Care and Feeding

My Mother-in-Law Claims She Wants to Babysit—but Refuses to Actually Care for My Baby

Baby being fed by a bottle.
Photo illustrations by Slate. Photo by muaotphoto/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

Last month we brought our son home after a lengthy NICU stay as he was born a 1.5-pound micropreemie at 25 weeks. Due to Covid restrictions, no one but my husband and I were allowed in the NICU, and we weren’t even allowed in together. He came home as a 3.5-pound 3-month-old. To us, he’s big and strong (we’re comparing him to where he started!), but to all our family just meeting him, he’s tiny and fragile.

My MIL lives five minutes from us, and she really wants to be helpful with him now that he’s home. Every time I see her (at least three times a week, since she finds frequent reasons to visit), she lets me know she’d be glad to watch the baby so I can run to the store, gym, whatever it is I might want to do. The problem? She’s not comfortable doing anything other than sitting stationary with him after he is placed in her arms.

No diaper changes, bottles, picking him up or putting him down. I get that it’s scary handling him, so we’ve been trying to get her to do a bit more with us around to build her confidence. No interest. She’ll say things like, “Oh, no, I wouldn’t want to mess it up, I’ll just watch.”

This week things got worse. I had asked her long ago to watch him while I went to a dentist appointment, but had decided I absolutely do not feel I can leave him with her for three hours. I rescheduled the appointment for when my husband will be home and was hoping that, if I just didn’t mention it, she’d forget that we’d ever asked her. Well, she hadn’t forgotten.

She kept saying how excited she was. She even asked if we could set up a time before the dental appointment because it seems to her I’m “not getting out of the house enough.” I responded vaguely at first, but after I encouraged her to give him his bottle while I set myself up pumping in the chair right next to her, and she said she really didn’t think she was ready to do that, I guess I lost it. I asked how she expected me to leave with her if she wouldn’t even feed him with me five feet away. She looked like she was going to start crying and said she felt like she’d watched us do things enough that she would be ready to do them when she had to. I told her until she could show me that she had some level of comfort and confidence with him, she would not be left alone with him. She was definitely crying as she walked out the door.

I called my husband and left a message asking him to call when he had time to talk—and when he called me back, about 20 minutes later, he wanted to know why I had made his mother cry and told her to leave the house “when she was just trying to be helpful” (apparently she’d called him right away and had a slightly different version of events than I did). I told him I was more impatient with her than I should have been, but that she needed to stop forcefully volunteering herself for childcare when she’s not prepared to do it.

This wasn’t a new topic for us, and he has generally agreed with me (and once he heard my version of how things went, he calmed down) but he still felt I should have found a kinder way to handle it. My MIL told him she’s not sure she feels comfortable coming to our house if he’s not there too (not the worst thing in the world, to my mind). I can apologize for being a bit short with her, but I stand behind my message and feel like I’m very regularly being asked to compromise what I want/need so that she can have exactly what she wants. Do I take steps to try to mend this or just let the desire to see her grandkid do its thing and bring her back around eventually?

—Frustrated Daughter-in-Law

Dear Frustrated,

Congratulations on your baby! I’m sorry your delight in him has been marred by this endless loop with your mother-in-law, with whom you are stuck in a vicious circle. What happened between the two of you was bound to happen, so you might as well be glad you’ve gotten it over with. There are a couple of strands here that need to be sorted. First, your husband has got to have a frank conversation with his mother. It’s unfair that he’s leaving this to you. It’s not up to you to find “a kinder way” to handle this; that’s his job. I think he’s being cowardly. (And while I’m on the subject of his relationship with his mother: if you’d rather she didn’t visit when he isn’t present, then do nothing to convince her to return to dropping in when you’re at home alone with the baby! (I doubt very much she’ll stick to her guns; you can only hope.)

I have a sneaking suspicion your mother-in-law feels perfectly competent to handle your son when you’re not there watching her—that she is a little bit afraid (or a lot afraid) of your judgment. You could test this theory. (I hasten to say you don’t have to. If you don’t feel right about leaving him with her, then don’t: her hurt feelings are not your first priority. But more on the matter of babysitting in a minute.) Try leaving the house for a couple of hours when your husband is at home and his mother is there too. Tell him (privately) before you leave that you expect his mother to do all the caretaking. He’s in a much better position to insist she feed him or change him than you are. (If she still refuses, the bonus will be that your husband will be even more likely to back you up.) If you want to further test my theory, go ahead and leave the baby alone with her briefly—long enough so that he’ll need something, but not so long that he’ll suffer if he doesn’t get it right away. I strongly suspect that if she’s alone with him, she’ll feed/diaper him, pick him up to soothe him, etc. (But I’m not 100 percent sure, so don’t stay out longer than 45 minutes, and make sure to leave when he’s awake and alert.)

In terms of your needing to get out of the house? If you do want a break from childcare, and you cannot trust your husband’s mother to watch the baby while you’re out, find a sitter you can trust, and pay for childcare. Your husband should be the one to break the news to his mother, not you. (The recurring theme here—in case you haven’t noticed—is your husband leaving you to deal with her. This has to stop now.)

—Michelle