Care and Feeding

My Parents Accuse Me of Favoring My In-Laws—They’re Probably Right

A mom holds up her hands like she's reached her limit.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by 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,

I’m struggling with what to tell my parents when they pester me about why my husband and I don’t bring our two young kids (3 and 5) to visit them more than once or twice a year. We all used to live in the same metro area, but a few months before our first child was born, my parents moved into a luxury full-service retirement facility almost four hours away. It’s so expensive, we’ll be lucky if they leave enough to cremate them. And far from enjoying themselves, they do nothing but complain about the demanding and bigoted old rich folks who populate the place.

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They accuse me of loving my in-laws more than them. I wouldn’t say that—but my in-laws did help us buy a lovely house with a separate suite, which they moved into when our first child was an infant, to save us the cost of a nanny. They spend quality time with our kids every day and seem genuinely interested in them as individuals. Their plan is to spend only what they need to and leave most of their money to us. (My husband is their only living child; his sister died tragically young.) This may be partly a cultural difference, since I’m white and my husband is Chinese-American. But we’ve already mutually decided that this is exactly how we want to behave toward our grown children and grandchildren (assuming, of course, that it doesn’t conflict with their wishes).

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In contrast, it feels like my parents have decided to prioritize themselves and not invest in future generations, and that this is a continuation of a lifelong pattern. They had six kids seemingly just because they liked babies, losing interest in each of us as we grew old enough to speak our minds. They didn’t help me or my siblings with college; we had to either go into blue-collar work or wait until our mid-twenties when we could qualify for loans independently, thus getting a late start in our careers. They didn’t contribute to our homes, weddings, or emergency expenses. Of the six of us, I’m the only one who even has kids, and only because I married someone better-off.

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So now their wanting to see my kids all the time feels like them wanting to have their cake and eat it. Should I communicate this to them? Or keep my petty bitterness to myself and continue to make excuses about the long drive, even as the kids get older and less exhausting to wrangle?

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— Disenchanted Daughter

Dear Disenchanted,

If the main reason that you are hesitant to put the effort in is because of their lack of financial support, I think you have a lot more introspection to do before bringing it up. If you do this poorly, you will inadvertently indicate that your love, and access to your kids, is transactional, which I hope isn’t what you mean (is it?) and is a pretty cold way to think of family. I would suggest that for the short term, you keep explaining that it’s very hard to travel with kids, but you’d love if they’d come visit you—and if they do, make sure they get plenty of quality time with your kids. More time together could help forge a more genuine relationship between your parents and kids than what you feel exists now.

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Meanwhile, I’d advise exploring your resentment with a therapist, and only under his/her guidance consider opening that dialogue with mom and dad. While I think some of your feelings are valid, some are tied up in assumptions that may or may not be accurate. Things you might see as selfishness or abandonment, they may see as savvy planning (securing a space in a posh retirement home so they don’t become a burden to their kids) and fostering independence. Your therapist can help you let go of what you can and seek answers or closure for what remains.

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I want to encourage you to stop comparing your parents to your in-laws, or other ideas of what parents or grandparents “should” be, and instead try to just see and understand them as they are. They may not have done things the way you wish they would have, but are there reasons to love and appreciate them nonetheless, despite of all those comparisons? Travel will always be tricky; right now it’s diapers and toys and “stuff” to bring, but later it will be soccer games and birthday parties and homework. But the traveling is a red herring in all this. You have to decide if you can make peace with your relationship overall. This isn’t about what grandkid access they have “earned” but rather what relationship you can repair between you overall. And that takes more help than I can give in a single column.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I am nearly 12 years old and I live with my 9-year-old brother, B, my 5-year-old sister, S, and our mom and dad. S is clearly the favorite and will be excused from doing things, like hitting, that me and B would never get away with. She got an iPad when she was 1, but B and I didn’t even get crummy tablets until we were 6. She also knows she can get away with murder and uses it to her advantage. For example, the other day I wanted to open the curtains in the living room, but she didn’t want me to. I know it’s classic toddler behavior to have a tantrum, but she literally shouted in my face and hit me. I was the one who got in trouble, she got her own way. This happens at least twice a day. S also randomly demands to be on her own and for me and B to leave the room—even if it’s common space or our own rooms. The punishment if B or I shouted and hit someone for no reason would be pocket money and iPads taken away.

