Care and Feeding

My MIL Recklessly Gave Us COVID, and Now She’s Banning Me From Christmas

She’s awful, and my husband won’t do anything about it.

Ripped family photo.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by SeventyFour/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 MIL has a very unhealthy relationship with my husband and our family and recently has told my husband I am no longer welcome in her home. My husband works for his stepfather in a very small business. They have always dangled the idea that he would take over the business “one day” in front of him like a carrot. Well, “one day” has been pushed out farther and farther. They refuse to sign a contract and have a verbal agreement only. She has always held things over his head and threatened retaliation when he doesn’t get in line. I have been biding my time while he tries to work things out and buy the business. Once we started having children, she had a lot of trouble with boundaries, including stopping by unannounced, even announcing the birth of my baby before I could on social media. She constantly leaves me out of planning for family get-togethers, making it stressful to try to fit it into our schedule, despite me asking her multiple times to talk to me so that I can put it in our calendar.

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The event that precipitated this current banishment from her home is that after failing to practice any kind of social distancing, my in-laws got sick, refused to get tested or isolate at home, and exposed my husband while at work. My whole family has now tested positive. The kids and I are only at home and not exposed to anyone, so we know it came from them. I confronted her and told her how disappointed I was that they didn’t respect our wishes to stay safe and follow CDC recommended guidelines for public health and exposed our entire family. I told her that I was holding her accountable for her actions and that she has a responsibility not to act recklessly with the health of others. Her retaliation is to no longer allow me in her home, including the upcoming Christmas gathering. My husband’s initial response to me was that he considered attending with just the kids and that I would stay home. This is not a workable option for me. I’m just at such a loss for how to handle this toxic relationship.

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—Frustrated and Exposed

Dear F.a.E.,

Your mother-in-law sounds like a real piece of work, and I don’t get the impression that her husband is any better—gotta be an enabler, at the very least. But what about your husband? I’m a bit more concerned with the relationship between the two of you guys, because it’s one thing for him to be defeated or conditioned to expect this awful behavior from his mom/parents, but he’s not taking any steps to protect you or the kids from it. Furthermore, it’s completely ridiculous for him to take the children to his parents’ house when you have been banished for such a unreasonable “offense,” AND it’s even worse considering that these people are likely responsible for you guys coming down with COVID.

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Are y’all OK? What sort of conversations have you two had about this issue prior to the pandemic? This woman is a habitual line-stepper and has only gotten worse over the course of your marriage, and it shouldn’t be on you alone to figure out how to deal with her.

As far as the banishment goes, think of it as a blessing in disguise. The less time you spend with your MIL, especially right now, the better. As far as your kids going over there for Christmas? You need to put your foot down. Not this year, no way that you should be at home potentially convalescing by yourself because your in-laws (possibly) gave you a frightening virus. And who else might they be exposing at this year’s get-together?

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You and your hubs need to have some serious dialogue about how the future of your relationship with his family is going to go. If it is the case that you cannot deal with him kowtowing to his parents at every turn for the chance that they may give him the family business, you need to let him know that. I don’t know if this can be resolved by negotiating a written agreement, or moving on from this plan, but it’s surely possible that the current dynamic may have a lot to do with your husband’s inability to have any sort of backbone (I also wonder how he and his stepfather get along).

Regardless, your husband also needs to step up and let his mother know that the way she treats you is inappropriate. You, too, should be advocating for yourself with this woman, but as the person who brought you into the family, it isn’t right for him to let you deal with this sort of behavior. If you can bring in a family therapist or professional to help the two of you get through this before you take it to her, please do. Wishing you all the best, and truly sorry that you have to put up with these people.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My oldest sister is expecting her first baby this coming February. My family all grew up Catholic, her partner is a moderate Muslim, and they plan to raise the kid without forcing either faith. It’s a move I didn’t expect, but I’m willing to respect it as an uncle. For one, I’m not religious myself. Two, they’re smart people, and I trust they decided on it together. And three, I’m not the parent anyway. Finding this out really made my mom angry. I tried to explain that not being religious doesn’t mean someone lacks a moral compass and that people can still teach a child that various acts are simply the kind thing to do. She wasn’t convinced. I know my mom is generally a reasonable person, but this is something she has strong opinions on. I worry her feelings will be strong enough that she’d be tempted (or willing) to undermine my sister on this. I also know my sister is an intelligent, take-no-shit type, but she’s only one person. Is there anything I can or should do here? Is it too early to really have this on my mind?

—Trying to Avoid Family Crusade

Dear T.t.A.F.C.,

Not only is it not too early for you to think about this, I think it could be useful for you to do some advocating on behalf of your sister and her husband. Remind your mother that your sister and her husband have a right to make decisions about how to raise their children, and that she would be terribly upset if someone tried to challenge what she had set out to do with her own kids. Also, she should consider that she would be unlikely to create any sort of religious foundation in her daughter’s child without the cooperation of her daughter, so it would essentially be a waste of time that could totally destroy her relationship to her child. In other words, not worth it at all.

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If this is something that has come up in a group setting, don’t allow your mother to have the final word or to lecture your sister about it without getting an earful from you. She should feel outnumbered here and like any attempt at trying to violate your sister’s wishes will be met with immediate family backlash. Your sister and her husband deserve to feel like you have their backs. One caveat: I wouldn’t bring it up with your mom without speaking to your sister first and letting her know that you’d like to have that conversation, unless there has been a recent incident where you know that your mom has said something about it. You don’t want to get the tensions boiling if they aren’t already, not if you can help it. Good luck to you.

