Care and Feeding

My In-Laws’ Shenanigans Have Gone Way Too Far

A grandmother stands in profile.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by 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,

The last time my husband and I visited his parents, we had a big conflict. My son was 18 months old, and without explaining where we were going—he told us we were going on “a nice short trip”—he took us all on a very dangerous boulder-hopping trip in their not-so recreational vehicle. My son cried the whole time as we dodged branches and tried to stay upright as the tiny vehicle swayed left to right. I was furious. I confronted him afterwards, and he brushed it off as no big deal. That night he made some very passive aggressive comments to my son about our reaction, so we packed up and left early the next morning. We haven’t been back since.

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We’ve since had another baby. My MIL was pretty helpful, staying at our house through the labor until I came home. She took time off work and tried to be as helpful as she could.

Just after that, though, my husband and MIL got into a big fight (which they never do). When he asked her to come for a night to help bring him to a doctor appointment, she said she would only if we brought our newborn and 2-year-old to an upcoming family reunion. Thirty people would be there, many having traveled, so because of Covid we kindly said we weren’t comfortable with that arrangement and we’d find an alternative ride. My MIL blew up.

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I removed her from my social media accounts but send daily pics of the grandkids. This crushed her. She went off the map with intense sadness, texting that she was crying all day. We met with her a couple of times to discuss new boundaries: We will never force the kids to do something unless it’s best for them first; we have to have an open dialogue from now on about feelings; if she wants time with the kids she needs to initiate it.)

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We also listed a number of dangerous situations Grandpa put our toddler in and admitted we were avoiding visiting them and would continue to do so until he could assure us that he would keep things age-appropriate for them for now on. She secretly recorded us during the meeting and told us afterwards she was showing Grandpa the recording. His response was that he would not change, no matter what, but wanted to think it through. Whatever that means.

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Cut to today, five months later. My relationship with my MIL is cold and distant. She comes down to visit, takes our now 3-year-old out on Grandma trips, and leaves the next day. I don’t go out of my way to make her feel needed or included. (I also don’t like her, and I’m open about that to my husband, which has caused conflict.)

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Since our open dialogue about open dialogues, nothing’s changed. When she visits, it’s for the kids and that’s it. I don’t feel like I can trust her again and I honestly don’t want to try, but I feel like it’s just a dark cloud following us now.

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What more can I do?

— End of My Rope

Dear End,

I have no issues with you putting down boundaries for the safety and comfort of your children, and I also don’t necessarily object to the social media blocking, even though I’d have probably taken a different approach; I would have been just as frustrated as you that my posts and parenting choices were being used against me. And recording you secretly to share with Grandpa was—even if she didn’t realize it—pretty brazen. I’d be icy for a long time after that.

But, I do take issue if MIL is making the effort to play by the rules and you aren’t extending her an olive branch in return. Her conduct has not been perfect, but your husband has made it clear that he wants to keep a relationship with her. So, I think the question isn’t “what more can you do,” but what are you willing to do going forward?

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It’s hard to tell from your letter what you want from the relationship. You say you don’t like her, but you are resentful that her visits are only about the kids, and nothing more. You say nothing has changed, but she is making an effort to come spend time with your toddler (initiated by her, according to your wishes) and has not pressured you to see more of the family. You expect her to have open dialogue about her feelings, but you admit to not making her feel wanted in your home. I ’m not trying to be combative. I completely understand that your trust was violated by both Grandpa and MIL. I’m just confused about what it is that you want your relationship to be.

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My mom has always reminded me, when I am struggling with family relationships, that as the mother of the grandkids/nephews/etc., I hold the power; I am the gatekeeper for whether people see my kids. But with that power comes the responsibility to be gracious and magnanimous whenever possible.

I think you need to paint the picture for yourself of what your ideal (yet realistic) relationship with your MIL looks like, and then identify what steps you can take to get there. If you don’t want to be closer to her than you are now, then accept your current situation and don’t hold it against her. If you want things to be warmer, you’ll need to make the first overture. Invite her to stay for a cup of coffee after her Grandma trip and chit chat, just the two of you. If she declines, offer the next time, and the next. Thank her for playing with your son. Start a dialogue of reconciliation and open sharing, rather than putting that onus on her. Relationships are made of these kinds of little moments, and that’s where I think you need to begin.

