Care and Feeding

I’ve Reached My Tipping Point With My Mother-in-Law’s Favoritism

A grandmother hugs her granddaughter.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Sam Edwards/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,

I am struggling with my mother-in-law’s treatment of my children. My husband and I have two kids, ages 6 and 3, and my husband’s sister also has two, ages 4 and 2. The cousins love each other and get along well. My husband and I are close with his sister and her husband, and we all really enjoy each other’s company. But Grandma has a very clear preference for her daughter’s children. On the one hand, the preference is somewhat understandable, as Grandma has always been closer with her daughter (youngest child and only girl) than she is with my husband, and her daughter also lives closer by and sees and talks to her mother more often than my husband does, so over the years I’ve just accepted this as a fact of the family and tried my best not to take it personally.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

However, the favoritism is getting worse as time goes on, and I can see my oldest child becoming uncomfortable and even a bit fearful of his grandmother. He hasn’t expressed to me directly that he notices the difference in how she treats him versus his cousins, but it’s clearly affecting him and his relationship with Grandma. Most recently, we attended a holiday party hosted by extended family. We happened to arrive at the same time as my sister-in-law and her children. Grandma jumped up and showered them with affection while my two children stood there waiting. She didn’t even bother saying hello. (She later said a dry hello to my 6-year-old and shook his hand, which struck me as very odd and deliberately cold.)

Advertisement
Advertisement

My mother-in-law also leaps at any opportunity to babysit her daughter’s children. Meanwhile, my husband asks her to babysit once a year on our anniversary, and she makes a big deal about it being a huge favor. She made a point of telling us—multiple times—that we would not get a Christmas present because she had agreed to babysit.

I do not mean to suggest that we feel entitled to free childcare. We don’t. But this disparity, and the increasing emphasis she seems to be placing on it (including in front of our children), seems mean-spirited and potentially damaging to our kids. (I should note too that our children are not particularly difficult.)

Advertisement

Up to now, I have avoided confronting her about this, but it’s bothering me more and more. How can my husband and I approach her about this? Or should we just continue to accept that this is how she is and address it with our children as things come up? It seems unlikely to us that she’ll change her behavior, but part of me wants to have the direct conversation for the sake of our children and in the (naïve?) hope that she doesn’t fully realize she’s doing it and will course-correct. Thanks for your help!

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

—The Unfavored Ones

Dear TUO,

You may know that I am a proponent of frank conversation with those we love when trouble arises. I value clarity, honesty, authenticity, and mutual trust, even when the going gets rough. But your situation is not a bump in the road: it’s a longstanding issue, and you yourself note that it likely is linked to your mother-in-law’s close relationship to her daughter and the fact that she has considerably more contact with her and her children (and therefore, presumably, knows them better) than with you and yours. To be perfectly honest with you, it’s not at all clear to me that taking this up with Grandma would be in the least helpful. Even in the (I suspect) very unlikely event that she isn’t aware that she prefers her daughter’s kids to yours—and that her preference is visible to all—I can’t imagine that making her aware of it would change the way she feels about the two sets of kids (or, perhaps more to the point, the two of her own kids). I don’t like the way she’s treating your kids either! But I don’t think you can fix this; I think the only purpose served by having it out with her would be getting all the anger that’s been building up in you “off your chest.” And how would that help matters?

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Would it be helpful if your husband talked to her? Maybe. But only if his purpose were to break down the distance between his mother and him, to help clear a path toward his and your children. And this wouldn’t happen overnight. (And something tells me this is not on the table anyway.) If I were you, I’d consider Grandma a lost cause. I’d strictly limit time spent with her, I would never ask her to babysit, I’d spend time with your sister-in-law and her husband and kids without Grandma, and on the occasions when you have no choice but to have your children in Grandma’s presence, be prepared to talk to them about her behavior toward them, why it’s wrong, and how it’s not their fault. (If your husband objects to this draconian plan, then see my suggestion at the top of this paragraph: it’s on him to see if this dynamic can be changed.)

Advertisement
Advertisement

New Year, Same Problems

For an upcoming special edition of Care and Feeding, we want to hear about the messy situations plaguing you that you’d like to shed in the new year. A pet fox corrupting daughter? A 10-year-old behind the wheel? Harsh PTA crackdowns? Submit your questions anonymously here. (Questions may be edited for publication.)

