Dear Prudence

Help! My Mother-in-Law Has Crossed the Line, and I Don’t Know How to Stop Her.

In We’re Prudence, Prudence asks readers for their thoughts on a question that has her stumped. The answer is available only for Slate Plus members.

Woman crying while on the phone.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by laflor/iStock/Getty Images Plus. 

Every week on Twitter @jdesmondharris, Dear Prudence asks readers for their thoughts on a question that has her stumped. She’ll post her final thoughts on the matter on Fridays. Here’s this week’s dilemma and answer:

Dear Prudence,

My mother-in-law has always been difficult, but right now she is driving me to drink. She is in her 80s and could no longer live alone after two bad falls. She needed round-the-clock care that her family couldn’t provide (we collectively have been paying for outside help for years). The retirement home is very nice with lots of activities. It is located 15 minutes from our home so our family could visit. Now I am wishing we went with the ones near my sisters-in-law.

My wife visits twice a week with our 5-year-old and calls her mother every day. And all my mother-in-law can do is inflect misery all around. She wants to die. They should have left her on the floor of the house to rot. She could be in heaven with her husband, and instead, she is here. She hates it here. She just wants to die. She has gone on these rants in front of our 5-year-old. My wife has come home crying and our child is hysterical because they don’t want grandma to die. All of this is taking a serious toll on my wife’s mental and physical health. She feels so guilty but there was nothing to be done. The doctors say my mother-in-law is mentally astute and has been put on antidepressants. My sisters-in-law visit and call when they can but my mother-in-law doesn’t feel the need to inflict all this misery on them. My wife is just the lucky one.

I have put my foot down about taking our child on these visits. Two hysterical visits are too many. My wife tells me I need to support her here. I am trying to but I can’t stand to see her in such pain. Help!

—Misery

Dear Misery,

Just about everyone who engaged with your letter agreed that this is a sad, hard situation that the 5-year-old should be protected from. There were dozens of replies along those lines, which you can see here. But one that stood out to me made this point:

MIL is not entitled to treat her daughter this way and Kid needs a role model who says “This treatment is not OK.” — @sharpltlteeth

 It’s not just that your child shouldn’t hear the things your mother-in-law is saying. They shouldn’t see your wife being subjected to this.

It’s tricky because your mother-in-law’s words are very hurtful, but she’s in a really painful situation too. “They should have left her on the floor of the house to rot” is pretty harsh. I think you will benefit from trying to find some empathy for her and possibly even talking to her.

It’s tough to watch and wait for someone to die (I’ve done it twice) but the key thing is…the dying part is happening to someone else. His time will come, and he should remember how he helped his MIL transition if/when that happens especially when it comes to empathy — @mashclash

Curious why he isn’t talking to his MIL directly? Folxs who are in pain open up to different people. She may not realize the impact she is having on her daughter and grandbaby. Instead of directing his frustration @ his wife, I suggest he help — @GRosarioWallace

Finally, this may seem obvious—and it’s actually exactly what your wife asked for—but it didn’t really occur to me until a few people suggested it: You should simply ask your wife what you can do to help her. You don’t like to see her in pain, and she’s telling you loud and clear how to lessen that pain. It’s not “figure out how to get my mother out of my life.” It’s “support me.” Find out how to do that.

Could he ask his wife for some specifics on what she would find supportive? For example, maybe it would help her if he’d actively listen to her vent without trying to suggest solutions. Maybe she’d like him to come to some of visits if only to be there for her. Etc. — @iamlaurasaurus

Rather than asking you, he should ask his wife to develop a new approach and how she’d like him to support this new plan. — @dizzyjudge

I wish I could talk directly to the wife in this situation. LW can’t do much aside from ask Wife what will help ease her burden. — @sharpltlteeth

And when she tells you, listen.