Every Thursday on Twitter @jdesmondharris, Dear Prudence asks readers for their thoughts on a question that has her stumped. She’ll post her final thoughts on the matter on Fridays. Here’s this week’s dilemma and answer:
I need help setting a boundary that makes me feel like a terrible person. My mother-in-law and I had a positive relationship for a long time, but the tides turned during the pandemic. She’s always been very into “alternative wellness” in a way I thought was harmless—but it got weird around COVID, and she refuses to mask or vaccinate. This behavior accompanied a political shift so strong that I urged my husband to help get her a medical work-up. When she started berating me for vaccinating our son, I rerouted all communication to my husband and grieved.
In December, she got what we thought was a mild case of omicron, but developed longer-term symptoms after. She is on leave from her job, but cannot afford to retire this early or pay for long-term care. She’s also sticking to her beliefs, which enrages me.
My husband is advocating that she move in with us, a thing I’m desperate to avoid. I’m scared I’d become the primary caregiver of this woman I feel a toxic brew of contempt and resentment for. I don’t want to be bullied about my parenting health choices. I don’t want her extremist beliefs around my son. A mean, petty, deeply cruel part of me thinks she deserves what she gets. My husband is angry at her too, but feels like there are no other options. We can’t even afford the couples therapy we both want for ourselves, so financing nursing care is off the table. Is there another way to solve this problem? I’d seriously consider moving in with my own parents before I’d live with her.
When I asked readers to weigh in on your question, I received a flood of responses that amounted to “No!” “No way!” “Do not move in with this woman!” and “Don’t do it!” (You can read them in the replies to my tweet.) Many pointed out that making rules for your MIL (for example, that she can’t talk about her extremist beliefs or criticize your parenting choices) won’t work. She might agree to get in the door, but she’d inevitably go back on her word.
But you know all that. As @djgibert pointed out in an important clarification of what your letter actually said, “The answer is in the ask. Panicked opens their letter by asking for help setting this reasonable boundary. The question isn’t ‘whether’ the boundary should be set, but rather ‘how.’ ”
I also thought @dwhite10701 made a good point when he observed the complexity of your problem and the fact that you aren’t going to be able to walk away from your marriage over this easily (if you were, you wouldn’t have asked for advice!). “People are being a little too glib in answering this,” he said. “There is a lot to grapple with: LW loves her husband and doesn’t want to split. Husband cares about his mother & (presumably) is the only one available to take care of her. They don’t have a lot of money.”
Speaking of money: Another theme of the crowdsourced advice that I found a bit naïve was the suggestion that you and your husband simply find low-income housing or public assistance or charity to help your mother-in-law. This is a lot easier said than done. I got a lot of “Medicaid will help,” but this depends on a lot, including the state you live in and whether your MIL (who is not yet retired!) meets the income and asset qualifications. And there’s massive waitlists for affordable housing. I appreciated the enthusiasm for the social safety net, but there’s a reason a lot of seniors and disabled people in this country are barely getting by or don’t have a place to live.
To summarize: We know you don’t want her in your home. And outsourcing her care and living situation is not going to be a realistic quick fix.
Which brings me to what may be the best idea I heard, from @iamlaurasaurus, who said, “Could your husband temporarily move in with her? Then you won’t become her primary caregiver, and you and your son won’t be subjected to her insults and rants. I suspect that if it’s all on him, he’ll suddenly become much more open to other options.”
You should explain to your husband why it’s not acceptable to you or safe for your family to have your MIL in your home and that you cannot be her caretaker. With that in mind, acknowledge that he loves her and feels an obligation to her and propose that, if she really needs help, he should temporarily move in with her for as long as it takes her to recover, to a reasonable extent, from long COVID and start working again. Yes, it will be inconvenient. But it makes sense that he—the person who loves her and actually has a relationship with her—should be the one to go out of his way. And this will guarantee that the labor of caretaking actually falls on him. If he refuses, well, you know what you have to do:
Take your son and go to your parents. Make it clear exactly what you need to see from him to return. A few months of taking care of her on his own and being separated from his family will do more to change his behaviors than therapy ever would. —@CleverWhatever
I hope it doesn’t come to that, but showing him with your actions what your boundaries are will be the clearest way to communicate them.
My roommate is one of those scarily competent people. She does a lot of things well and doesn’t stress things that aren’t a priority. When her breath started to smell a few months ago, I told her nicely and in private. She was annoyed but then thanked me a few hours later and said she was glad to know. The problem is that she doesn’t really seem to have done much about it. I notice now before we go out she rinses her mouth out with water (what good does she think that will do?!), but she only brushes her teeth once a day. Should I follow up with more concrete suggestions (tongue scraper, mouthwash, brushing more, maybe looking into medical causes)? Or do I just assume it’s not a priority for her?