7 top hot-button issues -- and how to solve them.
By Margaret Renkl
Love 'em or hate 'em, every mom clashes with her in-laws. Scroll down any message board and you're bound to read hair-raising tales like the ones on Parenting.com's in-law board. As one mom writes, "My MIL comes over once a week to spend time with my son and uses that day to tell me what I am doing wrong -- I'm feeding him too much, he's not ready to walk yet, it's too cold outside, it's too hot outside, it's too windy outside, his feet are cold, his feet are hot. Apparently I'm an idiot and she is Dr. Spock. My husband and I have fought so much over her."
Writes another mom: "Most of the time, we visit my in-laws at their house or at a restaurant, where we pay for their meal (even though I stay home and we are on a limited budget -- they never even pretend to offer). One time my MIL handed me a 'gift' for my daughter and said, 'I'm not sure what this is, but here.' Hey, nice to see you put some thought into the gift."
Sound familiar? If you're like most moms, you can weather the friction with your own parents way better than you can with your in-laws -- after all, you've been negotiating with your parents forever. With your in-laws, you aren't always sure what you're allowed to say and how you're expected to express it. You may find yourself saying the wrong thing and hurting their feelings. Or you may keep silent while your resentment grows and grows.
And just to make things even more complicated, your husband probably has a huge investment in keeping his parents happy. As one mom says, "Every time I bring up something that my in-laws did or said that bothered me, my husband just starts defending them and makes excuses for them." So when the two of you don't agree about how to handle conflicts with his parents, you've suddenly got two conflicts on your hands.
You may never feel as comfortable with your mate's family as with your own, but working out such squabbles is crucial: These people will be in your life for a long time. Of course, it's impossible to head off all clashes. But there are ways to cool down even the hottest hot-button issues:
YOUR IN-LAWS ARE TOO INVOLVED
In-town grandparents may expect to be included in every family outing; long-distance ones can monopolize vacation time: "My in-laws only make the trip to our house once a year, so they expect us to spend all our vacations with them," says one Tennessee mom. (Like all the moms quoted in this article, she didn't want to go public.) "My husband doesn't mind using all our travel time to see his parents, but it drives me crazy that we never have the chance to get away as a family."
Before you can cure grandparents of wanting too much of your family's time, you have to get your husband on board with the idea of cutting them back. And even though kids do thrive when they have close relationships with grandparents, it's equally important for you to have some time, guilt-free, to strengthen your own family bond, says Susan Newman, Ph.D., author of The Book of NO: 250 Ways to Say It -- and Mean It -- and Stop People-Pleasing Forever. So let your husband know that what you want is to have more time together, not to punish his parents, and he'll be more likely to see things your way.
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Then be prepared to compromise: You may need to cut back on your own parents' visits. If your husband sees you making sacrifices, he's less likely to resent the ones you want him to make. And you both need to plan your vacation time so that you take some family trips each year sans relatives.
As for the grandparents, let your husband figure out the best way to tell them that your next visit won't happen as soon as they'd like. If he has a hard time confronting his parents, tell him he has to -- you need to keep your relationship with them on an even keel and they'll accept the news better from him anyway. To lessen the sting, you can step up your efforts to make your ILs feel connected in other ways: Scan the kids' artwork and e-mail it, and encourage frequent telephone chats with the grandkids. They won't like the change, but if all goes well, they'll come to accept it as the norm.
With in-laws who live close by, the trick is to avoid an ugly confrontation but still get what you need. If you don't want your in-laws tagging along on every special outing, just keep mum about the immediate-family-only ones. If one of the kids spills the beans, explain that you've already made plans but you'd love to have them over for supper later in the week instead. Especially if you offer a compromise, they ought to be okay, says Newman.
THEY THINK YOU'RE OVER-THE-TOP FOR BEING SO SAFETY-CONSCIOUS
"I couldn't believe it when I heard that my four-month-old always slept through the night at my in-laws'," says one mom, a nurse who occasionally works nights and whose husband travels frequently. "Then I found out they were putting Carrie down to sleep on her tummy -- which I know is a huge risk for sudden infant death syndrome. I really flipped out then."
The trick is to be firm without looking like you're accusing your in-laws of deliberately putting their grandkid in danger. As calmly as you can, tell them it makes you feel too uncomfortable when they do things their way. You can say, "I know things were different when you were raising kids, but our doctor insists on [whatever safety measure they're flouting] and we need to be absolutely sure everyone is following her instructions." They may still think it's all overkill, but they're more likely to understand that you're simply following doctor's orders -- not criticizing their ability to take care of a child.
"It's hard for grandparents not to give advice on child rearing because they care so much about the kids," points out Susie Kohl, author of The Best Things Parents Do and a mother-in-law herself. But some advice isn't welcome -- and may be dead wrong. If your in-laws tell you to spank a child who's throwing a tantrum, just state your position directly: "We think time-outs work really well with Evan." Then let it go; you don't need to convert your in-laws to your position. When Kohl herself oversteps, her daughter-in-law says, "Don't worry, I can handle it," and then changes the subject.
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But sometimes you can't just blow it off. One California mom was outraged when her in-laws decided to give her 3-year-old "speech therapy" (which they weren't qualified to do in the first place) when they were babysitting. "They kept telling me that David talks funny, and I kept telling them that his pediatrician wasn't worried," says the mom. "But one day when I got to their house to pick up my son, he was talking with his tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth. He was self-conscious about his speech for a long time after that."
