Care and Feeding

My Mother-in-Law Uses My Toothbrush

This woman has no boundaries.

Photo illustration of an old woman smiling while holding a toothbrush.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by SilviaJansen/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,

I’ve been with my husband for nearly 14 years. When we first got engaged, my mother-in-law, “Barbara,” told me to my face that she’d been having a hard time accepting that her son was marrying me.

Things have never gotten better. She constantly makes offhand comments about my weight and appearance. She’s told me that she does not like my parents and that they never make her feel welcome. When visiting, she rifles through my bathroom drawers and uses things I consider personal (hairbrush, toothbrush). She goes through cupboards and takes unopened food items home with her. Barbara has also pulled these stunts with my sister-in-law. She’s taken food, clothes, and even pictures off the wall. She barges in and sits in the bathroom while my sister-in-law finishes showering. This behavior is ridiculous to me.

My husband and I recently had a baby. Because she lives far away, Barbara doesn’t get to see us often and announced she will be coming once a month to stay with us so she can bond with our daughter. Our place is small, and we only have two bedrooms. We’ve suggested in the past that she stay in a hotel, but she is too cheap and finds that suggestion offensive. Her visiting for an extended weekend once a month sounds dreadful. While I want my daughter to have a relationship with her grandmother, I do not like the idea of spending time with someone who is so disrespectful and rude to me. During our last visit I ended up in tears.

My anxiety is through the roof when I spend time with this woman. My husband is no help. He is not good at communicating and normally brushes it off, downplaying her behavior. I’ve tried on many occasions to get to know Barbara and be accommodating but she changes her attitude from fine to appalling with the flip of a switch. What do I do? Is there any way to prevent this from turning into a nightmare?

—Save Me From My Toxic MIL

Dear Save Me,

Your mother-in-law uses your … toothbrush? This behavior is not ridiculous only to you. Curious as I am about your deranged mother-in-law, I wonder more about your husband and how he could possibly downplay the behavior you describe.

I understand that it can be difficult for us to confront our parents, but it is clear that this is your husband’s responsibility. Please talk to him directly; if you think that’s an impossible task, perhaps together you should see a therapist or religious adviser with the intent of handling this problem.

The behavior you describe feels indefensible, and your husband’s reticence might be because he’s been dealing with it longer—she’s his mother—or because he’s ashamed. But often the birth of a child becomes the inflection point that helps us clarify our relationships with our own parents. So perhaps he can rise to the occasion now.

I applaud you for wanting your kid to have a relationship with this grandmother, and one solution obvious to me is to have her come but not stay. She might resist, or plead poverty, or just be insulted by the suggestion. But I think you need to insist. It’s my hope your husband can get involved—but if he can’t, you’re not really risking anything as this woman already doesn’t respect you. Rather than give in to a long weekend of round-the-clock anxiety, just say, in no uncertain terms, “Barbara, we’d love to see you all weekend, but you’ll need to stay in a hotel.”

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I had a nasty falling out with my mother before I found out I was pregnant. I spent months trying to work it out. I sent Mother’s Day gifts and a conciliatory card which were returned unopened. Eventually I had to pretend nothing happened so I could continue to be part of my family, and so she could have a relationship with my daughter.

My therapist suggested my mother might have borderline personality disorder and counseled me on how to have a relationship while creating boundaries. I invited Mom to my hospital room and encouraged her to hold the baby. I FaceTimed once a week until my brother told me it bothered her because it seemed like I was using the baby as a distraction. I switched to phone calls, but those eventually come to a head because my mother can’t accept that I’m more standoffish now.

I’m hurt by our original blowup. Recently she said something upsetting, so rather than argue I told her I needed to end the conversation and attend to my child; she responded by refusing to see us the next time she was in town. At our last visit, she ignored my daughter. When I told her that was hurtful, she blamed me for not visiting enough and said she has other grandchildren with whom she can have relationships with instead, so she doesn’t need my kid.

I have done everything I can think of to ensure my mother gets to know my child, but I draw the line at her taking out her anger on my toddler. I’m doubtful our relationship will improve, and while I never intended to end our relationship, I believe limiting contact is better for my mental health.

My mother-in-law and father’s wife are delighted to be my girl’s grandmothers, so she’s not lacking love. I would never tell her she’s not allowed to contact my mom, but I’m also at the point where I wouldn’t encourage it. How do I raise my daughter to have compassion for my negligent mother without influencing her opinion of her grandmother?

—Wanting to Keep the Peace

Dear WtKtP,

While I’m generally wary of diagnosing other people, it absolutely seems like your mother has some mental health issues that she’s not addressing. I hope you’re continuing to see your therapist—not so you can get to the root of what your mother’s issues are, but so you can determine how you will respond and, indeed, how you’ll raise your own daughter in light of this.

