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,
I (37F) need help dealing with my husband’s (38M) family. He comes from a very toxic family, and even though he wasn’t physically abused, he has definitely been verbally and emotionally abused (including some neglect). His parents were always incredibly dismissive of him, were quick to yell and swear, saw him as a bother unless he was doing something for them, rarely took him to the doctor, and delighted in ridiculing him in front of others. The stories he’s shared have honestly horrified me and broken my heart for him.
My husband, understandably, wants as little to do with them as possible. However, he has not cut them out of his life and feels as if he has to call them at least twice a month (“because it’s easier than dealing with them yelling if I don’t”) and give into their demands of us getting together with them once a month or so. These phone calls and visits make him completely miserable, even days ahead of time, and he basically shuts down on those days and views the entire weekends as a waste, even if we do other fun things together. He also has lots of issues with stress and anxiety (and possible PTSD?) but doesn’t want to go to therapy. I hope to eventually get him to go to cognitive behavioral therapy at least, which I hope can help with his anxiety and some negative self-talk/self-view.
So, with all that background, my current issue with his family is that ever since we got married last year, his mother wants to be my best friend and hang out and text all the time. His parents have always been polite and welcoming to me and not said anything awful in my presence, but I know my husband wants to keep them out of our life as much as possible and is scared his mother is using me to get back into his life/learn more, since “everything is hidden meanings with them.” These dynamics make me feel very uncomfortable and guilty. I want to keep my husband’s boundaries in place but can’t help feeling guilty and rude if I ignore my MIL’s requests. She’s easily hurt, and I am also afraid that at some point I will be blamed for “stealing their son away” even though they probably see him more these days, since we’ve been married. I’ve read some books on toxic family relationships, etc., and even though I understand it better now, it’s still hard for me. What do I say to an MIL that has always been friendly to me but whom I definitely don’t want to be buddy-buddy with?
Your husband has decided, at least for the time being, not to cut off his family. He sees and talks to them regularly, even though he doesn’t enjoy doing it. So, I don’t think “keeping them out of our life as much as possible” is a valid reason to ghost your mother-in-law, because your husband is patently not doing that. So, until he wants to enact some firmer boundaries around interactions with his family, he’s sort of keeping you in this no man’s land where you’re neither friendly nor at war, so to speak. I understand where he’s coming from, but it’s not giving you much direction.
Therefore, I would focus on what you want to do about your relationship with your MIL. If you would like to be absent from contact, then simply respond to texts with brief replies or emojis, give the tried-and-true “Oh, sorry, I’m busy” reply to any invites, and leave it at that. If, however, you’d rather keep the peace, or if blowing her off would negatively impact you too much, then I think it’s perfectly fine to have the occasional coffee or dinner with her. Just be clear about how limited your time is for these outings. And if she asks about her son, simply state you’d rather just talk about yourselves and your individual lives. These kinds of boundaries might feel weird, but you’ll get used to them with practice.
If your husband takes issue with your approach (or my advice!), that’s when you insist on going to couples therapy, where you can work together on how you’re going to deal with his family. You’re clearly feeling uncertain about how to be loyal to him, protect the marriage, and be a kind family member. I hope he will see that by not dealing with his trauma, he’s hurting himself and weakening your partnership. Good luck!
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Dear Care and Feeding,
We moved in August to a completely different state, so our kids (12F, 10M, 7F) had to start over socially. Our oldest is a social butterfly and the middle one is a bit shy, but both of them have managed to make friends quickly in the month since school started. The youngest one hasn’t found it as easy. She’s made friends, but she says that the two kids she’s made friends with constantly make fun of her, making jokes about her “lazy eye” and her accent. (The state we moved from and the state we moved to are both known for their accents; our daughter doesn’t have a thick accent, but you can hear it in certain words.) The friends’ comments are already having an effect on her; because of her strabismus, she needs to wear an eye patch every day for a few hours, and yesterday when she was wearing it, she broke down crying because she was reminded about their teasing. She’s been making an active effort to change how she pronounces words just so that these girls will stop making fun of her.
My husband thinks we shouldn’t interfere and let our daughter sort it out herself. She’s only 7 years old and she’s always been a quiet kid, and I’m worried that she’s just going to accept that these kids are mean to her and not try to branch out. My husband thinks we can just say, “It sounds like they’re being kind of mean to you; I wouldn’t be friends with people who treated me like that” and let her make her own decision. While I agree that that would work with our older kids or more confident kids, our daughter is liable to stay put and stay with the friends she has rather than potentially not have any friends, even if they’re being mean to her. But my husband keeps saying that we have to let her make her own decisions, even if they’re the wrong ones.
—Step In or Stay Out?
Dear Step In or Stay Out,
To me, 7 years old is a borderland between the time when intervening in your child’s life is expected or required and the time when you’re supposed to be backing off. I don’t think that there is always a clear-cut answer about how much you should intervene, but to me, this sounds like a case where your daughter could use some help.
I think your husband is absolutely starting from the right place of gently questioning the so-called friends’ behaviors in conversations with your daughter. My guess, though, is that she doesn’t know how to go about finding new friends. Can you play matchmaker for her? Find out who else in the class she thinks is nice or see which parents you get a good vibe from during drop-off and ask them for a play date. Yes, this might require that you flex your own extroversion beyond your comfort level, but it could be worth it. You could also see whether the school has a Girl Scout or other activity group she could join. Once your daughter has more relationships to choose from, it might be easier to walk away from the toxic ones.