When in-laws overstep their bounds like that, let them know how angry and upset you are, but soften the message by saying, "I know you're trying to help, but this is a sensitive issue and we'd like to handle it ourselves." Your in-laws need to know that you are the parent: They had their shot at raising kids, and now they have no choice but to follow your lead, whether they agree or not.
THEY CRITICIZE YOUR DECISIONS
Sometimes in-law comments are nothing more than thinly disguised disapproval. One Michigan mother says, "My mother-in-law kept saying how wonderful it was that my kids loved their nanny so much, and how lucky I was that she could be with them while I worked suchlong hours!"
A Minnesota mother meets with much more open criticism every time her husband stays home from work to care for a sick child -- despite the fact that his job is flexible and he loves the one-on-one time. "They think I'm being a bad wife and a bad mother," she says.
It's best to take the straightforward, honest approach, says Newman. Tell them you don't appreciate being judged and held to their impossible standards. At least they're put on notice and made aware of your feelings. And although you may not be able to change their minds, for sanity's sake, it can't hurt to bring in some outside authority to shore up your position -- like an article you read, say, on why having a hands-on dad is good for kids.
THEY DON'T SUPPORT YOUR FAMILY RULES
If your kids see their grandparents only a few times a year, this may be one of those things you compromise about: It won't hurt a child to stay up late or watch an extra hour of TV every now and then. But if your kids spend a lot of time at Grandma's, better step in. One Alabama grandmother lives three doors down, and the kids were constantly bringing home goody bags full of candy until their mother, who'd tried every other method of getting her message across, finally mentioned that she'd be sending all dental bills to Grandma from that point on.
Usually it doesn't take such extreme measures to get grandparents to comply. A simple explanation and the offer of an alternative ought to do the trick: "Jenna's such a picky eater that I hate for her to fill up on cookies. I'm going to bring over some cheese or raisins." Grandparents just want to make the kids happy; your job is to give them the tools so they don't (or won't) break obvious family rules.
THEY EXPECT TOO MUCH FROM THEIR SON
One set of Mississippi in-laws think nothing of asking their son to drive to their house -- 40 minutes each way -- several times a week to water the plants when they're out of town. "If he goes after work, it takes so long that he doesn't get home until well after the kids are in bed," his wife says.
The problem here may only be cluelessness: "Grandparents probably didn't have such an overwhelming experience when they were new parents, so they don't always understand the stresses on families today," says Kohl. One solution is to tell them what your lives are like, so they realize that the kind of favor they're asking is hard to provide in your circumstances. Once they get the picture, they'll probably stop asking.
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But maybe not: "Asking too much of a married son with a family can be a way for parents to keep their son in their lives and control him," says Newman. And a son who complies with unreasonable requests -- even when they cause an obvious strain on his own family's resources -- may need some help in getting past the guilt of saying no. If the in-law requests keep coming, try to come up with a compromise your husband can live with: For instance, the Mississippi dad could tell his parents he'll be glad to help out on the weekends, but it would be better to get one of the neighbors to lend a hand during the week. Or hire a neighborhood teen to make the drive for him once or twice while his parents are away. Whatever your situation, your husband will be letting his parents know that he wants to help, but on terms that won't make your lives impossible.
THEY DON'T HELP OUT AS MUCH AS YOU'D LIKE
This situation can be tricky because grandparents certainly have the right to set their own boundaries, just as you do, says Kohl. Being with young children is draining, and if your in-laws don't feel up to the challenges, or if their lives are already filled with work and other projects, you have to accept their choice.
On the other hand, they may not volunteer because they don't realize how much you need the help. Spell out your needs clearly. One Idaho grandmother, a real estate agent, frequently canceled visits with her new grandson if a client called at the last minute -- a practice she stopped when her son quietly explained that his wife was suffering postpartum depression. "As soon as my husband told her what was going on, she immediately offered to rearrange her schedule to be available whenever I needed a break," says the mom.
If you don't know whether your in-laws are trying to establish boundaries or simply don't realize how much help you'd welcome, ask them if they're interested in having some one-on-one time with their grandkids or if they might be up for last-minute babysitting. If the answer is "We'd love to help out, but our schedule is packed right now," don't ask again. And if the answer is "Sure!!" then pour on the gratitude.
You won't iron out all the clashes, but working out the conflicts offers a huge payoff -- for your kids. They're the ones who benefit most when all the people who love them get along.
Some in-laws are harder to deal with than others, and some are flat-out impossible, but experts agree that most relationships can flourish when certain ground rules apply. And if you're having more trouble negotiating with your own parents, these tips can apply to them, too:
Establish clear boundaries right away. If you don't want habitual drop-bys or constant advice, the time to stop them is now, before they become a habit. Otherwise, you run the risk of blowing your top at the worst possible moment. One Colorado mom of three admits that when she finally spoke up after years of resenting the way her MIL constantly contradicted her, her mom-in-law walked out of the house and didn't come back for a week.
Decide what you feel strongly about and what you can be flexible on. For the sake of family peace, you may have to let the little things go while you hold the line on the big stuff. For example, you know it's better for everyone if your child gets to bed at a decent hour. So let your in-laws know that's the rule the next time they come over to babysit. But you'll probably have to give in on those two slices of pie for dinner.
Know when to hold your tongue. Sometimes telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth is unnecessarily hurtful. If you don't feel comfortable leaving your baby alone with elderly grandparents, get a babysitter. And if Grandma persists, say something pleasant like "I really appreciate all your offers of help, but having a sitter who knows the routine is a lot easier for me, and I'm so frazzled at the moment, I just need to do the easiest thing I can." Then let it go.
Margaret Renkl, a mom of three, is a contributing editor with absolutely wonderful in-laws.