Care and Feeding

Uh, My Mother-in-Law Has Some Weird Ideas About Our Relationship. I … Do Not Agree.

Apparently I missed a big memo!

An older woman and younger one seem to be having an argument.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Prostock-Studio/iStock/Getty Images Plus. 

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here.

Dear Care and Feeding,

A recent interaction with my mother-in-law has left me wondering if I’m super off-base with how I view the relationship. My husband and I had discussed whether or not we wanted to do an annual family holiday activity with his parents or on our own (us and our kids). I was fine with either, so I told him that and said that since it’s his family, I’d leave it for him to make the decision, just let me know. Later, when we were with his parents, they brought up the activity and asked if we would be joining them or going on our own. My husband said we had talked about it a bit but hadn’t come to a final decision, and asked me what I was thinking. I repeated what I had said earlier: “I’m fine with either arrangement, so your family, your decision.” His mother made a bit of a face at the time that I didn’t really think much of. Later, she pulled me aside and told me it had been very hurtful to hear me identify them as “his family.” She said they think of me as their daughter and had assumed I thought of them as my family. Now, don’t get me wrong, I feel more of a connection to these people than random strangers on the street, but I don’t think it’s inappropriate to think of them as my husband’s family rather than my own. While the way I think of them probably won’t change, I’ll be more careful of the language I use in front of them in the future, but is this really that strange?

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— One Big Happy Family

Dear Happy Family,

Eh, I think you’re fine.
They are literally your family—in law—but the in-law category is a broad one that runs the gamut from “I’d never speak to these people if I weren’t married to their child” to “I love them more than my own family!” and vice versa from “I tolerate my son’s barely tolerable spouse” to, as you encountered, “look, a new daughter!” (I will add that it’s nice that they see you as their child, but if I wanted someone to think of me as family and they didn’t, I’d probably ask myself why, and make sure that I was actually loving and treating them like family instead of simply telling them how they ought to feel!) I assume you weren’t trying to wound them, but be gracious and defer to your husband’s wishes regarding your plans with them. Now that you know your mother-in-law is sensitive about the wording you chose, it would be considerate of you to avoid repeating it. But so long as you’re kind and polite to them, it’s okay to think of your in-laws as just that.

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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,

We have two adult sons, ages 32 and 34, who are both married and live on opposite sides of the country. My husband and I each retired within the past two years and decided we wanted to move away from our snowy Midwest home. Our oldest son, “Eric,” has three children and lives in a mid-sized city on the East Coast. Our youngest, “Ben,” only has one and lives in the mountains on the West Coast. Wanting to be near one of them, we investigated homes in both areas and ultimately decided to move to Eric’s city. Homes are more affordable there, plus Eric’s three children are more in need of babysitting than Ben’s one child.

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In the six months since we made our decision, Ben has been cold and distant with us. He’s always been reluctant to express his emotions. He did ask for one conversation in which he said he felt really hurt that we basically chose his brother over him, and resentful because this reflected a pattern of things coming more easily to his brother (it’s true—Ben has many learning disabilities and differences that have made his path harder). Ben also feels like we are “holding his feet to the fire” by making it clear that if he wants our in-person support, he’ll have to move to the East Coast as well, which he can’t do because of his spouse’s career. Now that we’re settled in Eric’s city, I’m feeling more and more anxious and feel that we shouldn’t have chosen one of our sons over the other. Every gathering with Eric’s family is tinged with sadness over the hurt feelings this decision caused. It doesn’t help that Eric frequently gloats about free childcare to Ben. Making a decision hasn’t brought peace, it’s only brought sadness for me. Did we make the wrong choice? What do retired parents owe their adult children?

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— Stuck in the South

Dear Stuck,

You and your husband have every right to choose where you live and what you will do with your time; you don’t automatically owe your adult children either your close proximity or unlimited free babysitting throughout your golden years. You said that you’re feeling anxious because you chose one son over the other—an echo, I couldn’t help noticing, of Ben’s accusation—but I don’t think that’s how you should be thinking about it. You’ve chosen a new home, a place where you want to spend your retirement, after taking many factors into account.

