Care and Feeding

My Father-in-Law Is Furious He Can’t Yell at My Kids

He wants to “enforce his rules” at their house, but I’m not having it.

A child jumps on a couch.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by DragonImages/Getty Images Plus. 

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here.

Dear Care and Feeding,

A few years ago, we were visiting my in-laws’ house when our then 3-year-old son walked on their couch. My father-in-law yelled at him, my husband asked him to not yell at our son, and my FIL got angry that he couldn’t “enforce the rules” in his own home. (My husband said the issue was not that our son should be able to break the rules, but that his grandpa shouldn’t yell at him like that.) We’ve interacted with my in-laws many times since this, and I feel like I spend our whole visits keeping my kids quiet and making sure they don’t do anything that will make my FIL mad.

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My husband and I recently had a video call with my husband’s parents, and my FIL took the opportunity to lay out all his long-festering problems with me, one of them being the couch incident from three years ago. My FIL says that he felt disrespected in his own home, and that my husband must have been influenced by me. FIL said we obviously have different standards for our kids than they do, and that they spend all day cleaning up after us when we leave (in addition to many other lovely topics of conversation). I thought it was a difficult but actually productive talk: We let my FIL express his feelings, we all discussed what we were thinking, I apologized for a few things and held firm on other past decisions.

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Today, my mother-in-law reached out to me and offered that she and my FIL could come stay with our kids so my husband and I could go somewhere for my husband’s birthday weekend. I recognize and appreciate that this is my MIL’s way of extending an olive branch, but I really don’t want to leave our kids around my FIL without me there. Am I just being an overprotective mother? My FIL has never been physical with my kids, but I think having him be in charge of them is a recipe for disaster. On the other hand, refusing their offer will mortally offend my FIL.

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— Afraid to Offend

Dear Afraid,

You can have a conversation with your in-laws about your boundaries, as far as discipline and other rules that relate to the care of your child, and you can ask them if they are willing to abide by your needs for the duration of this visit. This can be an opportunity for them to prove if they are able to do such a thing. You can check in with your kids frequently and hear from them that they are being treated well and (hopefully) enjoying themselves. You can give your in-laws the chance to step up and be team players by adjusting some of their ways in order to be in harmony with you.

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You can also decline the request politely. If you feel like having a conversation about why, explain that you have concerns about how the children’s behavior might be received by your FIL, considering the previous conversations you’ve had about your “standards” for your children. Let him know that you’d like to avoid a situation in which he or the children are unhappy with one another and that they may not be ready for this type of time away from you/with their grandparents. If you’d rather not get into all that, say that you’d prefer to celebrate the birthday as a family but that you appreciate the offer.

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Ultimately, there isn’t a clear right or wrong answer that I can give you (unless there is a history of the FIL being violent with other people, in which case I’d say this visit is a bad idea). You have to listen to your gut and figure out if you’re really concerned that your in-laws will mistreat your children. If that’s the case, then you should not allow them to babysit. If the more likely scenario is some mild complaining about the difference between your parenting choices and their “old school” ones, then the stakes aren’t terribly high (and you can shut that conversation down accordingly).

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What does your husband think? It is concerning that your FIL associates you with stances and choices that he doesn’t approve of, but it isn’t uncommon for in-laws to declare their children’s spouses to be the “true” source of their frustrations with their kids. Was he a physical disciplinarian in your husband’s youth? If so, do you believe honestly that he can correct your children’s behavior without being inclined to strike or yell at them? If you do not feel that way, then listen to your gut and decline the visit. You may need to have another video call or two with you in-laws to explain why, but they should hear and understand your decision. Otherwise, if you choose to let them come babysit, try to be as patient and polite as possible when outlining your expectations, and don’t be afraid to be honest with them if they aren’t met.
Best of luck.

