Dear Care and Feeding,
My in-laws—who view all boundaries as challenges to try to cutely get around—just announced they’re getting a second house on our street to “summer” here and then clarified that “summer” meant five months of the year (and if they’re admitting to five that means it’s at least seven). When three of the four adults involved want this and it’s probably a good thing for my young kids to have some family around, I don’t see a way to veto it. But I’m filled with dread every time I think about it.
No matter how much we plan ahead and give them lots of time with the kids, every playground trip they’re not invited to will be tearful drama about how they feel unwanted. Every excuse to swing by our house and stay for the day will be found. Every sneaky, backhanded way to ignore whatever boundaries we set, under the guise of “We are well-intentioned and just love the kids so much and are FAMILY,” will be used, with guilt trips and tearful tantrums flowing. They are not above putting my 3-year-old in the middle of it and saying things like “We would do XYZ if only your mommy lets us.”
Any tips at all on making the best of this? My husband has my back in a logically-agrees-with-me way, but emotionally he would be happy to have his parents in our house all the time and caves to their guilt trips and tears. I fear this will wreck my marriage and leave me at a high running rate of annoyance and frustration with them. I have got to figure out some way to give them a reasonable amount of access and then firmly (literally) shut the door the rest of the time.
Dear Save Me,
MOVE!! Haha, just kidding. Unless?
Seriously, though, this sounds like a nightmare. Just the fact that they would rent—or buy??—a home on your block like this without asking you first is absolutely blood-curdling. Your husband may “have your back,” but it doesn’t sound like his parents’ boundary-stomping has the same effect on him that it has on you, either because he’s been accustomed to it since birth or because he’s less sensitive to the impact it has on your kids, plans, and parenting. Take the time to patiently, nonconfrontationally spell out to him how their intrusiveness makes your life and your kids’ lives more difficult.
It’s not his fault that his parents are low-key monsters, but it might take time for him to realize that routine home invasion and toddler manipulation are not actually acceptable behaviors. Do whatever you can to deprogram him. You will need him on your team, and communicating as clearly as possible is the first step. Make sure he understands that your expectation is that he will join you to present a unified front when they challenge your boundaries. Practice saying things like “We’re looking forward to seeing you next Saturday, but today is family time for just the four of us.” The only way to get through this is to become completely immune to their tactics—don’t relent when they cry or appeal to your kids. Keep your cool and stick together and stick to plans, and make sure to keep checking in with each other about how it’s going.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
For the first six years of my son “Jack’s” life, my husband and I were best friends with another couple, “Sam and Libby”—close enough friends that Jack knew them as Uncle Sam and Aunt Libby. Nearly three years ago, when Jack was 6, we had a very nasty falling-out with Sam and Libby and stopped speaking to them. Jack was young enough that when he asked questions about why we didn’t see them anymore, we could pacify him with bland answers like “Sometimes grown-ups just stop being friends.” Several years later we’ve totally moved on, but the problem is that many of our old friends have remained very close with Sam and Libby, including the parents of Jack’s best friend, “Jim.” Jim and his little brother are at our house every day as part of a pandemic pod, and so Jack and his brother hear all about Sam and Libby frequently. The families take weekend trips together, vacation together, etc., and I’m sure Jack feels like he’s missing out.
While I’m obviously unhappy with this flagrant disregard for the inherently closed nature of our pod (and that’s an entirely different advice thread), the reason I’m writing is because Jack is on a mission to find out why we aren’t friends with Uncle Sam and Aunt Libby anymore. He used to casually ask why maybe every few months, but it has now escalated to once a week. I found out today that he’s started asking other family members if they know why we aren’t friends anymore.
The story behind the disintegration of our friendship is bad with a capital B, and there’s absolutely no way it would be shared with children in any form, no matter how watered down. I haven’t offered explanations like “because Uncle Sam and Aunt Libby are bad” or anything like that just to get him to stop, because I know he’d run straight to Jim with that information, it would get back to the parents, and it would create (more) bad blood. I have tried every possible response to Jack that I can think of: casual disinterest, evasive nonanswers, reprimanding him for nagging. Nothing stops him. I’m worried that the more I seem visibly aggravated by his questions, the more he becomes convinced that there is a juicy story to be discovered if he just keeps pressing. I need some suggestions for how to effectively shut him down before I lose my mind!