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New Year, Same Problems

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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,

How do I regain my 3-year-old’s trust? About two weeks ago, my friend “Bob” was visiting. Bob has a liver condition and carries medication for it—the sort of stuff that is toxic if taken in the wrong dose. Well, my son “Albert” got into the medicine bottle (Childproof. Ha!) and swallowed some, he wasn’t sure how much.

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I quickly ran out to the corner store to get an emetic and gave it to Albert in the car. I told him it was candy because I didn’t want to waste any time. The emetic worked; Albert threw up all over, and physically, he’s been fine.

However, he remembers how I tricked him and now won’t accept anything from me. If I want to give him something, I have to give it to my wife and have her give it to him. She thinks he’ll forget about it in a little while, but it’s already been two weeks and he hasn’t shown any signs of it yet. Am I ever going to be able to fix this?

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— Feeling Failure

Dear FF,

When my son was two, he ate his three-year-old cousin’s cookie, which greatly put her out. Six months later, she would still mention The Incident whenever my son’s name came up. I think now, 18 months later, she’s forgotten. Probably.

That anecdote aside, yes, your son will eventually forget, and I don’t think it will take 18 months. But there are probably some things you can do to mend the bridge sooner. I think you have two paths you could take, depending on what you’ve already tried and your kid’s disposition.

Path one: lean into his refusal by making your wife the sole thing-giver for a period of several weeks. You could even casually eat things he loves when he’s around, which your wife and others might accept from you. Hopefully as he sees others interact with you during this period, he’ll start to come around.

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Alternatively, you could address the situation head-on by copping to the lie, apologizing, and making a pact about how you’ll handle medicine in the future. You still may have to have the conversation several times before he lets it drop. Remember that this was a major life event for him, so it’s natural that he takes a while to process it.

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Finally, just a note of solidarity to you. It is always such a bummer when a parenting move backfires. Try to console yourself with what a laugh you’ll get out of this when Albert is older.

Catch Up on Care and Feeding

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

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I am a single mother with an 8-year-old son, “Dan.” We’re very close with my brother and his family. My brother has two daughters who are 10 and 7. The younger one, “Lily,” uses a wheelchair. She has very thick glasses that don’t fully correct her vision to 20/20 and has poor peripheral vision. She also has ADHD and anxiety, which she received treatment for and manages well.

Lily and Dan have a lot of the same interests and get along really well. They call themselves best friends. Because of my work schedule, Dan usually goes to my brother’s house every day after school and plays with her. However, Dan often expresses his frustrations to me about all the fun things he wants to do with Lily that he can’t because of her disabilities. He also feels guilty about feeling frustrated about this.

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Recently, I took them to a science museum and both Lily and Dan were fascinated by a lot of the exhibits. Unfortunately, some exhibits involved things that Lily couldn’t do in her wheelchair. Dan felt uncomfortable participating in them when he knew Lily couldn’t. When he came home, he vented to me about how he wished Lily’s legs would “just start working correctly” so that they could do all the fun stuff he wants to do with her. Dan is usually understanding of Lily’s physical limitations and neurodivergent quirks when he’s with her.

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I find their friendship really cute. It’s also convenient for me because as a single mother, I often rely on my brother’s family (my brother, his wife, and his wife’s mother who does a lot of childcare for the family) for childcare. I don’t feel like I should talk about Dan’s frustrations with my brother or his family. They’ve expressed in the past that they are so grateful that Dan is friends with her and that he sees Lily as a person and not as a wheelchair. Being reduced to one’s disabilities is apparently something a lot of disabled children face growing up. How can I guide my son on his relationship with his best friend?

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— Inclusion Matters

Dear Inclusion,

You are right that a lot of people with disabilities—no matter their age—do indeed face an incredible amount of reduction-to-their-disability in society. Discrimination, “invisibility” and abuse are also pervasive challenges that people with disabilities face on a daily basis. (For a sobering and really insightful glimpse into life with a disability, I highly recommend Disability Visibility, a collection of essays edited by Alice Wong.) But, just because people are treated unkindly for their disabilities doesn’t mean a disability shouldn’t be acknowledged at all.

The fact of the matter is Lily’s mobility disability does mean that Dan can’t share certain experiences with her. It’s unfortunate, but it’s also a fact—and one that Lily is aware of, too. It is OK for Dan to be disappointed by this fact and vent to you about it. (It’s not OK for him to express that disappointment to Lily, but I can tell from your letter that you and your son already know that.) Think about it this way: there are a lot of things about our friends’ abilities and limits that can frustrate us, not just disabilities. For example, your opposite-sex friend’s mom doesn’t allow coed sleepovers, or you can’t take a certain friend to the pool because they can’t swim, etc. Having a disability is just one of many things that make up our identities, and it is OK to acknowledge its impact.

