Ask Polly: Can I Cut Off My Mother-in-Law?


Dear Polly,

I’m having some ‘90s-sitcom-grade mother-in-law problems. Well, it’s recently become more like a Lifetime movie a sitcom, because she slapped my husband.

The sitcom part: She’s controlling, she wants to have a say in everything that goes on in her two grown kids’ lives, she is emotionally manipulative and demanding, she has a victim mentality, she is narcissistic, she is obsessed with her grandkids (two of which are ours, a toddler and an infant), she has moderate drug and alcohol dependencies, she is abrasive and domineering. I have over the course of our marriage endeavored to work through all this and focus on the good parts. There are a few of them: She loves our kids and is fun, if overbearing, with them. Okay, there are two of them.

Also, over the course of our marriage she has provoked a series of very uncomfortable confrontations in which she expects her extreme emotions to be addressed and assuaged. I have decided I will not participate in these anymore. I have had to essentially stop engaging with her at most levels. We see my in-laws for a quick weekend every other month. Things had been going adequately well until …

Sigh. Because she is controlling, she gets very upset when things don’t go her way. My husband and I know how we want to do things, and this makes her mad enough to slap her son in his own home. This is what it was about: We would prefer her to only bring toys at birthdays and holidays; she refuses and very pointedly brings and sends stuff. Yes, this is great. Yes, she is their grandmother and presents are part of the job description. But presents are also a mode of control for her, and one of my niece’s bedrooms could be on Hoarders. She also provokes confrontations by doing this. We are forced to either capitulate to her (and start down the slippery slope to floor-to-ceiling Tonka trucks) or to reiterate our values, which then causes her to become upset, then my husband loses his temper, and then … she slapped him.

I should add that she is unrepentant and unapologetic and refuses to see that this is not about toys but about her refusing to acknowledge our authority as parents. And now it’s about her resorting to violence.

So I’m done with her. I no longer have any good will toward her. I will no longer have a relationship with her. But I know that she is part of our lives. So how should this look? I don’t like the idea of a violent person being around my kids, but she is their grandmother and I don’t actually fear for their safety. I worry that right now I’m looking at this wrong because I just want to punish her. But loyalty and compassion and understanding are important to me, too. So I wanted to get your objective take on this. Is she behaving in such a way that we essentially need to discipline her? Is this just more setting boundaries that we have to do? Is that condescending? Does a slap change everything (I think it does)? Do I have to have another excruciating conversation with her in which I have to be the bigger person, or can I essentially stop speaking to her? We won’t be seeing them for a few months, but then what?? What is the right, decent, justified thing to do here?

This is mainly about my husband, I should say. He knows his mother best and it is his relationship with her that is at stake, and he’s the one who got slapped. I’d like to know what you think we should do as a couple, but also what I should do. I have no loyalty or love for her, and I feel like a Sarah Palin Mama Grizzly right now: I want to get in a helicopter and hunt her down (I know, the grizzlies don’t get in the helicopters; you know what I mean). I know that’s not right. What is?


Dear Slapstuck,

I love that you sent me such a Dear Abby question, so first I’ll tell you what Dear Abby would say: Limit the time you spend with your meddling mother-in-law, but gracefully and politely tolerate her. Don’t let her babysit if you don’t think she respects your wishes. Draw firm boundaries, but don’t confront her repeatedly or angrily. Anything that might fuel her turbulent rocket ship ride to Crazy Town on Planet Slapdown in the Narcissus Galaxy? DON’T DO IT.

Now here’s what I want to say: The exact same thing. Dear Abby didn’t build a lasting franchise of folksy American guidance on empty platitudes alone (although they occasionally played a part!). Unlike today’s ultra-modern denizens of the digital age, who often struggle to recognize and acknowledge that they can’t completely control their own precious microcosms, Abigail Van Buren recognized the careful dance of interdependence that’s necessary to keep extended families and villages and other communities thriving. She recognized that vast webs of interconnected, hotheaded people must compromise and be more polite than they feel like being in order to get along with each other. She knew that even when mothers-in-law are awful and competitive and petty and selfish, they are still best treated with kindness and care by their daughters-in-law. And let’s be practical: Nothing in the world will bring more misery into your life than an attempt to greet your mother-in-law’s acts of “generosity” (More toys anyone?) and “kindness” (Let’s go see Santa!) with anger and resentment.

That doesn’t mean that your mother-in-law is RIGHT to bring an endless flow of toys into your house without your permission or to sneak your kids off to see Santa or to slap her adult son. It simply means that you need to sort out the trivial issues from the nontrivial issues.

It’s not a small thing that she hit her your husband. She needs to know that if she does that again, it will be a long time before she sees her grandkids again. That’s non-negotiable. Your husband needs to tell her that calmly, without spite, either in person or via email. You should not be in the room when they have this conversation.

That said, you should NOT cut your mother-in-law off or confront her aggressively. This really isn’t about you. Treat this woman as if she’s an adored and respected member of your family whose needs and opinions will be taken into consideration occasionally, even when you strongly disagree and would much rather tell her to fuck right off.

