Friday, August 1, 2014
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Tell Me About It: Set boundaries with difficult mother-in-law

She and I get along fine, but she gets very stressed and cries when the topic is mentioned. (iStock photo)
She and I get along fine, but she gets very stressed and cries when the topic is mentioned. (iStock photo)
Question: My mother-in-law asked me for Christmas gift ideas for my 4-month-old son. I said I thought he was too young for electronic toys and asked for something simple, like blocks, board books, or a teddy bear.

She bought him a "baby laptop" that lights up and plays music, saying, "Well, I didn't have time to travel back to the 1950s to buy him blocks." I am very upset that she not only completely disregarded our wishes but also insulted our choices. My husband agrees with me and does not understand why his mother did this.

We firmly believe in the importance of creative play. Both my husband and I have had this discussion with her several times. Our choice may seem a bit strange, but I feel like she should respect our wishes regardless of whether she agrees. I do not want to hurt her feelings but I am considering returning the gift.

I also feel this situation is symbolic of a much larger problem. She questions every decision we make as parents and is constantly making snide comments about our choices. I am tired of fighting these battles with her. Any advice?

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  • Answer: Yeah. Duck.

    Kidding, or thereabouts. You're right about a larger problem, but it's larger even than the snide-comment problem. She could so easily just accept your child-rearing approach at face value. I mean, you're asking for blocks, not explosives. Instead, she's reacting to your choices.

    On top of that, she's handling her reaction poorly. She isn't, for example, attempting a reasoned argument against buying blocks - maybe, "I know you want to make good choices for Baby, but I'm concerned it's going too far - I'd like some leeway to have a little fun." That's something you can work with, even if you strongly disagree. Instead she's sniping and undermining. You can't work with that.

    Such lashing out reveals that she's in shaky emotional health.

    Now, 2 + 2: To an emotionally unhealthy person, your choices are a rejection - not of their choices, but of them.

    Your new family unit is what threatens her, of course, not blocks. She's feeling obsolete, maybe; or beneath your (perceived) hoity standards; or like the loser in a (perceived) competition for her son's attention. Or all three.

    So she elevates herself by sticking pins in your parenting balloon. One blinking, blaring "baby laptop," please.

    You can neutralize this. It takes time, though, plus patience, compassion, careful battle-choosing, and full spousal cooperation. That's because you need to:

    Understand that people who lash out usually feel wounded. Confused, too - new baby means new feelings for all.

    Gently draw a baseline. "These are exciting times for us. We'll mess up - but praising successes would help me so much more right now than trying to fix nondangerous mistakes."

    Decide what lines are uncrossable.

    Include your mother-in-law, however you can, unless/until she crosses uncrossable lines. Ask for her help or opinion sometimes on safe subjects. Warmth is best at softening resistance.

    Ignore minor affronts - to save your strength and accrued good will for enforcing those lines she can't cross. You'll need it, whether you return gifts, call out her sniping, or, worst case, limit visits.

    You and your husband are in charge. Good bosses are flexible, fair, fierce.


    tellme@washpost.com. Chat with Carolyn Hax online at noon Fridays at www.washingtonpost.com.

    Carolyn Hax
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