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Ben is hurt and disappointed, and he’s entitled to his feelings. What he’s not entitled to do is say where and how you should spend your retirement. I’m guessing you’ve already tried explaining your reasoning for your move, and why you thought it was the right decision for you. It likely hasn’t worked because his response isn’t based on reason or logic, but on his feelings, which stem from more than this one decision. Whether or not he has valid reasons to believe that you prefer his brother to him, you’ve acknowledged that other issues and tensions predated your relocation. (Eric, a grown-ass man in his thirties, should probably also recognize this, and definitely refrain from gloating about free childcare to his brother.) I am not excusing Ben’s behavior, but I doubt he would have reacted this way to the move—or still be so upset six months later—if everything was fine before.

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Given that, I don’t think it’s going to be helpful to focus solely on the move. What other aspects of your relationship, past or present, may have led Ben to feel and react this way? That’s the part I’d be curious about. If I were you, I’d try to talk with him about it, perhaps in person—I assume you’re still going to try to visit as often as you can. He may or may not have a good reason to feel wounded; you may feel that his take on your relationship with him and his brother, or your overall family dynamic, is completely wrong and unfair. But if you want things to get better, you might need to have that larger conversation, and at least try to address the other issues affecting your relationship.

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Slate Plus Members Get More Advice From Nicole Each Week

From this week’s letter, Apparently I Just Exploded a Longtime Friendship, and My Daughter Is Collateral Damage: To be honest, the situation has given me a lot of insecurity and I can’t seem to let it go.”

Dear Care and Feeding,

I know this column often gets questions about dangerous dogs and kids. I have one about a dog that isn’t dangerous, but is nevertheless stressful and sometimes scary to my kids. My in-laws have a young Jack Russell terrier. He’s not a bad or aggressive dog.
He’s normal for his breed—very energetic and jumpy. He still jumps on people a TON, he licks people often (more than almost any other dog I’ve known), and when he gets hold of something like a toy or hat, he does the terrier thing of being extremely reluctant to let go.

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Our kids don’t like being around the dog. I think it’s understandable. For adults, he’s jumping at knee or waist level. But for our kids—6 and almost 3—he’s jumping up to their shoulder or face level. And it’s not just when we first come in, it’s throughout the visit. I would hate that too. While we’ve explained that the licking is a sign of affection, I think it’s also totally fine to not want dog saliva all over your face and arms. My kids used to be scared of the dog for the entire length of visits, but now they are often okay with us not carrying them when the dog is around. They try to tough it out and be around the dog more. But I don’t like seeing them cringing and very clearly uncomfortable with the jumping and licking throughout our visits. My in-laws and even my husband treat it as something they need to get over: They keep explaining to the kids how it’s fine and telling them that tolerating the dog is what big kids do. But I don’t really think this is an our-kids problem. They’re entitled to want space from the dog. If this were a human relative that kept foisting unwanted hugs and kisses on our kids, I know my husband would be supportive of them setting boundaries.

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How should I handle this? My in-laws will balk at the suggestion of crating the dog or putting him in another room during visits, but should I push it anyway? I really like most dogs but didn’t grow up with them the way my husband did, so I’m kind of doubting myself here.

— Consider the Kids’ Perspective

Dear Consider the Kids,

I certainly think it’s fair to ask your in-laws to work on finding solutions to the jumping problem, given your kids’ discomfort—even if they’re in no danger, they shouldn’t have to be jumped on all the time. You mentioned that the dog is young, so maybe training is a work in progress?