Dear Care and Feeding,

I write to you with a grandparent dilemma. We are a family of four (mother, father, 7-year-old son, 20-month-year-old daughter). We live near the maternal grandparents and the children have a very close, loving relationship with them. These grandparents, whom we see weekly, get down on the floor to play with them, make special foods for them when they come over, give them lots of presents, and in general have a “typical,” happy, spoil-the-grandkids attitude toward them. We live a plane ride away from the paternal grandmother (the grandfather has passed). She is a “children should be seen not heard” type who does love our kids but leans towards discipline, sternness, and enforcing traditional gender roles. Both kids love their maternal grandparents to the point that they would rather be at their house than at home with their parents. But during our (typically twice yearly) visits with their paternal grandmother they do not enjoy being in her presence. The 7-year-old complains about having to visit her, and the baby will not willingly go near her. This is hurtful to Dad and is causing tension between Dad and Mom. Dad is distressed that his kids don’t want to be around his mother; Mom feels this is partly due to the type of person her mother-in-law is. What can we do to foster more of a relationship with Dad’s mother?

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

—Don’t Want to Travel

Dear DWtT,

Since your signoff eliminates one obvious way to nudge that relationship along—because no matter what “type of person” the less-loved Grandma is, since your kids don’t know her, they are not going to be anywhere near as comfortable with her as they are with the grandparents they see every week—if Mom and Dad sincerely want there to be a stronger connection between Dad’s mother and the kids, you two might fly Grandma to you several times a year for visits. It’s unreasonable to suppose that the children will leap into their paternal grandmother’s arms twice a year. The baby doesn’t even recognize her as a relative!

Advertisement

But of course even if you’re willing to invest (financially and emotionally) in more time for the kids and their paternal grandmother, if her behavior and attitude toward the kids is more distant than their other set of grandparents, they will never be as close to her as they are to them. Dad can see with his own eyes, can’t he, that Mom’s parents are more engaged, warmer, and more fun? If he hopes to foster an equally loving relationship between the kids and his mother, I’ll offer the same advice as I did to the dad in The Unfavored Ones, above: he needs to have a talk—or several talks—with his mother. I can’t say that I hold out much hope that this will make a difference (in The Unfavored Ones’ situation or yours) but it’s worth a try.

Advertisement

I do want to add this personal note, though: this sort of imbalance was a part of my own childhood and my daughter’s. It happens. It’s not a tragedy. The person who is most affected by this disparity is the less-engaged grandparents’ child, who is an adult and must find a way to deal with his own hurt feelings. (My father’s attitude toward my preference for my mother’s parents, by the way, was, “Who can blame her?”)

Advertisement

Slate Plus Members Get More Advice from Michelle Each Week

From this week’s letter, I Can’t Believe What Just Went Down in My Kid’s Math Class: “It drives me nuts that teachers call out kids publicly like this.”

Advertisement

Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband and I have two kids, a 20-month-old girl and a 4-month-old boy. We are discussing options for when I return to work in two months. We have full-time spots for both kids at a great daycare lined up, but my husband, who can work from home up to three days a week, has been suggesting that we drop the daycare down to part-time for each kid and have them stay home with him 2-3 days a week. I brought up my concern that fully caring for two kids of those ages while working from home would be very challenging, especially as he has an unpredictable job that requires on-demand availability for meetings and phone calls. And in-person meetings are also randomly called, even on days when he would otherwise be at home.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

My husband brushed away these concerns: he says many people he works with have been home watching their kids while working since the office first shut for Covid, and that he would just call his (retired) mother, who lives nearby, to help if needed. I told him that most of the people he works with have older kids who require less direct supervision, and the ones who do have younger kids have generally seen both the quantity and quality of their work and availability decrease while caring for their kids—which has been a big complaint of his about them! I know that he wouldn’t “slack” with his work while watching the kids; I think he would constantly feel pulled in two directions. I also hesitate to have his mom watch the kids when he can’t. She had already offered to provide full-time care for them instead of having us use daycare, and my husband and I agreed that this was a bad idea for many reasons (she has different priorities than we do, she is resistant to suggestions/changes in childcare procedures, she has many doctors’ appointments that would leave gaps in her availability, etc.)—and it was he who brought up most of these drawbacks.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Nevertheless, he is still strongly in favor of trying out his plan. Should I keep fighting to have the kids be full-time at daycare, or do I agree to a trial period, with a plan to revisit the decision after seeing how it’s going (after, say, a month)? The danger of the latter option is that if we enroll the kids part-time, we may not be able to adjust that up to full-time if (when?) it’s not working—it’s not that easy to get a full-time spot.

—Not Back Yet and Already Stressing

Dear NBYaAS,

I’m with you. Your husband is not being realistic. I don’t think he has any idea what it’s going to be like (and you do). But instead of continuing to fight over this, which doesn’t seem to be getting you anywhere, can you give him a taste of what it will be like? If you’re anything like me, you’ll be loath to leave your kids for a whole day multiple times during this period when you’d otherwise be able to be with them, but if that’s what it takes to show (rather than tell) your naïve husband what full-time care of two babies and full-time work from home looks like, it’s worth it. (One day won’t be enough—unless you luck out and it’s a day when his work is especially demanding and unpredictable [and you extract a promise that he will not fall back on his mother]—because it’s possible that he’ll luck out and it’ll be an easy, quiet day.) But whether you demonstrate what it will actually be like or not, stand your ground. When you go back to work, you need to know that your children are being cared for in a way that you can count on, trust, and not be anxious about. If the daycare you’ve selected meets those criteria, go for it. (Tell him you’re willing to revisit his plan when the children are older!)