P.S. I am absolutely sure that if Jim’s family weren’t still hanging out with Sam and Libby, and Jack weren’t hearing about them via Jim, he would have forgotten about them long ago. He has seen Libby in person since and didn’t even recognize her!
—Don’t Say Uncle!
I’m dying to know what Sam and Libby did, so I understand your son’s point of view! And really, he’s not being so unreasonable. The idea that there’s a secret being kept from you is catnip to most people, and it seems unlikely that Jack will drop the investigation until he finds out something.
I know you said that there’s no possible version of what happened that’s appropriate to share with children, but Jack is 9—surely there is something you could say that has some relationship to the truth but is also PG-13? (Did they murder someone?) If not, I think you need to cut Jim and his little brother loose as “podmates”—not only are they socializing outside your bubble, but they’re also best friends with your mortal enemies Sam and Libby, and there’s just no way that’s going to end well.
Does this seem extreme? Honestly, downgrading friends from unofficial uncle and aunt to persona non grata status also seems extreme to me, but then, I don’t know what they did. What did they do??? This is going to haunt me.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My husband and I are expecting our first child in the summer. We’re lucky to have two sets of excited, supportive parents who want to be there for us after the birth, and I’m led to understand that (grand)parents often stay for several weeks at a time to lend a hand. The problem is that we live in a very small two-bedroom apartment (it feels even smaller after 10 uninterrupted months indoors!) with one bathroom, and I can’t imagine cramming four people and a newborn into it for weeks or even months. Particularly if the pandemic is still going strong at that time and we can’t really get out of the house much.
While I think all four grandparents will likely be vaccinated by then, I don’t think I will be, so I and baby will still be at risk and will require quarantines and lots of social distancing care to be taken. Plus, one set of grandparents will be arranging to come in from overseas, which both adds to the COVID complications and suggests they’ll plan to stay a while. What’s normal for grandparent visits post–baby’s arrival? Will I really be so overwhelmed that I’ll be grateful for the weeks of help despite the line for the bathroom? Is finding a nearby Airbnb an option, or do they really need to be in the house in the middle of the night? My husband feels they’ll be invaluable, while I feel anticipatory claustrophobia.
—Tiny House, Big Family
Immediately after your baby is born, the No. 1 priority for you, your baby, and your husband will be to rest, sleep, eat, and get used to one another. You will mostly find all of these things much easier to do without any intervention from your parents or his, and certainly without their living in your home. I could be wrong, but I sincerely doubt that any of the grandparents are going to be much use for nighttime feedings. The only reason I can think of for anyone to bunk with you would be COVID concerns, which should be mitigated if everyone agrees to strictly quarantine in their separate, nearby housing situation. Airbnb or even finding a nearby place that’s unoccupied where they could care for a pet or water plants is a great option. If you find that you need more help and actually do want them around more, it’s easy to ask them to stay overnight for a night or two.
Often, new grandparents want to help by holding, changing, or feeding the baby, and these are unfortunately among the least helpful things they can do with a newborn. You can allow them to do those things as a treat, in exchange for their help with shopping, cleaning, and cooking, opening and keeping track of gifts, and getting rid of the packaging. Let them know this in advance, if you can—I’m sure there’s a more tactful way to say it than the way I just did. They had newborns once too, and if they really wrack their memories, they’ll remember what it was like and get on board with your preferences.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I have two wonderful grandsons that I absolutely adore, but I’m unsure if my enabling behavior of their parents is hurting or helping a very difficult situation. My daughter Sophie, age 32, and her husband, Jake, age 40, seem ill-equipped to handle parenting. Sophie often yells at the children and calls asking me to take the boys so she can “have a break and get a little me time.” My son-in-law has told me “no one can stand to be around Joshua,” and he stays at work long hours to avoid being at home (my daughter suspects he is actually going to the gym or his mom’s house to avoid being around Joshua). Over the last four-plus years, my husband and I, along with Jake’s parents, have been keeping the children A LOT.
