Care and Feeding

I Won’t Leave My Parents Alone With My Kid

Am I being unreasonable?

A grandmother looks annoyed.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by jsmith/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 son is turning 2 right before Halloween. His maternal grandparents (my parents) are currently in a snit fit with me and are refusing to speak to me or my husband. The last time they were here, they got too drunk (both are alcoholics), and threw a tantrum when we wouldn’t let them pick up our son. We know we cannot control the drinking— thank you, Al-Anon!— and we were simply looking out for our child’s safety. I’ve tried multiple times to have a calm conversation with them since, and they refuse and instead claim that I owe THEM an apology for making them feel unwelcome.

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They’ve now taken to posting ambiguous, passive aggressive junk on Facebook, painting themselves as the victim and me as the villain who’s withholding their only grandchild. I generally try to be the bigger, more mature person because my family at large has trouble with actual, tough conversations. I have told them many times they’re more than welcome to come to our son’s birthday celebration, but the attacks on me continue. Is there anything I can do? I feel like they want me to capitulate, beg forgiveness, and plead for them to join us, which I will not do. I don’t see how I did anything wrong, especially compared to their actions, but I hate that lies are being spread about me and my husband.

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—Birthday Blues

Dear Birthday,

You did nothing wrong, and nothing they say online changes that. I’m sorry they’re spreading lies, but I would step away from that arena. Don’t engage on Facebook. (If I were you, I’d block them, to be honest. You don’t need to see any of that.) It doesn’t matter what they say about you and your husband: you know the truth (and I’m betting there are many others who know the truth too, but who stay quiet for fear of antagonizing them). I think it’s extraordinary that you continue to tell them they’re welcome to join you for the birthday celebration. I love watching someone counter ugliness and meanness and out-of-control behavior with generosity, kindness, and calm. My hat’s off to you. Now do your best to ignore their tantrum. If they do show up at the party, and they show up drunk, you may need to ask them to leave—but you can cross the bridge when you come to it. I have a feeling you have many bridges to cross, where your parents are concerned. Godspeed.

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Slate Plus Members Get More Advice From Michelle Herman Each Week

From this week’s letter, My 20-Year-Old Has a Ridiculous New Look. Can I Say Something?: The eyelashes look cartoonish to me; they make her look like she’s not a serious person.”

Dear Care and Feeding,

I have what may sound like a bizarre question—I mean, the answer should be obvious. But I’m struggling and could really use an unbiased perspective. It’s taken me decades of therapy to finally (and very recently) come to terms with the fact that I was physically and emotionally abused by my mother. I normalized the abuse by somehow convincing myself that all kids get hit, screamed at, and bullied in their homes. My mom was well-liked in the community—a professional, polished woman—how could she be a monster? I convinced myself that I somehow deserved it. I hated myself for failing to protect my sister, who she beat even harder and who today suffers from PTSD.

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No one but my sister, my husband, and I know this side of her: to the community and to my in-laws, she’s a perfectly put-together, loving woman. I would like to be able to say that now that her daughters are grown, she behaves the way others believe and expect her to behave. But recently she raged at me in public. And although I’m well aware that when she feels “attacked,” she screams and says things I wouldn’t dream of saying to another human being, it was still extremely upsetting to me. Yet I still love her!

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Since this recent incident, I’ve put significant space between us (blocked her phone number) both to give myself time to heal from what just happened and to fully process this overall realization about my childhood. So far, so good. But now I find myself thinking a lot about how my husband and I are planning to have children in the next few years, and how for as long as I can remember, my mom has talked about how excited she is to be a grandmother and how she plans to move to whatever neighborhood my husband and I settle in! I never thought I’d need to shield my future kids from her, because of the decades I spent rationalizing her behavior. But now that I can see clearer, I want to know if what’s occurred to me is really true. We can never leave our future children alone with her, right? It sounds strange to even contemplate this since she’s my mother—and everyone in our extended family/community think she’d be an awesome grandmother. I guess I just need someone to validate what I feel in my gut, which is that it’s never OK to leave children with someone who has a history of child abuse.

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—Gut Feeling

Dear GF,

I am glad to validate what you already know, and to add a stipulation to it: Yes, you should never leave your children with someone who has a history of child abuse … and who is still exhibiting any variety of the abusive behavior—and who has never recognized it as abuse and taken steps to get better and be better.

I believe that people can change. I believe that they can heal (we all know that it’s hurt people who hurt people). In the process of that healing, I believe they can come to understand the roots of their harm-doing, and stop doing harm. Your mother does not appear to be anywhere near that process, and you are right to shield your children from her, when you have them, if nothing changes between now and then.

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Be aware that it is very hard and very painful to do what you are trying to do. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s easy to shut one’s mother out of one’s life. Our connections to our mothers—even to our terrible mothers—are primal. They are foundational to our very being. And as even a casual reader of my column knows, I am loathe to recommend the cutting-off of any family members except in the most extreme cases (which I am afraid this one may be).

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I would say this: If you have not yet read your mother chapter and verse of the abuse you suffered at her hands throughout your own childhood, now—or soon, before there are grandchildren—is the time to do that. She will not like it. It will take a good deal of fortitude on your part, as she will most likely rage at you again. And I make no promises (in fact I have grave doubts), but it is at least dimly possible that, if you do this, she will be forced to confront her own demons, will have no choice but to reckon with what she has done, and will then be moved to get the help she needs.

