably be met with a proportionally hostile response.

But do not expect your partner to handle this in the same way you do. She will have to work out her own strategy for dealing with her disgruntled parents, and you will have to find a way to be supportive of that, whatever it turns out to be. This will also be good practice for your life together—of which I wish you a great many happy years.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a question about co-parenting and boundaries (mine specifically). My ex and I are relatively new to co-parenting. It’s been about 18 months, and we share 50-50 custody of our 5-year-old daughter. My ex is a very involved parent, and one of his big concerns during our amicable split was not seeing our daughter every day. We currently have a 2-2-3 schedule and it’s been working very well for everyone. The issue I’m having is with some of the personal decisions he’s making in his life that affect our daughter.

He moved his girlfriend in earlier this year (less than a year after I moved out), and they got engaged 10 days after she moved in. That was a month ago, and now he tells me they’re selling the house that’s been the only constant in my daughter’s life during everything going on over the past two years. I always knew these things were going to happen, and I want him to be happy, but the speed at which this is occurring is concerning to me, and I believe it is affecting our daughter. She started kindergarten this fall, and she’s been having a lot of social issues. (She can’t sit still and has been mean, even violent, to her classmates.) She has already been suspended for a day. I’m pretty sure she has ADHD, and I’ve started the process to get her formally evaluated so she can access more resources in the school. Her teacher also wants her tested for gifted programming and resources since she’s doing very well academically.

I don’t know how much to push my ex. I know that his life and what he does with it aren’t my business, but the effect (or presumed effect) on our daughter is my business. She’s never expressed displeasure or resentment about her dad’s girlfriend or the engagement. She’s actually excited about the prospect of siblings, something I share with her. (I won’t be having more children, but she will be a wonderful sister, and I’m glad she’ll get to experience that.) I want my daughter to succeed and feel loved and secure in all her relationships (including with her new stepmom). My ex is also a terrible communicator, and it’s very difficult to have a conversation with him that leads to any action. Do I need to get over this and mind my own business? Or should I express my concern to him about his lightning-fast timeline?

—Worried Mom

Dear WM,

Further adventures in stay-out-of-it: I don’t think you should “push” your ex at all. You say you know that his romantic life and plans for marriage are none of your business, but—I don’t know how to say this delicately—I don’t believe you. I don’t see a relationship between your ex’s decisions and your daughter’s issues at school, especially since you note that she has expressed no unhappiness about her father’s current situation or his plans for the future. And you yourself posit a diagnosis of ADHD as a possible explanation for her behavior, which I am pretty sure you know could not have been caused by anything her father has done.

I find myself wondering if you may be projecting your own unhappiness about how quickly your ex is moving on. There’s something troubling your daughter, for sure, if she’s exhibiting violent behavior for the first time—and a suspension from kindergarten seems extraordinary to me. Certainly you should be talking to her father about that. But I would be very careful about drawing a line from his life choices to your daughter’s acting-out in school.

I would urge you to have her see a therapist, who should be able to get at the root of this new, alarming behavior and give your daughter a chance to work out whatever she’s feeling in a safe environment. And I think it would be useful for you to see someone too, to help you get your own feelings sorted, which I suspect are not quite as clear-cut as you’ve suggested.

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

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My sister-in-law will be coming to stay for the holidays with her husband and son. I am excited about hosting them but don’t know how to handle the fact that they spank their son as a form of discipline. My husband and I do not spank our son and do not believe it is ever appropriate to hit a child. I am feeling very conflicted about their visit. Do I involve myself in their parenting and tell them they cannot spank their child in my house? Or do I ignore my ethics for the sake of my relationship with them? I feel like I cannot win either way. What’s the right thing to do?

—Conflicted in New Mexico

Dear Conflicted,

And now for a more nuanced piece of stay-out-of-it advice, because I too believe a child should never be hit and would also find this very upsetting. But I think you have created a false binary. You’re right that you have two bad options: Don’t make a choice between them. You obviously like your sister-in-law and want to have a relationship with her—you’re excited about this visit!—so I would talk to her in advance of the visit.

