Dear Prudence

Dear Prudence Uncensored: Not Our Boundaries

This week, Danny M. Lavery and Lisa McIntire discuss a Prudie letter: not our boundaries.

Daniel Lavery: in terms of “We don’t know what to do” I think the answer is pretty straightforward right now

which is, Don’t call your son! He has asked you not to call him

you can feel free to use some of the time you used to spend calling him in considering what you might want from your relationship in the future, but you can also just spend that time hanging out

take more walks, take up papier-mâché, anything you want

Lisa McIntire: maybe spend some time working through your anger and contempt and entitlement!

It really struck me how angry the letter writer is

yes, your daughter-in-law is going to believe in her boundaries!

but remember that you have boundaries too: if you don’t like babysitting at a moment’s notice, you are in your rights to decline

Daniel Lavery: yeah the line about “she only seems to believe in her boundaries” seemed to me to lack clarity on what the LW actually wants in terms of their own boundaries outside of a general sense of “as much as she has”

like, did you not want to pay for the wedding? did you consider saying so?

you do not have to pay for your kids’ weddings! it’s not like refusing to pay for their shoes when they’re eight

Lisa McIntire: I can imagine several parties getting exhausted by the transactional nature of the relationships

all this tallying! I do this, I get that.

Daniel Lavery: yeah, and I really think if you’re going to pay for some of or all of your kid’s wedding, it should just be as a gift

not because you think it entitles you to dictate the ceremony

that just strikes me as a fairly joyless approach that’s very likely to result in unnecessary frustration

but man, beyond that, if your complaint is “they moved to a part of the country nearer to her relatives than me” and “we only visit twice a year” I just do not have a lot of sympathy

Lisa McIntire: totally

Daniel Lavery: visiting twice a year is fine, staying in a motel is fine! having two houseguests is a lot, especially if they’re relatives, and you should have been cheerful about the motel request and focused on the time you did have together

if you ever told your kids “I want good attitudes and smiles for the rest of this trip” while they were fighting in the backseat of the car, this is the time to turn that energy on yourself

Lisa McIntire: I think the letter writer should also entertain the possibility that their son is letting the wife appear like the bad guy because it’s easier than dealing with parental wrath

Daniel Lavery: oh yeah

also, sometimes adult children go along to get along when it’s “just them” having to put up with frustrating dynamics, but if they get a partner they often think “wait, I don’t really want my wife to have to go through that, let’s stop doing that”

so it might look to you as a parent that all of a sudden this evil woman came along and ruined your fun son

but the likelier explanation is being with her helped him realize he didn’t actually want to keep giving you everything you wanted forever, and she provided him with a helpful emotional buffer

Lisa McIntire: yes, definitely! he now has a witness

Daniel Lavery: I will say that not going to the wedding because the twins couldn’t be in it, even after you offered to find a babysitter, sounds genuinely frustrating

I’m sorry! I’d be sad and cross in your position too — but I do wonder if that was more of a “final straw” thing because it sounds like things have been pretty tense for a while

Lisa McIntire: oh, I can certainly imagine there were many more elements in that decision

Daniel Lavery: but if your kid says “you’re calling me too much, this isn’t healthy, from now on i’m going to call you when i’m available and outside of those times I don’t want to talk”

then your kid is giving you the gift of trying to save your relationship before he cuts you off entirely

LW, you say “Trying to have an honest discussion is useless; our daughter-in-law will stand up and tell us we need “to respect my family’s boundaries or you will not see us,” and leave”

but you say nothing about what kind of ‘honesty’ you’re pushing for in those conversations!

Lisa McIntire: right

Daniel Lavery: it sounds like you have occasionally been confusing “honesty’” for “getting what I want” or even just “getting angry”

Lisa McIntire: yes

Daniel Lavery: and to that I’d just say, yeah, it tracks that your kid is essentially putting you in time-out

Lisa McIntire: There doesn’t seem to have been any curiosity

Daniel Lavery: none of that means your son and his wife have made exclusively perfect decisions

and it makes sense that you’d feel annoyed about getting asked to babysit last-minute when you have such a volatile relationship

but you absolutely have got to approach this with *some* curiosity and open-mindedness, and with *some* sense of your son’s autonomy

Lisa McIntire: and maybe interrogate some of the entitlement you express!
plus your obvious contempt for your daughter-in-law

Daniel Lavery: yeah it’s really hard to approach this with “I have contempt for you and also I want more contact”

and fundamentally if someone says “you’re calling me too much, it’s unhealthy, and you need to stop”

you need to respect that

the answer is not “pick away at their reasoning until I decide it’s unreasonable to ask me to stop calling”

Lisa McIntire: “why would someone try to limit my contact when I am 100% negative about her always”

Daniel Lavery: “I just hate your wife and think she’s a vicious harridan! Why don’t you want to take my next four calls in a row?”

Lisa McIntire: “Harriet and her BOUNDARIES, always with the boundaries!”

that’s just being an adult and living your life how you want!

Daniel Lavery: I am having a tough time imagining getting *angry* at someone who has just had twins for saying “please wait to visit until we have had a few months to establish some semblance of a schedule”

she just had twins!

that’s two babies at the same time, that’s TWICE the sleep deprivation

and yes, she had some of her relatives at the hospital, because *she was giving birth to twins* and would rather have her own mom in the room with her than her father-in-law who thinks she’s a piece of shit

that makes sense to me!

you are just not allowed to get mad at someone for not inviting you into the delivery room

I don’t care who you are or how much you want to be there

Lisa McIntire: and again, no curiosity or empathy about why she came to that decision
the conclusion is: this woman is “crazy,” and everything stems from there. nothing about what behavior might cause her reaction

Daniel Lavery: right, and his son is a puppet or a prize she can “dangle” and not a person who’s clearly making decisions in concert with her

people often get really upset when their children grow up and can start making their own decisions that might conflict with their parents’ wishes

Lisa McIntire: I can imagine it would be very difficult to raise children and not feel entitled to be in their lives as much as you used to be. but that just isn’t how it works! they do not owe you unlimited access, however much you want it

Daniel Lavery: they will grow up!

Lisa McIntire: it would be so much more helpful to approach it like, what can I do to make being around me pleasant and supportive and loving? rather than, I expect and deserve XYZ however I behave

Daniel Lavery: especially if there’s an undercurrent of “I deserve XYZ because I spent money on your wedding”

Lisa McIntire: my parting thought is:

Rather than seeing boundaries as a punishment, think of it as a chance to show your respect for your son and his wife. Prove to them that you can listen, learn, and grow. And feel free to enforce your own boundaries! It’s not a dirty word, I promise.

Daniel Lavery: That’s great, and to that I’ll add, “enforcing your own boundaries” in this context does not mean “trying to punish your kid for having boundaries by announcing arbitrary rules in retaliation, nor in trying to make them feel guilty for only hosting your visits twice a year”

Now available in your podcast player: the audiobook edition of Danny M. Lavery’s latest book, Something That May Shock and Discredit YouGet it from Slate