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Slate Plus Members Get More Advice From Jamilah Each Week

From this week’s letter, My In-Laws Just Took Away a Huge Parenting Moment From Me: I feel like that opportunity has been taken away from us and that the purchase should have been discussed with us first.”

Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a wonderful 3-year-old son who I wanted to exclusively breastfeed. I knew, theoretically, that some women have trouble breastfeeding, but didn’t have any reason to think I’d be one of them. Then, three days after my son was born, they told us he had lost too much weight because I wasn’t producing enough milk, and we needed to start thinking about supplementing. I barely slept for the next week between my newborn, a stringent feeding/pumping/supplementing regime, and pre-existing insomnia/depression/anxiety issues. Then there were months of knocking myself out trying everything I could to produce more milk. It never worked. I never got to a place where I could exclusively breastfeed. I’ve half-convinced myself that I have hypoplastic breasts, but I feel like someone should have told me if that was the case (between the ridiculous number of OB and lactation consultant appointments). I have really tried not to be too hard on myself about this, but I’ve always been a bit hard on myself (see depression/anxiety above). I don’t know that I ever really accepted that it was fine to supplement and that this wasn’t some sort of horrible failure on my part. I feel like I somehow should have tried harder or done more. Well, I’m currently pregnant with my second child. What do I do?

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— Already Tired

Dear Already Tired,

First of all, please continue to try and be kind with yourself in regards to how much you were able to breastfeed during your first pregnancy. You tried, you did what you could, and you ensured that your child was fed. That’s what matters, you fed your baby.

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This time around, you know firsthand that a formula and breast milk combination can sustain a healthy baby. Instead of setting the expectation for yourself that you will exclusively breastfeed, prepare for the possibility that you’ll need to supplement in advance. You can drink the dandelion tea, eat the lactation cookies, and/or do whatever your medical professional suggests with regard to how to sustain your milk flow. You may or may not produce more milk than before; you may produce less. Embrace that any of these outcomes are possible and that no matter what, your baby will not just be fed, they will be loved. Don’t agonize over this; you’ll only make the difficult work of having a new baby all the more difficult. Talk to your pediatrician and ensure that the formula you used last time is still the best option, or find out what the new gold standard is. Relax, Mama, you got this.

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Catch Up on Care and Feeding

· If you missed Thursday’s column, read it here.
· Discuss this column in the Slate Parenting Facebook group!

Dear Care and Feeding,

Several years ago, my husband had an affair with a woman from work. He decided that he needed to be with her, as I had been his first and only relationship, so he moved out for a year. He kept coming back to me but continued the affair. In his words, it was “easy,” as they worked in the same building. I asked him to find another job, he said “no.” I asked him to tell her it was over, he said “no” again; he didn’t want to hurt her feelings. We moved to another state for a better job for him, as he was let go because of this woman. We moved back home after six months as we didn’t like it there. She found out he was back and started to stalk him, which he didn’t tell me. I found out by accident when we were upgrading our phones and a recent snap chat with pictures popped up. He was all apologetic and didn’t know why he did that. (His phone is always locked, and he will not let me look at it, even though he promised he would let me look at his phone anytime.)

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Years later, I’m feeling worse about myself. I feel the people who know about the affair are looking at me with pity, like “Why are you still with him?” He absolutely refuses to discuss this situation, ever. I get that it it’s supposed to be in the past, but I just feel like he never helped me with my feelings. I don’t know what to do.

— Sad and Feeling Lonely Every Day

Dear Lonely Every Day,

I am so sorry that you are going through this. You did nothing to cause your husband’s betrayal, nor the insensitivity that he has displayed during the affair and in the aftermath—if this is, in fact, the “after” because it seems that you have lingering questions about his current behaviors, thanks to his refusal to honor his offer to let you look at his phone.

