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‘My Son’s Girlfriend Is Keeping Me From My Grandchildren!’

Photo-Illustration: Stevie Remsberg/Getty Images

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Dear Polly,

This letter is about my son’s live-in girlfriend. My son has been with this girl for 18 years, and they have two children together. This is the first year we had issues with the holidays. She decided not to schedule time for our family get-together. She instead blocked all time with her family and with my ex and his new wife. They live about 1 ¼ hours away and it is as if we are across the country. Now my youngest is coming for a visit and they want to come down for the first time in eight months. Still no apology for the missed holidays or forcing us to mail the gifts due to schedule issues (my husband drives a semi). So my question is: Do I spend my Mother’s Day in the kitchen for this person that has kept my grandchildren from me for eight weeks? Or do I cook and throw the birthday party they have not thrown my 6-year-old grandson? And let her be spoiled for the day and me not get to enjoy things due to the food preparation, church, and visiting the nursing home?

Where do I say enough is enough?

Angry

Dear Angry,

I don’t usually do this, but I need to begin with a story. When I was newly married, I visited my husband’s entire family for the first time. Both of his parents died years ago, but he has a lot of siblings, and I hadn’t met a few of them until then. Overall, we had a good time. His siblings are all very gracious and smart, and have a good sense of humor, which is the single most important thing when it comes to in-laws, if you ask me. The whole weekend was pretty relaxed. We sat around drinking beers in the summer evening air and talking about whatever came up.

BUT. I was the first-time mother of a small baby. And as all first-time mothers know, caring for a very dependent, unpredictable, throw-pillow-shaped blob does something to your nervous system. You become a strange combination of cow and cop. You have a baby attached to your boob for several hours a day. Maybe you let her stay on a little too long, because she’s always happy when she’s there. Or she passes out, drunk on breast milk, and you lie there staring at her cute rabbit face for a few hours. You do this because you know that the second you move, she’ll wake up and be cranky for the rest of the afternoon. You’re in a new place, who knows if she’ll nap? If she doesn’t nap, she’ll get whiny and cry a lot, as babies do.

When the first-time mother-cow emerges from the basement room, she becomes Officer Cow. She puts the baby down on the rug, and the baby crawls around looking for things to choke herself with. Then an aunt wants to pick the baby up and hold her in ways that are perhaps slightly ill-advised. Please note that many of the aunts and uncles don’t have kids of their own and don’t seem entirely familiar with small babies; there are 14 aunts and uncles in attendance and only three cousins present. Sometimes an aunt holds a baby and the baby gets a fearful look and then bursts into tears. Sometimes an uncle asks if a baby can eat something absurd, like a fucking peanut. Officer Cow shuts the fuck up about all of this, because she’s not an idiot. Even so, she must hover constantly, because Officer Cow’s husband is neither cop nor cow, plus he’s getting drunk on the deck with his brothers right now. (One of the brothers is strumming guitar not all that rhythmically, which Officer Cow notices because Officer Cow is an officer but not a gentleman.)

So Officer Cow spends a lot of her vacation, a vacation that takes a lot of time and energy and costs real money that Officer Cow and her husband don’t have at that moment, hovering and worrying and dying to be back in her basement room, alone with the baby. Even though she is free to sip beer and chortle along with the rest of the adults, Officer Cow’s head is still filled with questions like “Will the baby sleep in her porta-crib later or cry all night, requiring us to start from zero with sleep training?” and “Can I keep my hormonal cow/cop self from sobbing or yelling in this particular environment?” and “Who are these fucking aliens I’m now chained to for life, anyway?”

Officer Cow is wired like a mega-bomb, in other words, one with a piss-poor attitude.

The smart aunts and uncles know this, because they’re not stupid. But they don’t say a word about it. They’re too nice for that. But they don’t have the best attitudes either, both because this is their brother’s second marriage (do they really have to do this shit again?) and because this second-wife person is not the most relaxed human alive, by all appearances. Officer Cow seems high-strung and judgmental, and because the aunts and uncles in attendance are also ever so slightly high-strung and ever so slightly judgmental (in spite of the deceptively chill beer sipping and guitar strumming) they know a mega bomb when they see one. They don’t love feeling judged. They don’t love this outsider element at their family reunion. The baby is amazing, but the Officer Cow hovering over her? Not so much.

On the last day, the family will take some group photos. Officer Cow is reminded of this by each and every one of her husband’s siblings at least twice that day. “Photos are at 4 p.m.! Don’t be late!” Officer Cow builds her day around this plan, feeding the baby, putting makeup on her bloated, sleep-deprived cow face, brushing her pathetically frizzy cow hair. She appears upstairs at exactly 4 p.m. Everyone looks pleased! The first photograph is of just the siblings, no spouses. The second photograph is of the siblings with all of their offspring. Still no spouses! Officer Cow hands over her baby, feeling slightly odd about it for some reason, probably just because she’s a sleep-deprived asshole, though. The third photograph will be of everyone! But who will sit out? Another spouse valiantly volunteers!

Everyone is in place! Officer Cow holds her baby and smiles bravely!

