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 mother is a “my way or the highway” kind of lady and is offended at any suggestion that she might have room for improvement. I’ve recently had my first child (her third grandchild). She is very close with my brother in a way she and I are not, and he relies on her heavily for childcare, much of which takes place in her home, where she and my dad both smoke in the house. She’s made it clear that she wants to have the same close relationship with my daughter that she has with my nephews, and she’s dismissive of my concerns about secondhand smoke, saying they go outside to smoke when the kids are there. They do, but when you walk into the house the smell is still enough to knock you over. It’s in the carpets, the curtains, and the upholstery. She also feeds my nephews tons of processed foods, leaves the TV on for them all day, and lets them have the iPad whenever they want. My husband and I are opposed to junk food and screen time for very young children, so we have not been relying on my mother for sitting.
We have, however, been having my mother-in-law sit for short periods here and there to see how it goes. She’s very respectful of our parenting decisions and has never tried to make me feel stupid for my “new-age nonsense,” as my own mother calls it. My mom turned up at my house the other evening unannounced and my MIL was babysitting while my husband and I were out for our first child-free dinner since our daughter was born. My mom was rude to my MIL and left in a huff, then blew my phone up for the rest of the night, accusing me of cutting her out of her granddaughter’s life. Things escalated further when she learned that both she and MIL would be referred to as “Nana” (both grandmas already had grandkids who called them Nana), and she began sobbing hysterically. The rest of the week has been an onslaught of texts about how over-the-top I’m being over nothing (the smoking), how I’m basically calling her a terrible mother because she raised me on TV and chicken nuggets, how I think I’m too good for her, how she must be a wonderful sitter because my nephews are fine, etc.
I can’t deal with it anymore. She’s always had a flair for drama, but this is next level, and my husband and I are over it. It was never my intention to cut her out of our lives, but I also never intended for her to be very involved as a caretaker. She’s always been critical of everything my brother’s wife does, and I knew I wasn’t going to open myself or my husband up to that. I’d love for her to be a part of my daughter’s life, but she’s just not going to be the nana we call for overnight stays or bring with us on vacations. I know she’s very hurt. How can I salvage this while maintaining my boundaries?
—Driving Me BaNANAs
It seems to me that salvaging this relationship will require, first, that you figure out exactly what you mean by “salvaging”—in other words, that you make decisions about the terms under which you’ll continue to have a relationship with your mother. If you don’t want to cut her out of your life (and as you probably know, I’m all for finding ways to keep family members in our lives if it can be done without doing harm to ourselves), then think about the ways you wish to have her in it, under what circumstances and within what boundaries. Are you willing to see her—and to have your child spend time with her—in your own home (but not to have her babysit)? To meet up with her outdoors or at (let’s say, as time passes) museums, indoor play areas, and other child-friendly spaces? Make a list, and then let her know what’s OK with you.
She will hate this, of course. It will bring on further ranting and raging. So be it. (Don’t pick up the phone or read her texts if she starts barraging you again.) Once you’ve tossed the ball into her court, she’s the one the onus will be on. If she’d rather cut you—and your child—out of her life than accept what you propose, that will be her choice. (And as I often say, choices are not necessarily forever. She may regret that choice and offer to accept your terms later. If that happens, try to be gracious. People change.) Meanwhile, I wish you the very best as you negotiate the challenges of new motherhood and boundary-setting with your own mother. I’m glad you have a mother-in-law you can count on.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
I have a 10-week-old baby who cries A LOT. Nothing is wrong, according to the doctor (who promises he’ll grow out of it). I’m on maternity leave with him until just before he reaches his first birthday. My husband is great about splitting baby care duties with me when he’s home, but he feels guilty leaving me to a screaming baby for most of the day while he’s at work; he always reminds me that I can call his mother and ask her to come over to help with the baby anytime. She has often reiterated the same offer. And I appreciate it, especially since my closest family is three hours away and not available for regular or short-notice help, but to be honest I don’t find my MIL to be a helpful or calming presence.