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One way you can turn that disappointment into a constructive exercise is to help Dan make a list of cool things he wants to experience that Lily can also do, and try some of those. If those activities involve places like museums, rides, trails, etc. you can check out the destination’s accessibility information/resources so that Dan and you know ahead of time what attractions will be successful/available to your whole group. So long as it’s OK with her parents, involve Lily in the planning, too! One of the things that able-bodied people tend to do around people with disabilities is to clam up or make assumptions when they don’t know how to handle a person’s disability. Disabilities are not Voldemort—it is OK to talk about them, or ask how you can help in a specific situation. Asking Lily directly, “is this something you’d be able to do?” or “would you want help doing this?” gives her the same sense of agency and autonomy that you and I might take for granted.

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Since he sounds like an intellectual kid, you might also point out to Dan that it’s really not the disability he’s upset about—it’s how certain things in society don’t enable Lily to participate. It’s not so much that people with disabilities can’t engage fully in the world—it’s that we haven’t built our spaces to fully engage people with disabilities. If/when he can understand that distinction, he’ll be less susceptible to feeling resentment and may instead turn into an ally or advocate for social change as he grows up. I wish you the best!

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I need advice on getting a 3-and-a-half-year-old out the door in the morning. By all accounts, he likes preschool and comes home happy. But mornings are a nightmare.

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I do everything possible the night before (clothes laid out, etc.). My kid can’t or won’t get dressed, go to the bathroom, etc. without screaming, hitting, and wailing that he isn’t going to school. He gets distraught if he misses the bus, but won’t cooperate to make sure he gets on the bus on time. The driver has repeatedly told me they are allowed to wait for 60 seconds before pulling away from our house, so I am feeling the pressure, which I’m sure my son perceives.

We’ve tried sticker charts, bribes, threats, a new alarm clock, getting up earlier, yet every morning is the same. I don’t think it’s a bus-aversion issue, since he’s told me he likes his driver and aide, and mostly quiets down once he is in his seat. I need him to get on the bus so my husband and I can get ourselves ready. Is this a phase I can wait out? Is there something we can do differently or a bribe/reward system I haven’t thought of?

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—So Over Mornings

Dear Mornings,

I have a kid the same age who, earlier this week, yelled at me both for touching him and stopping touching him, in the same sentence. This was when I was trying to put his socks on in the morning. So, solidarity, my friend.

My two guesses are that he’s feeling totally discombobulated by the short time from waking up to saying goodbye, and/or that he is feeling frustrated by a lack of agency. I know you said you tried getting him up a little earlier, but how did you use that time? A little downtime with you and your husband might help him emotionally ease into the day, like an onramp to a highway. Additionally, I would find ways for him to have a say in the day. Maybe you lay out two shirts the night before, so that in the morning, he gets to pick which one to wear. Finding opportunities like this to give him choice and control (within reason, of course) might help him start to change his mindset to that of a teammate rather than enemy combatant.

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I also try to narrate my kids’ emotions whenever possible (this book introduced me to the concept). Naming their emotions and empathizing with them can help kids feel seen and validated. Now that my toddler is three-and-a-half, it’s not quite the magic bullet it once was, but it still does help me deescalate his emotions much more quickly than yelling or ignoring do.

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The other thing I’d suggest, which I rely on in my house, is a visual timer, like this one. It helps kids see how many minutes are left until the next event, such as leaving the house, has to occur. Kids don’t have an internal clock like us, so they don’t fully understand verbal countdowns of minutes. But when they can see the color on the clock disappearing, they can prepare themselves for the transition that’s about to come.

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Otherwise, you might need to consider the age-old advice of natural consequences. Maybe if he misses the bus a few times, he’d change his tune in the morning?

Above all, remember that, like all phases of parenting, this too shall pass. Good luck!

—Allison

More Advice From Slate

I have bipolar I disorder, aka manic depressive illness. Compound that with perimenopause, and it can be rough on my husband and son. I’ve responded by not only doing all the medical things one should do, but also by explaining what’s going on to my 9-year-old son. I apologize for my snappiness, anxiety, and rage when they come through. Some people think I shouldn’t be this honest. Am I doing something wrong?

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