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

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I am turning 13 in a few months, and I only have younger siblings. I like toys, like baby dolls and Barbies. But every time I mention what I am asking for, my mom makes a snarky remark, which is incredibly annoying because she is the one who only let us get the toys when I was 9 or 10. The reason this annoys me so much, though, is I already feel like everyone at school is way more mature and grown-up than I am with TikTok and social media. I am an introvert, and my mother would never let me (not that I would want to, anyway). Should I just suck it up or never discuss it with her again while she tries to casually try change my mind? Or should I give my list to my dad, because he is far kinder and would almost certainly never be mean about what I want?

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—Baby Loving in Ohio

Dear B.L.i.O.,

I think we both know that the easy answer to the wish list problem is to ask your dad for what you want. But we need to talk about the way your mom makes you feel.

I’m going to assume that there are some other challenges between the two of you aside from her judging your choice of gifts. Have you talked to her about how she acts when you mention dolls? It may be worth it for you to politely point out that you got them a little later than many of your friends and that you still really love having them, and that you’d hope she could understand that without making you feel like you’re doing something wrong. Also, it may be helpful for her to hear, aside from the delay in them showing up in your life, what it is you like so much about dolls.

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How do the two of you get along otherwise? Are you feeling like your mother doesn’t understand you? I can’t guarantee that you’ll ever truly get her to see things your way, but I do know that the only way she could even try is to hear what you are experiencing in your own words.

How do you feel, my dear, about the other kids at school being more “mature and grown-up” than you see yourself? Does your mom make you feel like the other kids are more sophisticated than you, or as if she expects you to behave like them? Do you want to connect with them more? I know, this is a very difficult time for that, but if it’s something that matters to you, it’s something that you should be exploring with your parents, and perhaps your teacher. And even if you’re content with doing your own thing, I don’t think it would be bad to talk to them about feeling like you’re a little different from some of the other kids and how that does or doesn’t affect how you function at school, and if there’s anything you wish were different.

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Be as honest as you can with your mom, and hopefully, you all will get to a place where she can truly hear, understand, and respect your needs. Wishing you all the best, and that you get some super cool dolls this year.

For more of Slate’s parenting coverage, listen to Mom and Dad Are Fighting

Dear Care and Feeding,

My sister became a mother at 40 after years of trying and two miscarriages. I was so happy for her. Now she’s 49, and my sweet niece is a fourth grader, almost 10. My niece and I are really close. I’m the single childless, fun aunt with the disposable income to spoil her, which I always wanted to be! Here’s the problem. She confided in me the other day that her mom still bathes her. I could tell she was embarrassed and uncomfortable. She learned in her health class (on Zoom) through some innocuous fourth grader talk that all her classmates bathed themselves and was mortified. I’m a pediatrician, and she knows that, so she asked me if I could explain to her how to take a bath so she can do it herself. I did (through words and using her Barbie doll in the sink), but now I feel like I crossed a line. I think it’s crazy that my sister is doing this to my niece! Our own mom stopped bathing us around 6, so it’s not a learned thing!

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I’m not a parent. I take it seriously that my niece feels weird about it, but my sister is so intense about her kid. I don’t want my niece to stop feeling that she can tell me anything, but this is a little different than the usual crush confessions she shares with me. I feel I should say something. What should I do?

—Unsure Aunt

Dear U.A.,

You should absolutely talk to your sister, especially considering that you are a pediatrician and can offer her some expert input on how long kids typically get bathed by their parents. Ask for her to keep your conversation between the two of you. Explain that you recently discovered that she was still bathing her daughter, and that you wanted to make sure she understands that she should be old enough to handle her own hygiene needs without much more than a check-in from her parents. If she pushes back, explain that your niece reached out to you after finding out, in the most embarrassing of ways, that most kids are not still getting washed up by Mummy or Daddy and that she is doing her a disservice by not allowing her to try and wash alone.

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Your sister sounds like she’s either a bit overprotective and/or she may be savoring the end of that sweet little baby period a while after it actually came to an end. The moment you realize you’ve done something for your kid for the last time can be a painful one and, especially considering how long and hard her journey to motherhood was, this may hit your sister a bit harder than it does the average mom. Alas, it is in your niece’s best interest that she quicky adapts and allows her to bathe herself like a girl her age ought to.

If your niece finds out what you did, let her know that you will not make a habit of telling anyone what she shares with you in confidence, but that this situation was a bit unique; her mother is doing something that A) makes her unhappy and B) goes against what a pediatrician would consider to be the right thing to do, which meant that you had a different sort of obligation to share this with her.

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Good luck, U.A., and remember: This may be an uncomfortable conversation (or two), but it’s an urgent one.

— Jamilah

More Advice From Slate

I recently moved to a neighborhood where it’s relatively common for people to allow their dogs to roam the neighborhood freely—a practice that seems outrageous to me. There is one dog in particular that keeps showing up in my yard. Though he is very sweet, he is not neutered, does not have a collar or microchip, and was filthy and covered in fleas when I found him. He seems to be well-fed and otherwise healthy. I took the dog in, put up a few lost dog signs, and learned from another concerned neighbor who the owners are. He said they have ignored his repeated requests to keep their dog on a leash, and he witnessed several near-accidents as cars swerved to avoid the dog. Should I give this dog to a good home? My gut says this is the right thing to do, but I’m worried that I’m stealing a dog from a family. On the other hand, if I find this dog dead in the street in two weeks I will feel responsible.

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