Care and Feeding

I’m Worried My MIL Will Never Fully Embrace Her Nonbiological Grandchild

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Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Photoboyko/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 wife and I (also female) want to start a family. The plan is for me to be the one to be pregnant this first time. We are very excited about this prospect but there is one dark cloud forming overhead.

My wife’s parents have been divorced for 20 years, and they both have had new partners for at least a decade. While things have always been a little tense on occasions when everyone is present,­­­ it was manageable until grandchildren entered the picture. Both of my wife’s siblings now have children, and my mother-in-law, “Nancy,” is insecure around/jealous of “Joyce,” the wife of her ex-husband, especially when it comes to interaction with the grandchildren. It drives her especially crazy that one set of grandchildren refer to Joyce as “Grandma Joyce,” rather than just Joyce, as she feels “Grandma” should be reserved only for her. She even asked one of my brothers-in-law to take down a picture of her ex and his “new” wife, because it made her uncomfortable to see it while babysitting, and “that woman is not the children’s grandmother.”

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Last September my wife had dinner with both her brothers and their mom, and this “problem” came up in conversation yet again (although “conversation” is not really the right word when it comes to my mother-in-law, as she does all the talking and none of the listening). My mother-in-law declared (not for the first time) that a biological bond is something completely different from a nonbiological bond. My wife burst into tears and asked her mother if she realized what she was implying—how painful this was to hear given our situation. Her mother told her that our situation was not the topic on the table, that of course when we have a child it will be “very welcome.”

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After this, we decided we need to have a talk with her about our future family, and how important it is to us that she not discuss biological (or what she considers “real”) relatives and other relatives. We want her to treat her grandchildren equally; we will absolutely not agree to noting a difference between biological and nonbiological grandparents.

We wanted to do this before our baby is born and ideally even before we’re pregnant/our pregnancy is known—to clear the air. While we were hoping to have this conversation in person, it is not possible with the pandemic. Should we stick to our first idea of having this conversation face to face, even though it means delaying it? Or do we write a letter, phone her, or plan a video call? And how can we set our boundaries, protect our child, and defend my wife’s motherhood while still being sensitive to her mother’s feelings?

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—We’re Both Mothers!

Dear WBM,

I have a number of thoughts. One is that a letter would in fact be preferable to a conversation, given that 1) you’ve said that your mother-in-law doesn’t understand the way conversations are supposed to work, so if you and your wife were to talk to her in person you might not get the chance to say what you need to say (or, even if you do, she might not hear it); and 2) when one has a clear point to make, something straightforward that would best be laid out without interruption or argument, I find that a letter (or email) is almost always the best way to communicate it. I would keep the letter very short and specific to your feelings and your situation. You can simply say: We’ve given a lot of thought to what you’ve said over the years about biological versus nonbiological bonds, and it pains us to think that you might feel differently about our future children depending on whether you have “blood ties” to them or not. We want to give you plenty of time to think about how important it is that you love any children the two of us have with all your heart, and that you treat them all the same way.

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If her response to this letter is outrage that you would think she would treat your future children differently depending on which one of you gives birth to them, that’s OK. You’ve still made your point. If she calls and yells at you, stay calm. Say “We just wanted to make sure.” Say “We didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.”

Which brings me to my second thought. I strongly suspect that your mother-in-law’s rants about biological bonds are not really about biology at all. I’d bet the ranch that this “idea” of hers is entirely a rationalization for her fury that her ex-husband has found happiness with someone else, and that her children and grandchildren have a relationship with that person. But I still think the letter is worth writing because it would kill multiple birds with one stone. It would let her know that she has hurt her daughter and give her the chance to make amends. It would also remind her, just in case she has forgotten, what families are, how they’re made, and what we owe to children whether they are genetically related to us or not.

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

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I accidentally found out that my 15-year-old is asking their teachers and friends to call them by a new name (they specified that they didn’t want their parents to know). They previously came out as trans/nonbinary at home but have said nothing about this new name (their birth name is gender-neutral—think “Terry”—as is the new name). I am now sick to my stomach with worry that they don’t feel safe or comfortable with us, despite our unequivocal support of their gender identity; yet I also want to give them space and privacy and feel awful to have violated that, however inadvertently. Should I apologize for the misstep and ask them about their new name, or should I wait until they approach me? I know teenagers try out all kinds of things with peers and without parents, but I am also really struggling with the idea that they might not feel they can share this new part of their identity with us. I am having trouble sleeping even, and my therapist is on leave for two months. Can you weigh in on whether it’s better to ask them or to wait? Either way, it will afford me peace of mind.

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—Growing Up or Growing Away

Dear GUoGA,

Don’t apologize and don’t ask. If you’ve offered unequivocal support of your teenager’s gender identity (yay, you!), all that’s happening now is an expression of ordinary 15-year-old-ness. Your kid, like every kid that age, needs to do some things they don’t share with you. A new name is a good, safe avenue for teenage exploration—a secret they’re keeping from you that does them no harm. Children need to be safe and secure, loved and supported—but they also need to individuate. So stay chill, don’t say a word, and wait. If the new name sticks, and they want you to call them by it, they’ll let you know eventually. Meanwhile, try to get some sleep.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

Nearly 15 years ago, when I was 9, my parents divorced. They had what seemed to be a very amicable split and were exceptional co-parents for another six or seven years, as the four of us (including my younger sister) continued to spend holidays, birthdays, and other occasions together even after the divorce. As is sadly somewhat common, this arrangement fell apart when my dad remarried seven years ago. My mom and stepmom never got along, and my father and I became more distant as I went off to college and he built a very different life with my stepmother. Over the last six months, our relationship noticeably soured, and though I reached out to start a conversation about reconciling a few weeks ago, I was met with denial and hostility. Yesterday I was informed, with no explanation, that he would be removing me from his health insurance, even though he had previously told me it does not cost extra to have me on his plan, and I do not otherwise have access to health insurance other than the public options available through the ACA (he knows this). I am taking this as him ending our relationship, as I frankly don’t see any explanation for his leaving me uninsured during a pandemic, other than pettiness.