I say “as if” because you’re obviously going to struggle to adore and respect her. Hell, you don’t even want to see her face. I get that. I really get it in the context of having a baby and a toddler in your house. But you still have to try to uphold the duties of your role in a larger family. That means you and your husband both have to try. You can assert your boundaries calmly, but freaking out and getting in her face is a giant mistake. When you do that, what you think you’re saying is, “Look, we’re adults! We’re in charge here! We don’t want giant piles of toys in our house!” But what she’s hearing, like it or not, is “We don’t need you or want you anymore! Take your toys and shove them up your ass!”

You’ve got to recognize that part of her hysteria is also your hysteria. She’s hysterical about being shut out of her grandkids’ lives and having no influence over them or her son. You’re hysterical about her busting in and doing whatever she wants with your kids at a time when you probably already feel totally out of control. You’re trying to set the terms of the relationship and she’s responding badly to the boundaries you put into place. But you need to take a more gentle approach, and you need to compromise about trivial stuff.

To be clear, I completely understand and sympathize with both the Do Not Bring Any More Plastic Shit Into Our House thing, AND the Do Not Take Control of Baby’s First Anything. When my oldest daughter was about one year old, my aunt hustled her out the door for her first beach trip as a walking, talking toddler, before I’d had a chance to grab some breakfast. I rushed to put on sunscreen and meet them, but by the time I came down the stairs, my aunt was already bringing my daughter back up. “She got wet and now she’s cold. I’m going to give her a nice warm bath.” It was so nice of her, but — I missed everything! I still remember walking out to the sand alone, overcome by a wave of anger so fierce it made me grit my teeth.

Toddlers and babies have a way of making new parents feel like they’re always at risk of missing out, and also at risk of losing control of a turbulent rocket ship ride that’s headed to Crazy Town whether they like it or not. The number of times I lost my temper and cried and felt like I was fucking up EVERY SINGLE THING in those early years kind of makes me shake my head and sigh now. It took so little to make me see red back then! And I hated interlopers. I still remember snapping at my brothers-in-law when they pestered me about a big family photo and then took a series of pictures “without spouses!” i.e. with my husband and my baby but without me. They were just being bumbling idiots, but because I was the mother of a small baby, I was sleep deprived and hormonal and it all felt very personal.

That’s the way of the mother bear, though: totally obnoxious in many ways, and difficult to describe to anyone who hasn’t been through it. But you have to keep in mind, your mother-in-law is also a mother bear. And based on my observations, there’s something about grandchildren that throws a grandmother back into mother-bear mode for the first time in several decades — which is unfortunate, because this means that you are both in mother-bear mode AT THE SAME TIME.

She’s angry because she feels that her son and her grandchildren are lost to her now. She wants to share the joy and shower them with crap and spoil them. She feels that that’s her right as a grandmother. She feels pushed out and rejected. Imagine your baby, all grown up, telling you to go fuck yourself with your endless flow of generous presents. Just put yourself in her shoes, I don’t care how lame or how crazy she is. Do it. Make yourself do it.

You can assert your boundaries calmly, and make it clear that violence won’t be tolerated. But you must take the higher ground, because she’s clearly not capable of it and that’s not going to change overnight. She’s irrational and she needs to be handled with kid gloves from now on. Lower your expectations and get practical. I would consider backing down about the presents. If you’re only seeing her once every other month, that’s six presents a year for each kid, plus a few more sent by mail. If she feels that giving things is incredibly important to her, let her do it. Kids are useless-plastic-crap magnets. It will find them no matter how you try to block it. Give away lots of crap regularly; you’ll have to do that anyway.

And as someone who’s about six years down the road from where you are now, I feel it’s my duty to tell you that the rules that seem incredibly important to you now are probably going to fall away over time. Sit down with your husband and talk about which principles are very important to you and which ones are less so. While you do this, keep in mind that unless you move to a farm in rural Iowa, you’ll have to let in some common cultural toxins here and there.

Also? The stakes are going to seem much lower in a few years, and this turbulent ride is going to become less stressful and more relaxing. In the meantime, cultivate fun and love and cheer in your house. Don’t be rigid. Don’t be angry. Welcome in the people who bring fun with them. Recognize that fresh ideas and new influences are good for your kids. It’s exciting for them and good for them to be away from you here and there, even if some big first is in the mix.

Talk about your anger with friends if you need a release. It’s okay to feel angry and frustrated. Anyone would. But once you’ve expressed yourself, try to let it go. Your job in this situation is to smooth things over so that your husband can maintain a decent relationship with his mother and your kids can have a relationship with their grandmother before she dies. I know that’s a lot, but it’s part of being a mature adult and a generous parent. It’s important that you honor and support the relationships that are important to your husband and your kids. You should take pains not to jeopardize or erode those relationships. Isn’t that what your mother-in-law, in her short-sightedness and recklessness, is doing? Forgive her for that. Don’t respond by being like her. Put your emotions aside, minimize the drama, and help your kids to embrace and enjoy their grandmother.


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Ask Polly: Can I Cut Off My Mother-in-Law?