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She gets our Mom to put her to bed (which basically involves staying with her for three to five hours) every night; B only gets to have Mom put him to bed (which takes about an hour) every other night, and Mom says goodnight to me every night but this only takes about five minutes. How on earth is this supposed to be fair?

— Spoilt

Dear Spoilt,

I’m going to split my reply into two sections: one, where I try to contextualize and explain being a parent, and two, where I plant myself on your “side” and give you some suggestions. For this first part, I want you to honestly try to see things from your mom’s perspective, because in the second part you’ll essentially ask your mom to do the same for you.

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OK, part one: As a mom, I can think of a lot reasons why the things you write about might have happened the way they did. You got crummy tablets because your mom and dad thought they would suffice (and no one wants to spend hundreds of dollars on a device a kid could break on day one), and only after you and B used them did your parents realize the iPad was better. This is the exact reason my household has one Fire tablet and one iPad. Unfortunately, the first one or two kids are sort of the guinea pigs for parents, and things can look a lot different for a later-in-order kid simply because the parents are more experienced (or more tired, ha-ha).

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Regarding bedtime, your mom is trying to triage (aka going where her help will make the most difference). S needs a parent to help with dressing, reading, and even self-soothing to bed. You and B are older and more independent and do not logistically need her to be that participatory. I know you want it to be fair, but do you mean you want everything to be equal? I’m not sure that’s possible. When I parent my kids, I don’t shoot for equal, but equitable. Equal means everyone gets the same, and equitable means everyone gets what they need. At bedtime, S needs a lot of help, B needs some help, and you need no help—so mom is trying to act accordingly. (Though, if your mom was the one writing in, I would tell her she is spending way too much time on bedtime for both your siblings, just for her sanity alone. That is beside the point, though.)

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So that is some of the “parent perspective” I can offer you, and I hope it helps you understand why some of this might be happening. But now, let’s talk about what you need from your mom, which is just as important.

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What I hear in your letter is that you want more time with your mom and for her to be on your side more with the sibling dynamics. These are really important points to bring up. They are valid, normal feelings, and I’d bet money that your mom would want to know you are feeling this way. It is easy to overlook a tween when there is a young child in the mix, but just because you are 12 doesn’t mean you don’t need time with your mom. It’s also easy to give young children a pass on bad behavior and expect the older children to rise above it. You and B are more mature and can regulate your emotions so much better than S that mom might be putting more on you than is necessarily appropriate.

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I encourage you to ask your mom to have a serious talk in private. If that feels too confrontational, you can write her a letter and ask her to come talk to you once she has read it. Use “I” statements and focus on what you feel and what you want. For example, instead of saying “You always punish me when S gets mad,” say “I feel frustrated that I am blamed for times that S and I butt heads.” Instead of “you never spend time with me,” try “I want more time with you.” Steer clear of comparing your situation to S and B, because, like I said, they are three different situations. Simply express how you are feeling (invisible, overlooked, deprioritized) and ask for what you want (quality one-on-one time, benefit of doubt, etc.).

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Just remember: being the oldest sibling is hard, being a tween is hard, and being a parent is hard. The more you can carve out spaces together to share how you’re feeling, the more likely it is that you can give each other what you each need.

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Want Advice From Care and Feeding?

Submit your questions about parenting and family life here. It’s anonymous! (Questions may be edited for publication.)

Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband and I recently had a baby. My leave is coming to an end soon and I will then be working from home. While my hours are flexible, the work itself is pretty emotionally and intellectually demanding, so when I am working I need to be there 100 percent. My husband is back in the office full-time. We are both well compensated, so we decided to hire someone full-time to help with cleaning and cooking as well as tend to the baby’s physical needs when I need to focus on work. I have asked around and the picture everyone is painting is that most of our options here (we live in Europe) involve women who have emigrated for work and have children they support but are unable to visit back home. Especially since the pandemic started, many have not been able to travel home at all, which is heartbreaking and extremely stressful. The issue is that this can often result in competition for the client’s child’s affection, trying to take on a mother-like position, overriding the parents’ wishes, etc. I have heard from several women that they ended up in situations where they were painted as the bad cop (as in “your mom said no to ice cream but here, I’ll give you some because I love you”), had to argue about whose turn it was to hold the baby and so on. I have a hard time sharing my baby even with my immediate family, but I also need to return to work. Do you have any advice for how I can make this work?