“Oh hey you guys? Dan needs to leave for the airport right now, we’ve got to run!”

Everyone disperses before the photo is snapped. Officer Cow stands still, in disbelief, but her pulse begins to race and her face turns hot. She was not in a single photograph. She is not a real part of these festivities at all. She is a subhuman, half-person who conveniently gave birth to a member of this family. Her mind flashes back to how many times she heard her baby spoken of in a tone that seemed to erase her from the picture. Over and over again, she handed over the baby and everyone said to each other, “Here is a true descendent of our clan.” “Look at what we made!” they seemed to say, over and over, without acknowledging her presence. It wasn’t just her asshole imagination at work here. She could see that she was just an inconvenient appendage at best.

Because Officer Cow is admittedly a dick and a little reckless and immature at times, she was heard to mumble, “Fucking unreal,” as she dashed back to the basement, the tears forming in her eyes, wishing that she could hop on the next plane out of town, too.

I apologize for the long story, but I needed to paint a vivid picture for you. I know that you want to see your son and your grandchild as often as you possibly can, because you love them both with all of your heart. But this woman, whom you refer to as a “live-in girlfriend” after she’s spent 18 years with your son, knows very well that you view her as a needless appendage, a subhuman half-person who is merely an obstacle to getting what you want and deserve as a mother and a grandmother.

You probably have your reasons for disliking your daughter-in-law. But she is your daughter-in-law now, even without the law involved. She is your son’s partner. She is his wife, for all intents and purposes. And your son is the one you have a relationship with. He’s the one who should be showering you with the love you deserve, not your daughter-in-law, who has likely been treated like an irritating handservant from day one. Or maybe she’s a terrible bitch who has been a nightmare from day one. Either way, though, this is about you and your son. Can you ask him for what you want directly? If not, I would work on that.

As far as your daughter-in-law goes, I would not say that refusing to visit for the holidays for the first time in 18 years is an insurmountable offense. If I were you, I would focus on the many, many times she did visit. I would consider the time and energy involved in showing up to the house of a woman who doesn’t respect you, doesn’t respect your relationship with your partner of 18 years, and says things like WHY DIDN’T YOU GIVE MY GRANDCHILD A BIRTHDAY PARTY? When you say “my grandchild” in a certain tone, trust me, it sounds like you’re implying that the kid is yours and your son’s, but not hers. You need to start treating your daughter-in-law like a legitimate human person with needs and concerns of her own. If you want to see your son and his family more often, you need to treat your son’s partner with respect, ask her questions about her life, and be patient and kind and curious and helpful in general.

I know it must sting for them to visit your ex and not you. I know that grandmothers also sometimes feel like subhuman half-persons: unnecessary, inconvenient, in the way. And to be clear, Angry, you have choices. You can call off their visit, until you cool down. You can order takeout and refuse to cook. You can ask your son and your youngest child to cook all weekend. You can drive 1 ¼ hours to take your grandson out to a nice meal for his birthday and shower him with gifts, all by yourself. You are a full person who has rights and can do whatever she likes. You should probably please yourself more often. I’ll bet you worked really hard for those kids, and you want more gratitude from them. I’ll bet you still work hard. You deserve a lot of love and respect, I’m sure of that, and you should ask for it. You should start with your son: Ask him for what you want.

Even if you decide not to do that, though, you need to show some respect to Officer Cow. She has her own rough road, behind and in front of her, that I’ll bet you don’t know that much about. I would try to start viewing her as your own daughter. Treat her like you love her, even if you don’t. Sometimes when you show up and listen to someone closely, and treat them with care, you start to love them for who they are, even when you thought that was impossible. You shouldn’t feel guilty for not loving her now, mind you. You feel how you feel, and that’s fine. But you need to call her his partner or his wife, for sure, not his “live-in” like she’s some concubine-type of interloper. Try to forgive yourself for your past mistakes and open your heart to her, and start treating her like a real person instead of an inconvenience.

That’s what I’ve tried to do with my husband’s family, and that’s what they’ve tried to do for me, too. I don’t see them as pesky aliens in my life anymore. I try to honor their needs without meddling or inserting my own agenda into things. I’ve made my share of missteps, but I know they’ve mostly forgiven me for being flawed and moody. They’re very forgiving people. They always open their hearts to me, even when they don’t feel like it. I’m grateful for that. I am trying to emulate that. I’m trying not to hover as much. I’m trying to make more room for other people to be who they are, without butting in and showing off and dominating and fixing them. I’m trying to be less of an officer.

But I still like being a cow. Cows are relaxed and patient. I know you have a cow deep inside of you, one that’s filled with nothing but love. Let the cow come out, and see the sad girl behind the bitch who had your son’s babies. Let the cow quietly watch her and notice how hard she tries to do right by you and your son and your grandchildren. Make some room for your son’s cherished, beloved, loyal partner. Give her some space to be who she already is.

Polly

Order the Ask Polly book, How to Be a Person in the World, here. Got a question for Polly? Email askpolly@nymag.com. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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‘My Son’s Girlfriend Is Keeping Me From My Grandchildren!’