Joshua, age 4, is my oldest grandson. This was not a planned pregnancy, as Sophie had only known Jake a few weeks when she discovered she was pregnant. They got married, and my husband and I began praying that it would all work out. Unfortunately, both my daughter and Jake were overwhelmed from the moment Joshua was born. As a baby he was fussy, but their inability to provide the care he needed was evident, so I, along with Jake’s mom, provided A LOT of help, both physically and financially. (It should be noted that Sophie quit working when she was pregnant with Joshua and remains a “stay-at-home mom.”) Before we knew it, Sophie was pregnant again with Ethan, and it felt like Joshua was over here or at his other grandparents’ house the majority of the time.
My husband, Roger, asked me to start keeping track of how often Sophie calls “needing a break” because he feels we are making the problem worse because these little boys have no consistent home. The rules at our house are different from the rules his parents have. For example, if he throws a toy, we take it away and put it away, but at home his mom just tells him to “cut it out” and threatens timeouts or spankings, but never follows through. She appeases him by letting him watch TV for hours and play what appear to be very violent video games.
Joshua is a very willful child, and his temper tantrums are overwhelming and seem to be escalating. He recently has become violent with his little brother and with me and his other grandmother. Interestingly, Joshua behaves well at his half-day preschool, but at home can be a holy terror! He will scream at the top of his lungs, throw things, slam doors, and hit. Even a simple request like “Please hang up your coat” when we come home will sometimes get a response like “You do it. Your rules are stupid,” and then he walks away with the coat dropped right along with his snowy boots. This recently occurred after I had spent over an hour helping him and Ethan build a snowman and try to learn how to sled (something frankly their parents’ bodies are more equipped to do than mine)! It was in this moment of utter exhaustion (and a bit of backache) that I just began to cry. Joshua noticed and came over to hug me. He is a sweet boy, but he needs help and effective, consistent parenting!
My tears stem from the fact that I know I will not always be able to provide the breaks my daughter and her husband apparently want/need, and I worry that these little boys will be neglected. I feel like I can’t say anything or my daughter and her husband will cut us off from the boys we love and have grown so attached to, but I fear my “active grandparenting” isn’t helpful after all. How much “assistance” is too much? Currently one or both of the boys stay with grandparents at least two to three nights a week. In fact, my husband would assert that we have had the boys every Friday night for over a year because he knows I haven’t been with him and our friends who gather each Friday night in at least that long. I am blessed with a husband who is patient with my need to help Sophie, but I am missing out on our time together and may be doing more harm than good. How often is it appropriate for young children to spend the night away from home so their parents can have a break? Please give me some guidance!
—Concerned in Colorado
I think your instinct that you may be enabling rather than helping is, sadly, right on the money. Instead of taking care of the grandkids, which isn’t going well, maybe you can find another way to support your daughter in becoming the parent these kids need. She became a mother under less than ideal circumstances, and now she and her husband are in over their heads. Instead of judging her, try to find compassion for her, and give her the benefit of the doubt. She might be making better parenting choices than you think when you’re not around to see them. And with little child care and an unhelpful partner, the deck has been stacked against her.
When was the last time that you and your daughter spent time together alone, without the kids? See if you can arrange a child-free outing or two. Be as open-minded as possible while you listen to her and find out what she really needs from you. I don’t know what your resources are like, but if you can help her afford more paid child care than half-day preschool for one kid, that might be a place to start.
Ultimately, my hope for both of you is to get out of the current pattern of your relationship, where she’s depending on you for breaks but weathering your judgment and you’re resenting her dependence on you. Ideally, she will eventually become more independent of you, her in-laws, and her partner, but she needs more emotional and financial support than she’s currently getting in order to begin to find a way toward that goal. You can’t do it for her, but the way you’re currently “helping” her isn’t helping.
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