If none of that is an option, I would consider a sidebar with the girls’ parents. I’m sure this is the scenario that has your husband nervous, and that’s fair; whether a conversation would be successful or advisable depends on many factors that I’m obviously not privy to. But I like to believe that most parents don’t know when their kids are being mean and wouldn’t condone it if they did. If you think you can manage a sidebar, try a gentle approach: “You daughter is saying X and Y to mine, and I don’t think she fully realizes that she’s hurting my daughter’s feelings. Would you be willing to talk to her for me?” I’d also consider an FYI to the teacher just so that he or she can be on the lookout for this behavior (and potential new friendships) in school.
You and your husband are both coming from the right place of wanting to empower and comfort your daughter. Remember that it’s still early in the school year. Hopefully, with a little more time, your daughter will find her people, and this will all be a nonissue.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
My son died almost a year ago after battling cancer for two years. He left behind a wife and two children (ages 5 and 9). My relationship with my daughter-in-law was very positive from the first time we met. We were so close that she and my son asked me to come and stay with them in the weeks following the births of both their children. We worked hard to support one another, my son and the children through his illness. Things became awkward and strained in the period immediately leading up to his death, and they have not gotten better. He chose to be in hospice in a medical facility instead of at home. In the last few days of his life, he began asking everyone but me to leave his room. He ultimately passed away with only me present. I’m not sure why he pushed everyone else, including his wife, away at the end. The hospice social worker said it isn’t uncommon for people to choose one person to be with at the end and it doesn’t reflect negatively on how they felt about everyone else. My DIL has really struggled with this, and it has driven a wedge between us. She told my husband that seeing me reminds her that her husband rejected her at the end of his life. I don’t think that’s true, but I understand why she feels that way. I’m not sure what I can do to mend the relationship. I love her and I miss her. Any advice would be welcome.
I’m really sorry for your loss. Grief (the feeling) and grieving (the act) hit us all differently, and sometimes it’s impossible to articulate why we feel what we feel. I don’t think you should be thinking of this as “mending” the relationship, because my gut says your relationship is not the thing that is broken. If I had to guess, I’d wager that your daughter-in-law is doing a lot of processing about both her marriage and her grief. My husband likewise died after a two-year battle with cancer; that was two years ago, and I’m still trying to make sense of not just cancer but the legacy of the relationship itself. Much of that processing is influenced by how the disease manifested and how those final weeks went.
It’s not your fault if she feels she can’t do this reflection while having you close, nor is she wrong for needing a separation right now. I think you’re just going to have to give her time and let her come back on her own. As you read her cues, there may be ways that you can start to slowly build that bridge back to each other. You might acknowledge the elephant in the room and invite her to talk about how your son’s actions made her feel. Or you might find opportunities to connect that have nothing to do with your son at all. If you let her take the lead, eventually those openings will present themselves.
That said, I want to provide a sobering counterpoint. Your relationship might not go back to how it was before. It might be that the grief your daughter-in-law feels has rearranged things for her, so to speak, and having the same kind of closeness might not be possible for her. And if she is considering dating again, or will consider it in the future, that is one more thing that could change your relationship. So you need to be prepared that, though she will always be your family and you will always be her children’s grandmother, your individual dynamics may be different. You’ll have to find a way to make peace with that, without blame for yourself, your daughter-in-law, or your son. (It is, however, always OK to blame the cancer.)
I wish there were a guidebook I could offer you. In its absence, know you have my empathy and understanding.
Dear Care and Feeding,
We’re currently in the trenches, raising 4-year-old twin boys. I (34F) was raised in a quiet conservative house of all girls (I have two sisters), and now I’m a boy mom, and holy yikes. It’s loud and boisterous, which I expected, but I’m blown away by just how hard my boys play with each other. They wrestle and shove and chase, all while screeching happily, terrorizing the dogs and myself. I’m wondering how normal it is for boys to play this hard. We regularly have bloody knees, bruises, scrapes, all from what my husband (one of four boys) says is perfectly normal roughhousing. They are happy, regular little boys in every other respect, but I’m dreading the day we get a call for fighting because playing this hard is “normal” for them. I try gentle corrections paired with redirections, which usually lasts about 0.4 seconds before they race back into the yard and start wrestling again.
Yeah, that’s normal. My two boys are tame by most stereotypical boy standards, and even they shock and overwhelm the senses. (So much volume.)
The key is to try to moderate how they apply their energy. You can set off-limit activities or localities, such as “No physical contact on asphalt” or “No wrestling in the living room.” If my family is any point of reference, you’ll have a 50 percent success rate with this, so please also hide your breakables and invest in some earbuds. Additionally, you can watch your boys here and there to be sure they’re following each other’s cues and modulating their force so that things stay playful rather than combative. If they’re mostly respecting each other’s boundaries and quickly rebounding back into play after those boundaries are tested, I really wouldn’t worry about them getting in trouble for fighting at school. They’ll likewise be able to regulate themselves there too.
How and why we play is a really fascinating topic once you start getting into the science of it. If that’s of any interest, I highly recommend the book Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, by Stuart Brown. You can kick back and read it while your children are body-slamming each other into a pile of couch cushions on a “peaceful” Saturday morning.
More Advice From Slate
Our neighbors moved in next door a couple of years ago. We were thrilled when we discovered they had kids. Their son is one year older than our son, and, while we initially thought he would be a convenient playmate for our son, we couldn’t have been more wrong. On the day his family arrived, we invited their son to play in our backyard so that his parents could focus on moving in. The new neighbor boy immediately reached out from the top deck of our play set and started dismantling the swings from the beam.