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For a relationship to have a fighting chance at surviving infidelity in a healthy way, the partner who has been unfaithful has to take action to make their loved one feel safe with them again. That may include, but is not limited to: offering words of assurance; being willing to listen to their partner’s feelings about what took place: transparency in behavior (which for some people includes access to devices, but I caution you that can become an unhealthy habit very quickly; also, text messages and other phone histories can be deleted very easily, so phone access doesn’t equal a “clean” phone); and, ideally, some counselling. It doesn’t sound like you’ve experienced any of this. Instead, you’ve been told to move on from something incredibly devastating that has taken a toll on your marriage and your self-image alike.

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I strongly urge you to talk to a professional about your feelings. More urgent than repairing your marriage (or not repairing it) is the need for you to repair your relationship to yourself. Until you feel good about you again, you won’t truly be able to take the steps you must in order to properly assess you relationship and move forward in a way that is best for you. However, I will say that from what you shared, it sounds like there is a strong chance that you’d be happier without this person than you are with him. He has harmed you and told you to make peace with the harm without doing anything to help you survive it. He offered you transparency and then declined to make good on that. Do you think this person would be willing to go into marital counseling with you? Is he willing to fight for this relationship by changing some of his ways? You have a lot to consider, and I think a therapist would be really helpful to you at a time like this. Wishing you nothing but the best.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I was raised in a neglectful and trauma-soaked household. At 19, I became the temporary (and much later, permanent) custodian for my half-sister. I’m worked to give her the childhood I never had, throwing myself into a parenting role I didn’t want but no one else could provide: She never went hungry, she got regular medical care and therapy, and I tried to show interest in her hobbies, her successes and failures, her schoolwork and her social life. I was also barely an adult myself.

Now, I’m 29 and she’s 19. She’s just announced that she and her boyfriend are expecting a baby, and asked me to commit to helping with childcare, appointments, and more. My first reaction is rage: I have raised a child I didn’t birth, and I don’t plan to raise another. She’s getting the chance I never had (college, stability, carefree early adulthood), and I’m admittedly jealous. I’m trying to give myself the teens and 20s I didn’t get, and want to just be selfish for myself right now. I feel like I did a bad job raising her if she didn’t use birth control. On the other hand, our family isn’t exactly bursting with people who would help her, and her boyfriend seems less-than-committed. This baby will need support to avoid repeating my own childhood. How do I set boundaries here? How can I look past my own anger and provide some help without losing myself?

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— Angry

Dear Angry,

Forgive your sister, and yourself, for this pregnancy. It isn’t terribly surprising that a young woman who experienced a difficult childhood might find herself in these circumstances, and that doesn’t mean that either of you have failed somehow, nor that this new baby is doomed to experience what the two of you did. While she will require some support from you, as all new mothers should be able to rely on the assistance of their families to some extent, I think you can be a stabilizing force in her life while still indulging yourself and enjoying your delayed youth. (By the way, you can’t get your teens and early 20s back, but you’re still quite young and you can and should prioritize enjoying life both now and even when that isn’t the case.)

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Sit down and take stock of your own responsibilities, both professional and personal—which includes your social time, your downtime, anything you do in order to please yourself—and figure out a reasonable schedule for providing support to your sister. Perhaps you come by every Sunday afternoon to help her plan for the week, do laundry and grocery shop. Maybe you take her to doctor’s appointments and do research into low-cost childcare. Establish what you are willing and able to give with the understanding that while circumstances may occasionally call for you to go far above and beyond, there must be some boundaries established with regard to just how much time/energy/money you are able to give to your sister and her child. Explain this to her. Let her know that you love her and that you will stand by her side, but you will not be a parental figure to this baby. Don’t make her feel guilty for having ‘taken’ your childhood, nor shame her for her decision; however, do not become a pushover or give up and abandon your commitment to self-care at the first sign that she’s struggling. New motherhood is hard, with or without family help. Your task is to master giving care without becoming her caregiver (again). Wishing you all the best.

— Jamilah

For More Parenting Coverage, Listen to Mom and Dad Are Fighting

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