Care and Feeding

My MIL Only Plays by Her Own Rules

A woman holds her crying baby.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by kirillica/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 husband and I have a 14-month-old son, and I’m a stay-at-home mom. When I need to run out for occasional errands during the day, my local mother-in-law is generally glad and available to watch him. Recently, I needed to pick up a prescription and a few groceries, so she came over. My son is currently transitioning to one nap a day, and I asked her to make sure he doesn’t sleep for more than 45 minutes, so that it doesn’t disrupt his nighttime routine When I got home a bit over an hour later, he was just waking up on his own. My mother-in-law said she had gone in to wake him up, but he looked so peaceful and she figured if he didn’t wake up on his own he must have really needed the sleep. As predicted, he didn’t sleep for the rest of the day until he fell asleep in his highchair, then had an incredibly restless night and early morning.

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My husband sees these same issues and also seems to see them as potential issues in need of addressing. For example, he recently discussed with her the need for her to put on baby’s diaper more snugly to prevent leakage. He’s hesitant to raise too many issues with her, though, because she is rather anxious and he’s worried about making her think she’s taking care of him incorrectly or that we’re unhappy/angry with her. I understand that the exact same rules may not apply when grandma is watching the grandkid, but I’m wondering how far that extends? These seem like reasonable asks. How much do I push my husband to address this, or address it myself?

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— My House, Grandma’s Rules?

Dear My House,

It is so hard to have a plan for how you want your kids to be cared for, and then to have that plan changed, especially in those early months. Parents rely on finely tuned routines to survive—routines that change monthly or weekly as baby grows! It all feels like a giant game of Jenga, where one wrong move can send the whole thing toppling over. Except, of course, it isn’t always that catastrophic, even though it feels that way.

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You will need to decide what issues are truly important, fight those battles, and let the rest of it go. Your two anecdotes are great examples of these two paths. The diaper issue? Annoying, but not a big deal. The sleep situation? More impactful to baby’s mood and health, and your sanity and sleep. So, for each grievance about your mother in law’s methods, you need to evaluate as dispassionately as possible: does this matter significantly now, will it matter significantly later, am I asking her to change because it will have a measurable impact on me or baby, or am I asking her to change because it’s not what I feel is best?

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When you do decide something is impactful enough to bring up, approach it from a place of asking for help rather than giving instructions. Explain why you need things done a certain way, and what the end-goal is; when possible, frame it about yourself. (“This sleep transition is messing with me, so can you follow X schedule for me? Otherwise, he isn’t going to sleep well, and I really need to get a full night tonight if I can.”) Let her be your partner and co-conspirator on this parenting journey, not just your babysitter. My guess is that she wants to be helpful to you, and favors for moms feel different than instructions from moms. If she doesn’t do things the way you ask, my advice is to let it go the first time and offer gentle-yet-firm corrections the second or third.

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I am not saying this will be easy, and truthfully, I wish I had been able to follow my own advice more over the past several years. Both my parents and my in-laws have watched my children one day a week since they were born, and I have never fully mastered the advice in this column. But I can see the difference when I change my mindset in these ways. And when I look back at hard rules I set during my first few years of motherhood, I find some I stand by today, and others that turned out not to have mattered all that much. So, take a breath, act with grace, and learn to pick your battles—you’ll need that last skill as your son grows up, anyway!

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I am a 37-year-old divorced man, with two sons “Arnold” (age 8) and “Bernard” (age 6). A few months ago, after a long legal battle, I got full custody of both of them due to their mother’s continual neglect. At first, I thought things would be fine now that they’re in a more stable environment. However, the more I observe Arnold, the more worried I am. He’s always been a sharp, serious, calm little boy, but over the past year or so, he’s really taken it to an extreme. He’s asked for money on several occasions so he could take care of the shopping and has asked to work out a monthly budget with me for the household. When I told him that I could take care of that sort of thing and he should be focusing on his schoolwork and playing with his friends, he shrugged and says it makes him feel more comfortable to be involved in these household details. Also, he apparently looked through my bills to get a sense of how much the monthly expenses are, which was an unwelcome surprise.

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I’m well aware of the term “parentification,” and I know that Arnold stepped up a lot to take care of his younger brother in his mother’s house, but he is safe now, he is provided for now, and he can relax. Should relax. And I’ve noticed trouble he’s had bonding with other kids his age; he often appears far more comfortable around adults, which is not a good thing. I’m sure he needs some kind of therapy, but I really don’t know where to begin with something like this, especially since Arnold is almost certain to resist seeing a therapist or anything else that implies he’s not completely fine and independent. Can you give any help?

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— Overwhelmed Dad

Dear Overwhelmed,

First of all, my heart goes out to your boy for having to learn about things like bills and a budget. Most kids his age don’t even know those two things exist, which speaks not only to his keen mind, but also the instability of his life up till now.

I am not a psychologist, so I would hesitate to speculate about what exactly is going through Arnold’s mind, though your use of the term parentification is where my brain went as well. My oldest is 7 and likewise has been trying to take care of me and pitch in more since his father’s death last year. To some extent, I think that is natural—and can be helpful in appropriate amounts, since neither you nor I are superheroes who can do it all. But Arnold is taking that to an inappropriate level. I’ve mentioned this in other columns, but I would look into whether your school has a social worker or counselor on staff. He or she could be very helpful in both gaining insight into what’s happening with Arnold, as well as reinforcing the messages that he is safe and stable and has other “jobs” to focus on. And it might feel less disruptive or intense than private therapy.

