Slate Plus members get more Care and Feeding every week.
Dear Care and Feeding,
I come from a very basic, white, middle-class American family. I moved abroad to a country in East Asia and married someone from there. We just recently had a baby, and my parents are over the moon about him.
There’s one problem—my mom has always been hyper-focused on physical appearance. So much so that all four of her children, myself included, grew up to have self-confidence issues. She makes small, passive-aggressive comments about our looks that come off as harmless but leave an impact. (My bad posture makes me look like I have a tummy; my skin looks bad today; etc.)
I see her starting to behave the same way with my new baby, but there’s an extra layer, as she’s also bringing up his mixed-race along with universal traits like head shape and baby acne. She’s been comparing him to other babies of Asian heritage, asking if his eyes are bigger, skin is fairer, etc. She’s been googling images of Asian and mixed-race babies to see how they compare. I’m afraid that as he grows up, he’s going to always feel like he’s different from his cousins in grandma’s eyes and that he’s not good enough.
My mom doesn’t seem to realize the impact of her comments and is otherwise an amazing grandmother and kind person. How can I bring this up to her without being confrontational or defensive? And how can I shut her comments down when they inevitably still happen?
How do I stop the cycle? The scariest part is that I see this part of my mother in myself, and it’s a big effort for me not to comment on people’s looks sometimes. I don’t want my son to think his appearance is all that matters.
—Not My Mother
Dear Not My Mother,
It will be very difficult to overcome a lifetime of hearing your mother’s negative commentary about your appearance and others’—especially when she still feels free to make her harmful observations whenever you’re around.
You’ll need to set firmer boundaries with her, and despite your desire to avoid it, that will involve a good deal of confrontation. She has to have her negative statements pointed out to her. That doesn’t have to be aggressive, but it should be direct. Try saying things like, “Mom, that isn’t kind.” Or, “That doesn’t feel good to hear.” Or, “Pointing out what you perceive to be a flaw isn’t the best way to be helpful.”
It isn’t likely to change your mother’s inclination to make remarks, but it may deter her from making them directly to you. If it doesn’t, consider spending a bit less time with her or getting up to leave the room or the house when she won’t refrain.
No matter how kind and amazing she may be otherwise, your mom’s ethnicity-specific comments about your child (and, by extension, your spouse) are racist. In addressing these statements in particular, actually use the word “racist.” She may not realize Googling images of Asian and mixed-race babies, comparing them to your son, then sharing her appearance-based opinions about them is a form of racism, but it’s important that you point it out to her.
If you don’t want your son growing up feeling discriminated against in his own family, you’ll need to protect him from your mother’s discriminatory words and actions. That may be difficult after looking past her behavior and letting it go for so many years. But it’s never too late to tell someone what you need and remove yourself from their presence if they refuse to honor your requests.
More Advice From Slate
My mother-in-law is the one people tell in jokes: She is a narcissistic, neurotic mess who manipulates everyone no matter the cost. My marriage has survived because we live 1,000 miles away and visit once every year or two. My ex–sister-in-law filed for divorce the second time our mother-in-law broke into her house, rearranged everything, and threw out sheets, clothes, and personal belongings because she deemed them “tacky.” My husband is up for a promotion that would require a move either closer or farther away from his parents. We are arguing over this. What do I do?