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I have a very friendly 2-year-old dog who used to jump on visitors in her excitement, and occasionally still tries it. We used to harness and leash her right before anyone entered the house to prevent the jumping from happening in the first place. On the advice of our trainer, we also taught her to sit or at least have four on the floor before a visitor would greet or pet her, and then the positive attention became the reward for the behavior we wanted. Sometimes I will still use a harness and leash, particularly if there are small kids coming over—it makes jumping tough, if not impossible, and seems to be a settle-down cue for her as well (with her ability to roam restricted, she’ll often just curl up near us and go to sleep). If your in-laws are going to fight you on crating the dog or putting him in another room, perhaps asking them to at least use a leash might be a decent compromise? Hopefully they will also work on the basic training that is their responsibility, for the sake of your kids and anyone else who visits their house.

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Catch Up on Care and Feeding

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

Dear Care and Feeding,

I currently have a 7th grader who does well in school—not in gifted classes but manages straight As, enjoys school and learning. It’s widely accepted by the parents in our district that middle school is “easy” and straight As are not anything special because it’s basically just a reflection that you did the work/homework and passed the test, with ample opportunity to do retests, extra credit, etc. Obviously, I don’t mention this to my child and allow them to be happy and proud of their accomplishments.

The issue comes with the approaching high school courses. When I was in high school, we were tracked based on our grades/abilities, i.e. you were “smart” enough for AP classes so there you landed, sink or swim. Apparently in this district, the kids/parents can choose what level of classes the kid wants to take, and all I can seem to figure out is the difficulty is based on the amount of work the kid wants to do. Who “wants” to do more work in high school? They are separated into Accelerated, Honors, or College Prep. How in the world can you decide what level your kid should be in if middle school is so easy that nearly everyone does well? I don’t want them to aim too high and have them drowning or too low and be breezing through and not needing to apply themselves. Is this the new norm in high school?

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— Hazy on High School Choice

Dear Hazy,

I’m not sure about the norm: I’m more familiar with a process whereby teachers and counselors recommend which classes a student should take, and then the students (and their families) decide. I’d be surprised if progress wasn’t tracked at all in your district—the schools have records of grades, teacher notes, standardized test scores. Not that there exists any perfect means of assessing a student’s academic potential based on these things; I’m just saying, it’s not as if they have no information to go on.

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I’d set up some calls with or email your kid’s teachers next year, maybe talk with their guidance counselor or whoever it is that keeps the records of their test scores, and see if they have specific thoughts or recommendations as you head into the high school years. Your kid should have the opportunity to talk with a counselor or administrator who may have more information about high school and/or more specific recommendations for them. It’s good to talk with your child (you probably already do!) about what they want to do and what they’re most interested in—usually taking one advanced class doesn’t mean you have to take a full slate of them. Maybe your kid finds math fun (idk, cannot relate) and wants to take the most challenging algebra class, but isn’t sure they want to start with the hardest English or history class. You could also chat with friends whose kids are already in high school and find out how it’s gone for them so far, what their workloads are like, etc.

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If in the end you really have no idea what to do and don’t get guidance from the school, honestly, I might just aim for the middle—go with the Honors track, and then make adjustments based on how that goes. I know high school feels higher-stakes, and it is, but I also think a little trial and error is unavoidable, because your kid won’t really know what it’s like until they get there. Whether middle school was a cinch or not, it’s great that they’re starting with a history of good grades—hopefully that helps them feel more confident and excited going into high school. Keep communication open, and try to know how they’re generally feeling about their tests and assignments throughout their freshman year (“How are you feeling about your classes?” is almost always a better question than “What are you doing in your classes?”). If they are ever bored or struggling to keep up, of course that’s not ideal, but I’ll bet if that happens you will be able to adjust and problem-solve together.

Nicole

More Advice From Slate

This is an extremely low-stakes question, but I thought I’d ask. My 2-year-old will not wear gloves or mittens, will not put her hands in her pockets, and will not hold onto hand warmers. Yet she is pretty sensitive to cold, and once her hands get cold, she cries at the park and all the way home. We live in Chicago, and so are in the early days of six months of cold. Any suggestions?

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