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Dear Care and Feeding,
My father-in-law died last year, and my mother-in-law has now moved in with my family—my husband, our twin toddlers, and me, a stay-at-home dad. MIL is a nice woman but we have some pretty different parenting philosophies. Examples: If kiddo takes a minor tumble, my inclination is to pause for a minute to see if they want to brush it off on their own. MIL immediately runs over, scoops them up, and says, “You need Nana’s hugs, don’t you? Let’s get a cookie.” At dinnertime, my general rule is, kids eat what the family eats, and if they don’t like the served dinner they can have fresh fruit plus crackers and cheese or a peanut butter sandwich. MIL will whip up spaghetti or whatever else the kids are craving. I’m struggling with how to draw “I’m the parent, not you” boundaries in a kind but firm way. MIL’s rationale for the dinner situation is, “I know, I know—you don’t want to cook multiple dinners, but I’m here and I’m happy to!” But it isn’t just that I don’t want to cook multiple dinners, it’s that I don’t want my kids running the dinner hour. If this were a short visit, I’d shrug and say, oh well, kids get a taste of different styles. But this living arrangement is likely to continue for years, so we need to learn to navigate it. How can I recognize that MIL will be a real and important presence in the kids’ lives while also maintaining parental control?
— I’m the Dad
Dear I’m the Dad,
Do you mind if I admit that what I am most curious about is that this dilemma seems to have come as a surprise to you? Presumably you’ve seen your mother-in-law in action with the kids before; presumably this is how she’s always acted. (Let me stipulate that I am sympathetic to both you and your MIL: Like her, I am an “oh, dear, what can I get you for dinner that you’d enjoy?” gal; like you, I would never want my MIL—or anyone else—to undermine my parental authority or treat my kids in a way I disapprove of.) Here’s the other thing I’m wondering about: How did it come to pass that MIL moved in with your family without any discussion of how you are raising these kids, and what her role would be? In fact—how did she come to move in with you at all? (Are you thinking this is irrelevant? Not me. Me, I think she might have taken the invitation to move in as also an invitation to help you and her son raise your kids.) And wait—did you invite her? Or did she ask? Did y’all have any sort of conversation about how this would work?
And one final set of questions: First, is your husband on board with your child-rearing decisions? If not—if this is a source of conflict between you, or if his attitude is “you’re at home, you’re in charge, it doesn’t matter to me”—then his mother may be stepping in in a more complicated way than it looks like on the surface. Second, have the two of you talked about this since his mother moved in? Is he as distressed as you are? I think you two need to be on the same page, or there’s going to be a blow-up in the near future.
As to the question you asked me, I’m gonna offer my usual answer: Have a conversation. An honest one. Tell her you value her and her relationship to her grandchildren. Tell her (if it’s true!) that you’re glad to have her there. And tell her that you have some very clear child-rearing goals that need to be accommodated and respected. Explain them to her. She doesn’t have to agree with you; she only has to abide by your principled decisions. Have this conversation as many times as it takes. Use your gentle voice. But first, please answer (in a gentle conversation you have with yourself) all of my questions.
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