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Meanwhile, just because Arnold may be hesitant to go to therapy, that doesn’t mean you can’t go yourself. A family therapist can help you identify more parenting techniques that work for Arnold (and Bernard!) and can guide you through how to make this transition positive for them; they would also have ideas for how to bring the boys into therapy, too. As you get those ducks in a row, I would try to meet Arnold halfway on his needs. Since he’s concerned with money and groceries, let him accompany you to the grocery store or help you make the shopping list. Tell him when you are sitting down to pay the bills and let him sit next to you and watch, if he asks. If he doesn’t yet have chores, give him a couple age-appropriate tasks that are his responsibility. (Pet care and putting away laundry are two great jobs at that age.) It might give him the sense of control and contribution that he’s craving.

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Above all, remember that these boys went through a huge change—a trauma, really. And there is a big difference between knowing you are safe and truly feeling and believing yourself to be safe. The more patient you can be with them and the effects of that trauma, the better for all three of you in the long run.

Catch Up on Care and Feeding

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

Dear Care and Feeding,

I am taking care of my half-siblings for about a week while my dad and stepmom go on a romantic cruise. I have a 9-year-old brother and a 7-year-old sister. They’re going to be staying with my boyfriend and me in our apartment near Boston. This is their first time in the city. I’m taking the week off work to watch them, and I think my boyfriend will be able to come with us a few days. I’ve already planned that week to include a lot of fun activities that I know my nerdy siblings will enjoy, like going to the zoo, aquarium, science museum. I also booked movie tickets and stuff like that. Also, my siblings are both bringing plenty of toys and games.

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Unfortunately, my sister apparently broke her glasses yesterday. Even with her glasses her vision can’t be corrected to 20/20, and without her glasses she really can’t get around that easily. She has a spare pair, but it is a really old pair that makes her have massive headaches and apparently “makes her eyesight worse” (not entirely sure how). My brother has apparently been guiding her around when they go out of the house. My dad and stepmom rushed to try to get her new glasses, but she won’t be able to get the glasses for another six to 10 days. She’s been really upset because between breaking her glasses and breaking her arm about two weeks ago, she can’t do her favorite activities (reading, playing video games, watching TV, doing gymnastics, and playing soccer). There’s a chance that my dad would be able to have us pick up her glasses on the day before he picks them up, but what can we do until then to make sure that my siblings have fun here?

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— Blinded in Boston

Dear BiB,

I’d think about both some alternative activities and also adapting those you’ve already planned..

For alternative activities (and I recognize you already shelled out money, but maybe your parents would help if this is a concern), you might consider activities that are primarily auditory. Boston is full of cultural and musical experiences, but one that your siblings might love is Blue Man Group. The music is unique, and many of the visual aspects of the performance (paint on the drums that splashes when the drums are struck) might be visible to her without or with her old glasses. Similarly, what can you do with taste? A blindfolded ice cream taste-test might be fun, or a night trying unfamiliar snacks or candies from an international grocery store.

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When it comes to adapted activities, see what you can learn about amenities at the places you are already planning to visit. Many museums, zoos and aquariums offer accessibility services to guests—and you don’t need a diagnosis to “qualify.” For example, the New England Aquarium’s accessibility page lists some hands-on experiences you all could enjoy, as well as other amenities like wheelchair rental that would help you get around. And the Boston Museum of Science has staff you could contact who would likely be able to give you some suggestions for exhibits that are successful for people with low vision. Your sister isn’t going to experience these spaces, or these accessibility accommodations, in the same way a disabled person who needs these services on a daily basis would, but it’s a start.

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Final thought: go old school and read a chapter book aloud to them. Harry Potter, Spiderwick Chronicles, or other fantastical or suspenseful stories would capture both kids’ attention and could be a unique memory for all of you to treasure.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband’s sister Liz has three elementary school-aged children and a dysfunctional relationship with her kids’ father, Sam. At this point, they are divorced but still live together. Sam yells at and is hypercritical of Liz and the kids. Sam is angry that Liz is contacting other men, so he often takes her phone away. He’s already broken one phone by throwing it at the wall.

Liz’s parents have tried to get Liz to leave Sam, but their assistance comes with lots of conditions, and Liz feels they are too controlling and won’t accept their help.

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My concern is for my nieces and nephew witnessing all this. Liz confided in me that Sam recently “twisted her arm” to get her phone and take it away. I asked Liz if she felt it was harmful for her kids to witness this, and she said that it didn’t seem to bother the kids.

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We live about five hours away, but we have had the kids come stay with us for short visits to offer Liz a break. Liz’s parents are taking the stance that they won’t do anything for her or the kids until she decides to leave Sam. I don’t think she’ll ever kick Sam out because she feels sorry for him and thinks she’s being a good person by helping him.

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But how can I help the children who are witnessing all this? At this point, the only thing I can think of to do is call CPS, but that feels like the nuclear option.

— Concerned Auntie

Dear Auntie,

Liz is not in a dysfunctional relationship; she is in an abusive relationship. Call the National Domestic Abuse Hotline and seek their guidance on how you can help your nieces and nephew, and Liz as well. You are right to worry about how this could be affecting the kids. Even if they aren’t witnessing everything, I would be surprised if they didn’t know something was going on. And living in an abusive household—even if you aren’t the target of the abuse—can be detrimental to young children.

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While you get expert help from the hotline, I’d urge you and your husband to have some serious talks. Are you and he willing to demand your in-laws remove the strings attached to their offer of help? Are you and your husband willing to be Liz’ help if the parents cannot? What housing or financial resources can you provide if it comes to that?

I do not mean to put this on you to be the hero, and I am not a domestic abuse expert. But it sounds to me as if Liz needs help, and if you can offer it at all, I’d urge you to do so.

—Allison

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

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