Care and Feeding

My Mother-in-Law Won’t Stop Gifting Us Used, Dirty Toys

What should I do?

Woman opening a present
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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 never been on great terms with my mother-in-law. Since our daughter, now 2, was born, my mother-in-law has been constantly buying us random things she sees at yard sales or thrift stores. A lot of it is nasty and dirty or unsafe to use. She has four other grandkids for whom she buys brand-new things. She also takes them on expensive vacations every year.

My husband and I are not financially hurting. But I’m insulted that she gives our child dirty used stuff all the time and gives her other grandkids brand-new things. Plus, we don’t need or want this stuff. How do I bring this up to her, or what else can I do? Sometimes I wonder if she is treating our child like this because she doesn’t like me, but either way it’s insulting.

—Gift Horse

Dear GH,

You acknowledge you and your mother-in-law haven’t been on great terms, but you don’t address whether you wish that weren’t so. That’s the most pressing bit of information here: Do you want a rapprochement, or do you want a war?

Personally, I think you should respond to your mother-in-law’s gifts as you would any other: with a polite thank-you. That’s surely how you’d want your kid to respond, were she older. It’s just good manners.

Maybe your-mother-in law is trying to send you a message by giving you secondhand, subpar gifts. But I think simply accepting these presents with a polite smile is far more effective than getting into a big fight with her over something so … absurd. Just because she’s petty doesn’t mean you need to be.

It’s hard to know how this will work in the future—if your mother-in-law will exclude her granddaughter or treat her differently. This does happen. Your daughter might notice, and it might cause her pain. It will be tough for you, deciding whether to confront your mother-in-law about her treatment of you and your daughter, or take the high road so that you don’t reward her provocations.

But that’s extrapolating a lot from where you are now. Bag up any gifts you don’t care for or want, and donate them at your leisure. Do what you can to not let this whole situation bother you; let this be your mother-in-law’s problem and not yours.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband and I are pregnant after years of trying. In light of COVID, a lot of restrictions have been put in place by the fertility clinic. The one we are both struggling with is that I’m the only person allowed in the room during ultrasounds. We just had our initial one where I got to see the baby for the first time and hear the heartbeat, but my husband had to wait in the car. I wasn’t allowed to FaceTime or call him, and we’re both upset because we feel that he should be included in these moments, and he certainly wants to be.

I ended up crying in the room. I could blame the hormones, but in reality it’s because I was bummed. How can I make sure that my husband feels included in this pregnancy when he doesn’t get to participate in some of the milestones?

—Left Out

Dear LO,

Congratulations on the pregnancy! I’m so happy that your years of trying have led you here, and I wish you the best going forward. This is a fraught time for every one of us. Add to this the uncertainties and stresses of being pregnant at any moment, and then underscore this with the fact that you can’t share the everyday joys of this pregnancy with your partner—it’s no wonder you cried.

All I can tell you is that you have a lifetime of milestones ahead of you. You will never run out of them. Painful as it surely is for your husband not to be able to hear the baby’s heartbeat, and difficult as it surely is for you to have to go through these sorts of things alone, you know, already, that this is for the safety of everyone involved. Don’t get me wrong—it sucks! But there is so much joy waiting for you a couple of months down the line. Whenever you feel your lowest, remember that.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m a single mom with a 2-year-old. My father has been verbally and emotionally abusive my entire life. I realize now he is a narcissist and there was never anything I could have done nor can do to change his behavior.

Once I had my child, he began visiting me. He has been very loving with my daughter. He has continued to occasionally verbally abuse me in private. This is peppered later with loving behavior. Most recently, he was mad at me for a perceived slight and refused to say good night to my daughter because he was angry with me. She was clearly hurt by this. After that episode he refused to discuss it, and the next day he went into a rage. He berated me, this time in front of my daughter, and was also yelling at her, saying I didn’t want her to see her grandpa, and I was taking her away from him. He called me a horrible person and flipped me off repeatedly, all in front of my daughter. I remained calm, asked him to stop (he didn’t), and my daughter and I left.