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— Working Mama Bear

Dear Mama Bear,

Given the picture you paint (and I’ll admit I don’t know quite how to address that, without knowing more about where you live), you might be more comfortable sending your child to a childcare center, if those are available. That relationship mimics motherhood far less than a nanny or other in-home caretaker, so even if the center is out of the way or more expensive, that might be an adequate tradeoff for you.

My second thought is to caution you that if you do hire in-home help, this woman cannot and should not be asked to attend only to baby’s physical needs, as you put it; you must allow and welcome whoever you hire to nurture and, yes, love your baby. Physical needs are only part of what babies need at this stage. Affection, connection, eye contact and play are just as important as food and sleep. Your caretaker will be negligent if she doesn’t coo, cuddle, love, and play with your baby, so you need to decide if you can handle that.

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If you can, then you need to find someone you trust to do it well. Practically, you might be able to find an American au pair through an agency or independently; this might be a less expensive option? Yes, you’d gain a housemate (since you must provide lodging), but you’d have a shared cultural expectation for the relationship, which might eliminate some of your concerns. Alternatively, if you are going to find a caretaker that is already local, get referrals from other moms (are there Facebook groups for moms where you are?) and vet the candidates thoroughly; ask them to reflect on how they might approach you “stealing” the baby for a few minutes or parenting disagreements between you and her. You may get insight not necessarily from their words but how they answer the questions. Parenting is logistically and emotionally hard, despite the many rewards, so you need to hire someone who you think will be your ally and your proverbial village, and try to build a relationship between you and her, not just the baby and her, so that any conflicts that arise are easier to manage.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a wonderful baby boy, and my parents adore their grandson and have expressed interest in caring for him overnight or longer when he is old enough. I have fond memories from my childhood of spending a summer week with my grandparents each year, and I always figured my son would have similar “grandparent vacations.” However, I am starting to wonder if it would be safe to leave my son with my parents.

My mom and dad are both 70. My dad has some health problems and really struggles to stay awake in the afternoons and evenings. Once, he even fell asleep holding my baby on the couch. (When I walked in and saw them, I immediately intervened and explained how dangerous it was.) It didn’t happen again, but I could see my dad really struggling to stay awake even when holding my baby after that.

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My mom is generally active but is not a very safe or assured driver. She also expressed that she would not be comfortable putting the baby in a car seat and driving him if there was an emergency.

Sadly, I am starting to think it may not be safe to leave my son with his grandparents given these factors. (Of course, my parents raised me, but I don’t remember them having these issues when I was a kid!) But I would like a reality check. What do you think? Is there a solution I am missing? And if not, how do I eventually broach this topic with my parents?

— Parent and Daughter

Dear P&D,

I would be concerned in your shoes as well. Part of me wonders if, given their challenges, they will reach the same conclusion on their own before your son is old enough for it to be on the table. In that sense, you could just roll the dice and keep your concerns to yourself, seeing if the problem goes away on its own. But I tend to think that talking about things earlier is better than later, so that everyone’s expectations can be managed. The next time the possibility of an overnight or “grandparent vacation” comes up—or if you see some other entry point to the topic—I would find a way to gently and lovingly express your reservations. Explain that you worry about putting everyone in a situation where your son could get hurt and where they would feel responsible. Your parents might agree, or they may have ideas for how this could work that you haven’t thought of.

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Not knowing your father’s medical situation, I wonder if his sleepiness is a result of his physical condition or a side effect of medication. Broaching that subject—in case the medication can be changed—is another reason for you to attempt an earlier conversation. I also wonder whether they plan to move into a senior center or retirement community, where activities, amenities, and medical care are closer at hand. This might provide an opportunity for sleepovers to happen in a safer environment.

No one needs to make any decisions now, but I do think your concerns are valid. Talking about them early as a team is your best chance to get a resolution down the road that everyone can accept.

—Allison

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