Care and Feeding

Can I Bar My Mother-in-Law From My Family Now?

I heard she smacked my niece. Would you let “one incident” go with a warning?

A grandmother smiling while looking at a mother holding and kissing her baby.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images PLus.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

Six months ago, my husband and I had a beautiful baby boy. Despite not sleeping, he’s fantastic. My well-meaning mother-in-law is attempting to be helpful. She’s a former primary school principal who loves children, which is great, but she’s inclined to “helpfully” show up unannounced with food we won’t eat and insist that anyone holding the baby hands him immediately over to her. She also emails multiple times a day with banal life updates. I can let most of this slide because she loves our baby and has been a great source of support. We also count ourselves very lucky that she already has three grandchildren from my husband’s sister with whom she spends a lot of time.

Alas, that is what’s prompted me to write in. The other day, my sister-in-law let it slip that a friend of hers had spotted my MIL walking my 7-year-old niece to ballet. The niece had tried to cross the road without looking, and my MIL responded by smacking her! Now, we don’t know the full story here—apparently, my niece shoved her right back!—and I doubt my SIL is going to rock the boat by pursuing it much further because they have a very testy relationship. By all accounts and observations, my parents-in-law are not the kind to condone hitting. (Nevertheless, it is illegal to smack someone in our country.) But if she ever laid a finger on my child, that would change everything for us: no more alone time, no more babysitting, only limited contact. If this ever happened, she would probably get apoplectic, but frankly, I wouldn’t care, and I’d know I have my husband’s backing.

What say you? Is that reasonable? Would you let “one incident” go with a warning?

—MIL Madness

Dear MIL Madness,

Be careful not to conflate annoying emails, unannounced visits, and poorly selected food offerings with corporal punishment. It sounds like you are inadvertently drafting plans to reduce your mother-in-law’s access to your son before she’s laid a disciplinary hand on him simply because she’s getting on your nerves, and that isn’t quite fair.

Let’s work our way down the list of complaints against your MIL. Sending too many life updates and popping up without a phone call? Sounds like she may be struggling to find her place in the world without parenting and running an elementary school to keep her busy. That doesn’t excuse her from having social graces, but it does beg a certain amount of care and compassion, especially since you say yourself that she has been a great help to your household during this very stressful time. Motherhood is such deeply fulfilling and transformative work—and then one day, apparently, we’re supposed to just be done with it and step aside as if our children somehow don’t need us anymore … how cruel! How dare our offspring think that they know more about the world when we still have the number of years we walked the Earth before they were born as an advantage?!

In all seriousness, politely let her know that you are a bit swamped and can’t respond to multiple emails every day and suggest she send them less frequently so you can be sure to give them your attention when they come in. And if she continues to send more than you can handle, don’t feel compelled to respond every time. As far as the unplanned visits go, explain that you’re happy to have her around but it’s really important for you to be prepared whenever someone is coming by and you aren’t always up for even beloved visitors. Perhaps you all can set some agreed-upon weekly visits and stick to a schedule. Also, let her know that while you’re very appreciative of her generosity with food, you’d hate for her money to go to waste and it would be great if she’d instead get [insert dishes that your family will actually eat].

Regarding the incident with your niece, ask your SIL if she’d be OK allowing you to bring it up to your MIL. If so, let your husband’s mother know that someone saw the encounter and you were curious about what took place. It is possible she freaked out and had a bad reaction, and that she knows striking a child is not only illegal where you live but an ineffective disciplinary measure. Ask about her stance on physical punishments and let it be known that you and your husband feel strongly about avoiding it at all times. Unless she surprises you with a “spare the rod, spoil the child” speech, you probably don’t need to worry about this happening again, considering she’s spent so much time with her older three grandchildren and this is the first you’ve heard of such a thing. Remain observant of how she interacts with them, but don’t write her off as violent toward children until you have some sort of meaningful evidence that suggests as much.

In short: Be kind, accept her help, and assert boundaries.