She hasn’t been around babies since her own kids were babies, decades ago, and doesn’t seem to remember much about them. She’s visibly uncomfortable holding my son (and has only held him twice in his 10 weeks despite my offering him to her each time we see her, which is weekly) and doesn’t seem to have any method of or interest in comforting him (the two times she has held him, she handed him back as soon as he started to fuss and just sat there looking concerned after that). For my part, I find it very stressful to have people around when I feel like I’m not doing something well enough, so having her there watching me while I held him crying would just make things harder on me. She also tends to ask if his crying is because of different causes she comes up with (allergy to my milk, injury, illness, etc.—and I know she doesn’t mean to stress me out; she’s just a very anxious person herself). So the truth is that I find it less stressful to set him down in his bassinet for 10 minutes when I need a break than to have her come over. When I’m alone, I can also remind myself that this is a phase that will be over soon enough and try to just enjoy that he wants to be held and close to me.
When my husband got home from work yesterday, he asked how the day had gone and I casually remarked that the baby had screamed all day. He asked if I had called his mother and when I said no, he said I should have—that she would really like to help us. So I finally told him the truth. He got angry and told me that I can’t complain about the baby crying all day if I’m not going to take any steps to try to help myself. I told him that I hadn’t been complaining—I was just stating a fact: The baby had cried all day. He failed to see the difference. Was it really so wrong of me to tell him why I’m not calling his mother? I thought sharing the reasons would put a stop to the daily reminder that she’s available for help. Instead, he’s just mad.
—She Stresses Me Out More than the Crying!
It wasn’t wrong of you to tell him. If you don’t want his mother’s help—if her “help” isn’t a help to you at all—it’s perfectly appropriate for you to refuse it, and of course you should tell your husband why. In fact, I wish you’d told him sooner. It may have made him angry then, too, but so what? People get angry, they get over it—it’s life. (One good rule for marriage: Don’t tiptoe around your spouse.)
But I think you might be being just a bit disingenuous when you point out the difference between complaining and “just stating a fact.” You know he feels guilty about being gone all day. So if your answer to “How was your day, dear?” is only “The baby screamed without interruption,” he’s going to react. I’m not saying his reaction was fair (though if he had already been aware of why you haven’t taken up his—and his mother’s—offer of her help, he wouldn’t have resorted to that particular response), but to me it seems kind of inevitable. So, now that you’ve gotten the stuff about his mother that you’d been keeping secret off your chest, maybe try an answer that’s honest and includes some of what you’ve just told me (that you know this will pass, that you’re trying to just take pleasure in the baby’s wanting to be held) and whatever else helps you to get through the day.
Speaking of getting through the day: I’m guessing you’ve already tried this, but just in case you haven’t: Wearing your baby, either in a sling or a baby wrap, might lessen the crying and thus ease your own distress. And then you can turn the mantra “This will pass” into a song you sing to him while rocking and swaying your way through the next few weeks, as your son gets through the “fourth trimester” and becomes accustomed to his life on the outside.
Dear Care and Feeding,
I’m a 32-year-old woman who has a 19-month-old and a 3-month-old. I’m home from work until the infant is 6 months old, at which point both kids will go to a daycare center next door to my workplace. My mother, who’s 64 and lives two hours away, has been mentioning since before the baby was born that she could watch the kids to help defray daycare costs and allow them to stay at home more often. This is not an offer we want to accept for many reasons, but mostly because my mother has a very old-fashioned parenting style (one that dates back to how she was raised) and is resistant to hearing about the need to update/change anything. She is also very flaky.
