Dear Dr. Claire,
I’m a mom to five children and work part-time on the weekends. My husbands family lives in the same town as we do. My husband works long hours during the week leaving me to do the majority of child-rearing. The problem is not the kids or my husband’s demanding job; it’s my mother-in-law. She’s retired and constantly calls to check in and wants to spend time with the kids. I don’t want or need her help. I know that sounds harsh but in the past when I do spend time with her, all she does is tell me how to parent. I constantly hear things like, “When I was raising kids…,” or “Your kids are too busy.” My favorite comments are, “Why the fuss over organic this and that?” and the cliche, “that’s not how my generation raised our children, and they were just fine.”
When I am around my mother-in-law, it’s constant judgment about my parenting choices. When I talk with my husband, he gets upset at me tells me just to let her help me which makes me so furious at him. I am so annoyed with the whole situation. What do you think I should do?
-Karin, frustrated with my Mother-in-Law
I am sorry to hear how stressed out you are from your mother-in-law’s behavior. From the sound of it, this has been going on for some time and is causing personal stress and marital strain.
In-law relationships can be challenging for all parties involved. As described in your situation, your mother-in-law has good intentions to want to help you and spend time with her grandchildren. However, her mere presence and the cost of the visit equates with a potential for her insensitive and judgemental commentary.
Older relatives, parents, and grandparents, are far removed from the intense schedule and demands of family life with children. If your mother-in-law is retired, isolated, living alone, chances are, she’s used to a rigid routine of the “right” way to do things.
I wonder if beneath her commentary is some anxiety and/or uncertainty about her role with you and the children when your husband is at work. Perhaps your mother-in-law is trying to find a “purpose” or way to spend time with your family but lacks the skills to be socially sensitive and thoughtful. That being said, she does sound judgemental, which never feels good to be on the receiving end.
You may want to consider finding a way to allow your mother-in-law to spend time with your children without you feeling the pressure to spend time with her. If you feel comfortable with her ability to supervise and care for your children in your absence, then use the time to run an errand, go for a walk, or spend time with a friend.
I am curious why your mother-in-law calls constantly? Is she worried about something, do you ignore her calls, or is this a personality trait? If the calls are intrusive and consistent, you need to find out what is motivating her to call so often.
Martially speaking, your husband is in a tough position. It is hard to hear negative feedback about your parent, especially from your spouse. He is likely hearing your frustration and may feel powerless on how to make changes.
However, your husband is responding to you in an unhealthy way; he’s dismissive of your feelings and avoiding a solution to be supportive of you. By telling you to, ” just let her help” puts pressure on you to accept your mother-in-law’s behavior and subjects you to stress and judgment. Your job is to watch how you vent about your mother-in-law to your husband. Be thoughtful and sensitive on how you speak about his mother. Vent to a friend about your mother-in-law’s behavior but keep it out of your marriage.
Your husband’s job is to spend time with his mother on the weekend when you are at work, as often as he wants to take into account what makes sense for family obligations, schedules, and routines. By creating the expectation it’s your husband’s role to coordinate visits with his relatives will take some pressure off of you trying to “fit in” a visit during the busy week.
When your mother-in-law makes judgmental statements or comments, try not to take it personally. Try to keep a sense of humor, change the subject, or simply ignore her comments. It can be tempting to engage in a sarcastic rebuttal, but that reaction may not stop the behavior. If she is hurtful or disrespectful, empower yourself to be direct and let her know she upset you instead of stuffing the resentment and frustration down.
I hope some of these suggestions and strategies help you and your family.