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If, as I fear, nothing changes (or if you have already been frank with her) and you must limit or entirely disallow her contact with your children, I imagine you will find yourself struggling, at least in part, with your fear that others will judge you harshly for this, given her reputation. Your mother herself is likely to amplify the narrative that she is being mistreated. But you know the truth, and you don’t have to justify yourself to anyone. If confronted by others, you might say, “There’s more to this situation than you know.” If confronted by your mother, I’d be more direct: “You cannot be trusted.” And if she claims mystification, shock, and hurt feelings (which presumably will lead to her raging at you again), stay quiet. When the attack on you is done, you might say, quietly, “Exactly.” And let that be the end of that. My heart will be with you if this is where you land.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

Five years ago my 85-year-old mother was admitted to the hospital with a life-threatening illness. After she was discharged, my younger brother, who fancies himself the most prosperous of her four children, peremptorily convinced her to sell her condominium and vehicle and move to his large house in another state. There was no meaningful consultation with my two sisters or me about this plan, which was, for many reasons, against our collective judgment. Shortly after she moved, I became aware that she was not getting along with my brother’s husband, and within 14 months they demanded that she vacate their home or they “would put her in a nursing home.”

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My mother then came to live with me and my wife, who at the time was in the throes of chemotherapy for breast cancer, in a cabin in the mountains for 16 months before we could find a suitable assisted living facility. After my mother’s recent death and in the context of my brother’s refusal to attend a memorial service and the burial of her ashes, he asserted that he had “made his peace with” our mother while she was dying in the hospital. I responded that I felt he had never made peace with his sisters or me over his reversal of his professed intention to take care of her “for the rest of her life” and that I expected he could at least acknowledge that he had made some mistakes in the process of making such irrevocable changes to my mother’s life. He has refused to admit that he made any mistakes or errors in judgment. Are my sisters and I wrong to expect some contrition and/or acknowledgment that he handled the situation badly?

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—Resentful Brother

Dear Resentful,

Listen, you’re not “wrong” to hope that your brother will admit he bungled this, that he will express contrition and sorrow and, I suppose, even regret—and I imagine that hearing this from him might make you and your sisters feel a little bit better. The question is: better about what? Your relationship with your brother henceforth? Certainly your mother is beyond restitution now.

I completely understand your anger (full disclosure: I still haven’t completely gotten over my eldest uncle moving his mother—my grandmother, the person I was closest to in the world—out of the apartment she’d called home for eighty years into one near his, where she felt isolated, to make life easier for him … and both my uncle and my grandmother have been dead for decades). But I am going to hazard a guess here that there was a divide between your brother and his three siblings before the situation you describe and this was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.

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I will note that while it’s never wrong to hope or wish or even ask for something, it is never reasonable to expect it, and even less to demand it. It doesn’t sound like what you expect of your brother is on the horizon. Now what you have to decide is whether you are going to use—or allow—this to be the justification you may be itching for to distance yourself from your brother, or to cut him off entirely. Is that what you want? And if not, can you accept that he may never apologize or even explain himself?

Sometimes relationships that matter to us do require us to forgive those we believe should be the ones seeking forgiveness. I’m not saying you have to do that. I’m just saying you could.

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

Dear Care and Feeding,

What counts as “screen time”? My wife and I (both women) have an almost 6-month-old and, while we haven’t sat her down in front of the TV and put on something for her to watch, she is around an “on” TV pretty often. More specifically, we use grandparent daycare two times a week (center-based daycare the other three days a week) and my parents are fond of old black-and-white movies, so those are on in the background while they play with her. And they really do play with her. Every moment she’s at their house, they are laser-focused on her. We also watch football together as a family every weekend.  But my wife and I—and my parents too—are never just holding her while sitting and staring at the TV. We’re all interacting with her: laughing at her blowing raspberries, singing songs, kissing her sweet freaking face, talking to her, getting her rolling over etc.

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Our daughter doesn’t seem to notice the TV any differently than she notices, say, colorful pictures hanging on the wall, but will that change as she grows? My parents are in their 70’s and I don’t think their “TV as background noise” habit is going to change. TV as constant background noise is how I grew up too; the TV was just always on in the background while we talked, laughed, played games, ate, whatever. (Honestly, I’m not even sure why because we’re a really talkative, lively family, so it’s just noise underneath our noise.) My wife and I kept saying we were going to get as close to the recommended “no screen time until at least 2 years old” as possible and then we realized we might have already blown that. Have we? For context, I’d say she’s around an “on” TV for about 10 hours a week (OK, so even typing that out makes me wonder if I’ve already answered my own question) but she has only ever “watched” the TV for 30 seconds (a few weeks back she was VERY mesmerized by a pizza commercial that came on and we all found it pretty funny). So, what counts as screen time? Have we already messed this up?

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—Screen Time Failures?

Dear STF,

Nah. You’re OK. I’m going to make my own ruling here (maybe I should copyright it!) that “screen time” for children is the time they spend actively staring at and engaged with a screen. Incidental background TV, like what your parents keep on all day long without watching it, is officially NBD (as long as it’s not violent or scary, of course). And those family football-watching afternoons, when the four of you are playing with her while the game is on, are OK in my book too.

In short: you have not already messed this up. Go easy on yourself. You’re doing fine.

—Michelle

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