Dear Prudence

Help! The Day I Gave Birth, I Became My Mother-in-Law’s Enemy.

They’re acting like children.

Older woman crying into her hands.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

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Q. Your Help Wasn’t Helpful: I recently had our second baby (the first is 14 months). My mother-in-law volunteered to stay at our house with our first while we were in the hospital. I felt a bit nervous about this, as my MIL has pretty severe anxiety and doesn’t often seem to be comfortable with what I would consider basic care tasks. I talked it through with my husband and he helped me see that I was really just feeling nervous about being away from my first baby for so long. Talking about anyone else staying with her didn’t make me feel any more comfortable. MIL also repeatedly stated she was very comfortable doing it and would enjoy the opportunity to help us.

C-section day comes and everything is smooth enough during the day. Then from 3 to 8 p.m., his mother calls six times with questions, sounding increasingly frazzled and with the baby screaming in the background by the last call (overtired). Between already being nervous and having postpartum hormones, I couldn’t handle it. I started sobbing and begging my husband to please just go home and take care of our daughter. He said he was not going to leave us alone that first night. But we agreed he would head home in the morning for a while. He called his sister, who did the 45-minute drive to our house to help their mother for the night.

The next day when he went back home to take over, his mother insisted on coming to stay with me at the hospital since it was “her fault he couldn’t be there.” He told her that wasn’t necessary as I was doing well. After telling him she understood, she came to the hospital to visit me and let me know that she planned on staying for the night to help. I told her the same things he already had as tactfully as I could and she started crying telling me how sorry she felt that she couldn’t be helping us at home so needed to be there to help. That was the end of what I could take.

I listed off the different things I might need help with overnight—getting the baby for breastfeeding, getting to and from the toilet, getting out of the shower, etc. and asked how she would feel about helping with those things. She said she wasn’t really sure she was comfortable yet moving the baby as he was so new, could step out each time I needed to breastfeed, and would help me as much as she could with hygiene tasks but “didn’t want to invade my privacy,” which she wouldn’t be comfortable with. I told her that it sounded like her being at the hospital with me was going to be as completely useless as her being at our house the night before had been and that she should just leave—and really should’ve listened in the first place and not even shown up. She left crying and I called my husband to tell him what happened.

He completely supported me, but I did feel a bit bad for upsetting her. He called his father, who had already received a call asking him to pick her up from the hospital as she was too upset to drive. I’m not sure how her version of the story went, but by the time we came home from the hospital the next day, we were enemies to them and there was “no need for them to visit and meet the baby as they clearly weren’t wanted as a part of our lives.” Personally, I’m fine with letting them act like children over this for a while and I’m sure they’ll eventually decide they want to be involved or need my husband to help them with something and will give in. My husband is feeling a bit guilty but is also upset with them. Do we reach out and try to talk through/smooth things over or just wait for them to come around?

A: What a horrible experience for you. I’m so sorry you were let down and didn’t have the help you deserved when you needed it most. The good news is, nobody was trying to be hurtful or unkind. It was just…a mess.

Your mother-in-law disappointed herself and you. She kind of has an excuse. (She’s getting older, and maybe slow to realize her new limitations, and has anxiety and was in over her head!) You were in an incredibly vulnerable state and lashed out. But you also totally have an excuse. (You just had your second baby in 15 months and needed some damn support that you could count on!) This can be fixed.

But not today. Give yourself some time. I feel like six weeks is kind of the magic number when things start to feel a tiny bit more normal after having a baby, so give it six weeks, more or less. At that point, think about which part of this situation you can take responsibility for and apologize for. You have nothing to be sorry for when it comes to expecting the help that was promised or for being deeply disappointed and saying so. But maybe you could reach out and say you wish you hadn’t blown up at her or spoken to her unkindly. Wrap it up in something about how stressed you were and… if you can muster it, tell her you know she meant well and appreciate her efforts and ask if she’d like to come see the kids.

If she’s still mad and says no, that’s on her.

If she says yes, the best way to avoid a similar situation in the future is to take a lesson from what happened and never depend on her again. She is going to be a grandmother who visits for her own entertainment, not to help. If you are feeling extremely generous you can ask her to assist with small things that don’t actually matter, kind of like how you would ask a toddler to “help” you sweep, using their subpar hand-eye coordination and useless little broom, mostly to entertain them. For example, you could ask her to pair the baby’s socks. If she does it, great. If she gets overwhelmed because they’re so tiny and have so many different patterns and stops, nobody cares because you’re only really going to use that one pair that doesn’t fall off anyway. But you simply can’t rely on her for anything. The sooner you and your husband accept that, the sooner you’ll be able to be around her without being resentful.

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