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Catch Up on Care and Feeding

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

Dear Care and Feeding,

My extended family’s Christmas together at a gorgeous tropical resort was marred by a fight my sister and I got into. We each have three kids under 10. Mine are not allowed fast food, sweets, sugary drinks, and anything containing high-fructose corn syrup except on special occasions, whereas hers have zero limits regarding food, and are all significantly overweight if not obese. When it comes to sun protection, however, we’re the opposite. All of our kids wear the strongest sunscreen available and we reapply it frequently, but mine are allowed to swim and play in the water wearing swimsuits, while my sister’s kids have to wear full-body wetsuits and wide-brimmed hats at all times. As a result, they can only wade, not actually swim, or they’d lose their hats (and her oldest is too big for a child’s wetsuit, so she had to buy him an adult one and shorten the arms and legs). Even away from the beach, they’re not allowed to wear shorts or short-sleeved shirts outdoors, which—combined with their weight issues—causes them to get hot, tired, and irritable much faster than my kids do. (I’ll note that my kids do have loose coverups to wear out of the water, but I can’t bring myself to deprive them of the sensations of wind and sea on their bodies!)

Advertisement
Advertisement

My sister made a comment while we were on vacation together about my kids dying of skin cancer, then got upset when I retorted that that was less likely than hers dying of diabetes, heart disease, or cancers that obesity raises the risk for. This turned into a huge hullaballoo that almost ruined the holiday. So now that we’ve both calmed down, we’ve decided to ask an expert. What are the relative dangers of childhood obesity versus sun exposure? Would the best practice be to combine my family’s rules about food with my sister’s about sun? Or is this something that good parents can reasonably disagree on?

Advertisement

—Sugar vs. Sunshine

Dear Sugar,

Wait—you’re writing to an advice column asking for “expert” advice on matters of health? OK, I’ll bite (I guess). This “expert” rules that both you and your sister are behaving abominably. She told you that your kids are going to die of skin cancer? And then you listed the horrible deaths her kids were more likely to have? What is wrong with the two of you? Don’t ever speak to each other this way. I hope that along with calming down, you have both expressed your deepest apologies, begged forgiveness, and promised each other and yourselves you would never, ever say such a thing again.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

And let’s take this a step farther. Stop criticizing each other’s childrearing methods. They are none of your business. Your judgment of your sister’s parenting in particular oozes superiority.

Make a vow right now to cut it out.

But since you go to such great lengths to ridicule your sister’s excesses when it comes to sun protection (and sure, I agree that it sounds like a bit much, and goes much farther than what is recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics, but—I’ll say it again—this is none of your business), I want to point out that despite the unrelenting barrage of “news” about the “epidemic of childhood obesity” (I feel I needn’t link to a news story about this, since it seems as if there’s a new one nearly every day), there are other ways to think about this. If you have any interest in learning more about why your attitude (and, I bet, behavior) toward your sister’s kids, and the words you use to describe them, are doing them harm, give a listen to the fascinating podcast, Maintenance Phase, hosted by Aubrey Gordon, who wrote the Op-Ed I just linked to, or read Gordon’s just-out new book. In other words: don’t assume you already know everything. (And don’t take that comment personally. If it were your sister writing to me, I’d tell her not to assume she knows everything.)

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

One more thing, in closing: if you two can’t coexist peaceably despite your differing ideas about how best to protect your own children, don’t take vacations together, for God’s sake.

OK, I was lying. One more thing: Those kids of hers are almost certain to rebel in a big way when it comes to sun protection once they hit their teens—Sis will be lucky if they wear sunscreen. And yours, for whom junk food is the forbidden fruit, will probably stuff themselves with it first chance they get. And whether they do or they don’t, if the day ever comes when any of your own kids don’t meet your definition of right-sized people, I dearly hope you won’t refer to them as being “overweight or even obese.”

—Michelle

More Advice From Slate

My husband and I are expecting our first child. We’re both in graduate school and have a pretty tight income right now. We have lots of flexibility with our schedules, but both have a lot of work to accomplish, and that work takes a lot of mental energy and focus. We qualify for a child care subsidy that would put day care within the realm of possibility. My husband is open to this but has suggested we split up the childcare between us. I’m deeply skeptical. What should we do?

Advertisement