Of course, your husband is likely the more appropriate parent to handle this conversation. (Presumably, this is his sister you’re talking about.) But whether your husband takes this on or gives you the go-ahead to do so, I would open the conversation by letting her know how happy you both are that she and her family are joining yours for the holidays and how much you’re looking forward to their company, but that there’s something you need to talk about. Since you’re aware that your in-laws spank their child, I assume that either the subject has been discussed before or that you’ve witnessed a spanking. Now’s the time to be honest and nonjudgmental about your different parenting choices but to make them explicitly clear. Make clear, too, that your intention is not to tell her and her husband how to raise her child (whether you mean this or not—but there may be the smallest of possibilities that a potential side effect of your empathy and generosity toward her will open a tiny window for her to consider other ways to “discipline” your nephew) but that while the two families are coexisting in your home it’s important to you to have home team rules in place: that if your son witnessed a spanking, he would be confused and disturbed by it because spankings are not a part of your family’s life. (And here is your chance to say, too, that you have in your parenting toolbox several disciplinary measures that you’ve found effective and that she is welcome to borrow over the holidays if the need arises.)

For what it’s worth, I would not have this initial conversation over the phone. I am a big fan of doing the initial “talking” about such charged matters by email, which offers you a chance to lay out your thoughts without interruption in the kindest, most respectful way (and with opportunities for multiple revisions before hitting send) and likewise gives your sister-in-law a chance to think and revise before she responds. Perhaps both you and your husband can sign this email. And you—or he—can move to the telephone to continue the conversation as necessary. Who knows? Maybe the dialogue it opens will nudge that tiny window up enough to let some fresh air in. (I know, I’m an incurable optimist—but as I tell my husband practically every day, it’s better than being an incurable pessimist.)

Dear Care and Feeding,

How do I best help support my teenager’s mental health during the college application process? My 17-year-old son is a very smart, quirky kid who’s always done well in school. We live in a very competitive area, and he’s been with the same neighborhood contingent of “smart kids” since the elementary school gifted program. I’ve done my best not to add to stressful expectations, and I would honestly support him on any path he chooses as long as he’s healthy and happy. However, he recently confessed to me that he’s neither—that he’s been feeling extremely anxious and depressed and has had thoughts about suicide. I honestly had no idea, and it shakes me to the core how close I may have come to losing him. We’ve found him a good therapist and he’s also started medication. (It will be a while before we’ll know if it’s working.)

The problem is that we’re approaching college application time, and given his test scores, academic record, etc., everyone around him expects him to be applying to all the most-selective schools. At this point I’d be happy to have him living in my basement working in retail next year. (He has a part-time job he likes.) The idea of sending him off to a pressure-cooker Ivy League school right now makes me ill. But I also don’t want to treat him like he’s too fragile, or bar him, out of fear, from a path he might end up enjoying. Normally I’d just follow his lead on this, but right now he’s just trying to get through each day. How can I best support him right now? It doesn’t help that 90 percent of my casual conversations with other parents involve them asking where my son is applying to school. It makes me want to scream at them for adding to the collective stress around here.

—Anxious Parent

Dear AP,

I believe you can follow your son’s lead without barring him from a path he might enjoy once he’s feeling stronger, in part by remembering (and reminding him, as necessary) that what he decides to do now, and in the near future, does not close off to him any path he might want to take later. I say “in part” because there’s more. In no particular order: 1) A pressure-cooker Ivy is not what’s right for everyone, no matter how smart they are, or whether they are anxious and depressed or not; 2) there are a lot of interesting places to go to college where he’ll get a great education beyond the small list everyone you know is laser-focusing on; 3) taking a gap year is an excellent option that a lot of people end up wishing they’d availed themselves of; 4) his health, well-being, and safety are way, way more important than his college applications. (Maybe I lied: No. 4 is most important.)

If he doesn’t feel up to dealing with this now, let it go. There are advantages to waiting a year or two before starting college. (I wish I had waited—I would have made much better use of my college education if I’d started a couple of years later—although when I was that age, I had never heard of anyone who planned to go to college not doing it right after high school.) He, and you, will also be better equipped to shrug off this Ivies-or-Bust nonsense after the dust has settled and so many, if not most (if not all) of his friends end up at non-Ivies.

And whether he steps out of the process altogether right now or you help him choose a set of small liberal arts colleges that will be non–pressure cookers—or he lives at home next year and goes to the local community college and/or continues to work at the job he enjoys—when other parents ask where he’s applying, I advise that you sigh, laugh, or shake your head and say: “Oh, my, don’t you hate how stressful this whole college application thing is? I prefer not to talk or even think about it any more than is absolutely necessary.” And then change the subject, because the answer to this question is none of their damn business.


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