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My question is: How should I reach out to my dad’s extended family and explain what has happened, and also convey that I still want to have a relationship with them independently of my father? I sincerely doubt that he would inform his family of our estrangement on his own.

—Picking Up the Pieces

Dear PUtP,

When your father told you that he was removing you from your insurance, why didn’t you ask him why? Why are you “taking this” as his ending your relationship? Give him a chance to explain himself. His insurance plan may have changed, or he might not have been telling you the truth when he told you it didn’t cost him anything to keep you on his plan (for reasons you know nothing about). His own financial situation may have changed, or your stepmother feels strongly about adult children being on their own … or he himself has decided that, at 24, you should be taking responsibility for this. But if he’s already taken you off his plan, get yourself to healthcare.gov immediately (as someone who’s recently lost coverage, you may qualify for a special enrollment). You would need to do this—if you don’t have a job by then that provides health insurance, or if the entire system hasn’t been overhauled (God willing)—in two years anyway.

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But let’s fast forward to the possibility that you’re right—that his booting you off his plan was indeed his way of booting you out of his life. Make him say that outright (if that’s what he meant to say!). Ask him why. Have a conversation! It may be an extremely difficult one, but it’s still one worth having.

But your question, at least ostensibly, was about how to tell your father’s family—your own extended family—that you still want to be a part of the family even if your father doesn’t want to have anything to do with you. That’s easy: Just tell them that. And if they ask you why your father has ended your relationship, you can tell them the truth, whatever that turns out to be—even if the truth is that, even after you have talked to him, you still don’t understand it.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My fifth grader’s teacher has assigned reading logs this year. Students are supposed to read 15 minutes for fun every night (i.e., not a textbook) and then have us sign the log attesting to that. My daughter loves reading but has really chafed at this assignment. My question is not as much about the usefulness of reading logs as a pedagogical tool—I know there’s some debate out there—but about how to get my daughter out of this assignment because it’s turned into a knock-down, drag-out fight every night. She hates having to time her reading, but what she really can’t stand is the indignity of having to get the log signed. Unfortunately, she also hates getting a consequence at school if she shows up the next day without the signature even though she did the reading.

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I’m of the mind that as long as she’s reading every night, I don’t need her to time it, and I’ll just sign the log anyway. My wife is horrified by this “lie” and thinks we should set up a meeting with the teacher, explain why our daughter won’t be doing the reading logs, and promise that we will still make sure she’s reading every night. I think my wife’s idea is an overreaction that will make the teacher single my daughter out—while my wife thinks if we fudge the logs, we’re communicating that dishonesty is OK when you want to get out of doing something you don’t want to do. Our lack of alignment is making it hard to guide our daughter. What should we do?

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—Roiled in Reading Logs

Dear RiRL,

Let me stipulate that I hate these damned logs too—I am totally with your kid on this. Nothing ruins the pleasure of reading like being obliged to punch a clock on it (and nothing ruins the pleasure of being a fifth grader like being obliged to get your parents involved in a nice, private sit-down with a good book). And I sympathize with both you and your wife. Both of these are tempting ideas, sure. But neither is a good idea. If you don’t know for sure that your daughter is reading for 15 minutes and you sign the log anyway (assuming your kid is willing to grit her teeth and bring it to you for your signature), then your wife is right—you’re teaching your daughter that it’s OK to lie. (Not to mention that this solution doesn’t seem likely to work, if the problem is not only reading on the clock but the indignity, as your daughter sees it, of your having to sign off on her having done her evening reading.) But your wife’s plan may indeed draw the teacher’s attention to your daughter in a negative way, since it can backfire to pass judgment on a teacher’s pedagogical strategies. Worse, it demonstrates to your daughter that if she is told to do something she doesn’t want to do, an appropriate response is to simply refuse to do it (and even worse, her parents will refuse on her behalf!).

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There’s a life lesson here for her (and maybe one for you two?). Feel free, if you like, to tell her that you’re not crazy about this assignment either. But let her know that we don’t get to pick and choose which assignments we do based on whether we like them or not. There will always be things she will have to do that she doesn’t want to do (if this is news to you and your wife—because you love your child more than life itself and desperately want this not to be true—well, it’s time someone broke it to you).

In any case, it’s time for the nightly battles to come to an end. The reading log is her responsibility: Either she takes care of it the way the teacher has asked for it to be completed, or she doesn’t. Letting her make that choice and letting her face the consequences the next day is good practice for her. And for you, too.

—Michelle

More Advice From Slate

I have three elementary-age children and am currently going through an amicable divorce. My soon-to-be ex recently became fanatical about tattoos and has collected over a dozen large ones in less than two years. I’ve forbidden him from getting new ink during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially since we live in a state seeing one of the highest spikes in cases, but he’s set on it. What should I do?

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