It does sound like you’ve tried to wave the white flag to your mother, and I share your sense that keeping some distance might be the healthiest option. It’s generous that you want to avoid influencing your daughter’s opinion of her grandmother; the good news is I don’t think that will be difficult. If you see your mother only on Thanksgiving and Easter, say, it will probably be years (or never) before your kid says, hey how come we never see Grandma on Halloween and Christmas too? Intervene if your mother is outright hostile, but otherwise, just let her simmer in whatever bitterness she’s chosen to hold onto.

It takes a while before kids interrogate the whys and wherefores of their family’s dynamics. That said, kids are savvy judges of character. If her grandmother gives her the cold shoulder, your kid might lack the language to describe it but that doesn’t mean she won’t notice. I would continue to avoid speaking ill of your mother in front of your kid. It’s a lie by omission, maybe, but I think you can let her work out for herself what sort of relationship she wants to make with such a person; I doubt it will be much of one.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m a 30-year-old straight woman, happily married, and recently found out that I’m pregnant. We were not trying—we were (are) living an idyllic life with a dog and decent jobs and trying to make our way in the world. I am in the midst of applying for a job with physically intense requirements that I now need to put on hold.

I’m freaking out a bit, but I’m also tentatively excited, as is my husband. We think we can make this work. The tough part is our families. My parents are eager for grandchildren but were not very good parents to me and are often suffocating with their expectations. His parents are nice, but have their quirks and flaws, and can also be overwhelming.

We know the way forward (communicating expectations, setting boundaries) will be tough. But right now we want to keep this secret to ourselves until it’s been 12 weeks. The problem is our families are in the midst of planning a trip for my dad’s 60th birthday—three weeks after my due date. My mom has started booking things that have cancellation fees.

I feel like she probably won’t want to do this trip if she knows about the baby. But my husband pointed out that maybe it would be nice for our families to go on this trip without us and get out of our hair for a bit. I feel like everything will change once they know—there will be numerous questions about the future, expectations to move to be closer to family, and other pressures. Should we tell our parents now? Or can we justify waiting another four or five weeks? Would it be a betrayal to not tell them until then?

—Mum’s the Word

Dear Mum,

Why put off until tomorrow what you can do today? I’m normally all for holding these delicious secrets close, but your mom is making non-refundable arrangements you have no intention of keeping. I don’t think it’s a betrayal not to tell her, but it’s thoughtful if you share the news since it will affect these travel arrangements.

If you’re going to have to maintain boundaries with your family, you might as well start practicing now. Make it clear you do not want this to affect the celebrations of dad’s milestone birthday in any way. Be firm that you’re super excited to have grandparents on hand, but that it’ll be some time before you know exactly what you’ll need. Communicate openly; this gives your parents the opportunity to respond as you hope they will and be the sorts of grandparents you need, not the kind you resent.

Dear Care and Feeding,

People often comment on my son, saying “Oh, what a beautiful little girl!” I usually respond “Thanks! He’s a boy but I understand why you say that—he’s really pretty!” He is almost 2, and I don’t dress him in especially girly clothes, just a turquoise jacket, and brightly colored shirts, and some neon rainbow shoes. His hair has gotten long enough to cover his eyes, and I’m not ready to cut it, so we put the bangs up in a small ponytail on top of his head, which he loves.

My question is: Is this OK for now? We aren’t people who are anchored to gender stereotypes, so we don’t mind if he is ambiguous as a toddler. But will he mind getting called a girl at some point? Should I dress him in more standard boy clothes or cut his hair or have a stronger response to strangers’ comments? Note that we are also fairly agnostic about his gender expression as he grows up—we assume he will probably be a cis man, but if he’s not, we would be supportive.

—Whatever Will Be, Will Be

[See how Danny M. Lavery answered this question in this week’s Dear Prudence column.]

Dear Whatever,

Your concern is well-intentioned but misplaced! Think of it this way: what better way to prove your own agnosticism about your child’s (or any person’s!) gender expression than to understand color and beauty as the remit of all people irrespective of gender? Who wouldn’t want neon shoes or beautiful never-trimmed locks? If it bothers your son someday, maybe you’ll have given him the language to express that it bothers him because he doesn’t like the attention, or because it’s just not his style, not because fashion statements are only for some people. I think it’s more than OK for now; I think it’s a simple way to teach your kid the joy of getting dressed. Someday he’ll decide for himself what that means and how it looks; for now, let it be as colorful and loud as you like, never mind what strangers say.

—Rumaan

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