She has now had difficulty sleeping for about a week and is not her usual exuberant self. She had never witnessed that side of Grandpa, and was clearly scared and confused. She only has that one grandpa and one grandma (who is wonderful and divorced my dad long ago). She has no other male role models, although clearly I do not want her thinking his behavior is acceptable. He has not admitted any wrongdoing and still wants to see his granddaughter (because he “loves” her) and have a further talk with me.

Do I let him back with only occasional visits with me strictly present? Should I just prevent any contact in the future? Have I overreacted? He is very manipulative, so at some point when she is older I’m concerned he will try to hurt me by using her and likely damage her in the process. I am also concerned he will contact her without my consent when she is older and start a smear campaign. I want to figure out what to tell her if I do decide to eliminate contact. Help!

—Bad Grandpa

Dear BG,

You have not overreacted. Your concerns—that your father will use your daughter to wound you, whether with or without your knowledge—strike me as entirely reasonable and consistent with the behavior of a man who would scream at someone in front of their toddler.

I’m not sure I personally see the value in this particular relationship between you and your daughter and your dad. Great role models of every gender are worth seeking out, but your kid will not suffer from not having close familial relationships with men; she might, though, be scarred from having a relationship with a toxic person.

She’s your baby and your priority, and you’re allowed to protect her from people who don’t know how to behave, who yell and disrespect you and otherwise frighten her. Your daughter is still so very young. Right now, instead of trying to address your dad’s behavior, you might just be present for her and remind her that we use calm voices when talking to people we love, and that if someone is being scary or loud, you’ll always protect her.

You’re describing a long pattern of what sounds a lot like abuse. In such a situation, I really think it’s best to call in an expert. A clinician can help you process the ramifications of growing up with your dad, and help you decide whether you truly want to repair this relationship for the sake of your daughter.

I’m really sorry; both you and your daughter absolutely deserve better. There’s no reason for you to accept this at all.

Dear Care and Feeding,

For the past few years, my husband has been making a big deal about my work schedule. I have a demanding job where I often don’t have the luxury of scheduling calls to fit my schedule, and COVID-19 has made it worse since now my office is short-staffed.

I find myself getting frustrated at him for not understanding that this is my job and how I help pay for our lifestyle. I find myself reverting to what my parents (who were also hard workers with long hours) told me as a kid: “If you want a nice house, food, and clothes, then we have to work.” As a kid and an adult it makes sense to me—work gives us money to live. But then I feel like I sound like Scrooge? Will my 13-month-old grow up to ask me why I am so busy, and will that answer my parents gave me not be enough? While work is stressful, I do enjoy it and I feel proud for bringing in income to help my family. How do I navigate these conversations without getting defensive?

—Worker Bee

Dear WB,

You need to have a frank conversation with your spouse. I don’t think you need to apologize for contributing to your family’s financial well-being or for having a job you enjoy.

Try not to get defensive, but diagnostic: Perhaps you could begin this conversation by asking what he thinks his comments are truly about. Maybe he’s trying to communicate frustration at having to shoulder more of the familial responsibilities, or resentment over your success, or even a wish that you had more time to be with him. I’m not saying these are equally reasonable, but I hope there is some other motive in play here, one you could discuss frankly.

Because this is hurtful! And maybe he doesn’t understand that, or it bears explaining explicitly. You’re allowed to work and fortunate to have a career you find satisfying; he’s allowed to have his own feelings about your work, but somewhere in there should be pride in your accomplishments and gratitude for what you provide the family.

This sounds tough, and if it’s been a few years, there’s the possibility resentment has been building up. Do try to have a conversation that’s candid and honest and grounded and, if need be, call in an expert therapist or counselor to help you work this out. Good luck.

—Rumaan

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