Whenever she brought up the offer to watch the kids, I deflected in various ways (some true—such as full-time daycare is cheaper than four days a week—and some not). But the last time she offered, she mentioned that she wasn’t sure she could watch them the same day every week, that some weeks she probably wouldn’t be available at all, that obviously she wouldn’t be available in the event of poor weather, etc. etc. I was so tired of this, I decided to shut it down definitively. I told her we appreciated her offers but asked her to please stop making them, as we do not need her for daily childcare. She didn’t storm out or anything after I told her this—she stayed as long as she always does—but she hardly said a word (when usually she talks nonstop) and stopped interacting with any of us. And the next week she asked to come over, then came, and it was the same thing: She didn’t want to hold the baby, she didn’t get down on the floor to play with the toddler, she basically just sat in a chair watching us all for five hours.
I was firm but polite with my request that she stop offering daycare, but she is definitely someone who expects others to manage her emotions (which is no doubt one of the reasons I’m usually a pretty big people pleaser, even at my own expense; I’ve been working to stop that). Was it wrong of me to ask her to stop, or is she having an immature reaction? Do I try to patch things up or just keep letting her come and stare at us?
—One Upset Mother
I say let her keep coming and staring at you. Eventually she’ll get tired of this. You’ve done nothing wrong (except maybe deflecting for so long before spelling out clearly for her why you’ll be using daycare—but that’s wrong with a lower-case w, and as you’re working on getting better at this, I hardly need point it out, right?). This effort to manipulate you into apologizing is one you’re better off ignoring. In fact, I think resisting the impulse to patch things up is a great opportunity for you practice not managing her emotions (or anyone’s!). Stay strong.
If she’s still coming over weekly and ignoring y’all after a couple of months—that is, if she is that stubborn and immature—and you can’t take it anymore, don’t cave … but maybe politely suggest that these visits seem to be pointless. That would be advanced practice in not being responsible for trying to make other people happy at your own expense.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
Having a baby has changed me, and now I can’t stand most of our family (two sets of in-laws and my own mother). Unfortunately, they’re all (relatively) reasonable people who want to spend a ton of time with their new grandbaby. But handing over my now-4-month-old to any of them fills me with immense dread. I’m trying hard to place where this is coming from. I think it has something to do with the way my daughter and I were treated early postpartum by all of them. They suggested I let her “cry it out” as a newborn, called my parenting “extreme” when I wouldn’t let one of them come over after a positive Covid test, etc. It also may have to do with their own choices as parents: My mother bullied my older sister; my in-laws were not present for their own son when he was growing up. But it doesn’t feel right to “punish” their less-than-desirable words and actions by limiting time with my daughter … though that’s sure as heck what I feel like doing! Since I understand it’s going to be nearly impossible to change them, is there anything I can do to make myself feel better about my child being in their presence? Am I allowed to secretly prioritize time with friends and family who don’t give me a sense of dread over my daughter’s biological extended family? Is this normal overprotective new-mom stuff or am I being hormonal and oversensitive? Is it possible I could have good reason to minimize time with these people (even if they are effectively all of my child’s grandparents)?
—Particularly Protective Parent
I wouldn’t want to spend time with these people either, and I certainly wouldn’t want to hand my baby over to them (so they can watch her cry?). Of course you’re filled with dread. There’s nothing mysterious about this, and there’s nothing overprotective about it (let that term go, and replace it with protective). Don’t think of limiting time with the family as “punishing” them; think of it as taking care of yourself and your daughter. You don’t mention your spouse’s position on this (are you getting blowback from that quarter? If so, stand firm). You have the absolute right to decide how much or how little time the grandparents get with your child. You don’t even have to explain if you don’t want to. (But if you feel like a fight—me, I’d be itching for one—go for it and tell them why. If they get mad about it, it’ll make it even easier to reduce contact with them to the bare minimum.)
More Advice From Slate
I am a high-performing individual at my workplace who also suffers from clinical depression and anxiety. I’ve discussed the basic issues with my boss, who seems vaguely supportive without truly understanding—she’s stated that I should do what I need to do for myself without really seeming to understand that sometimes I just can’t bear to come into work because of these illnesses. This year has been challenging so far, and I’ve taken four sick days this year where I’ve supplied other excuses for not being at work. Do I owe it to my boss/company to tell them why I’m really not there?