‘Should I Let My Kid See His Weird Grandparents?’

Illustration: by Emma Erickson

Dear Emily,

In my 20s, my father remarried a dotty narcissist (think of the mom from Fleabag). She’s a bit dumb, talks incessantly, says vaguely critical things, touches everyone sensually, and is obsessed with my toddler, who might be too young to tell she’s off.

After a terrible trip to visit them when our kid was just born, my husband wanted to keep our son away forever, believing that they’ll try to influence or control him, and worried that our baby would actually grow to like them. My husband was a little skeezed out by her level of obsession with our baby; she pre-bought gear, had nicknames ready, and invited her friends over to visit our child. I was skeezed out by a feeling I had that she wanted ownership over him, or could somehow … turn him against me! Because despite everything else she is really good with kids, makes all the silly faces, etc.

I’m no longer that worried about such horrors. He’s 2 years old and has a community of teachers, my fellow moms, and other grandparents whom he also adores and sees regularly, so it’s harder for them to manipulate him into adoration. But the question remains: Should we let our toddler visit — and maybe love — annoying crazy people?

Phoebe Waller-Bridge With a Toddler and Less Money

Dear Phoebe,

You say you already know your son would never choose these grandparents over you, but I don’t totally believe that you really feel it. Who among us is truly immune to the atmospheric pull of a charming narcissist, especially one who probably has pockets full of lollipops and a Nintendo Switch hidden in her hideous macramé handbag? I can see why your husband had the immediate impulse, during that first visit, to grab the baby and run away forever. Your stepmother sounds scary.

You don’t say how you feel about your dad or what kind of grandparent he is, and maybe it’s not the foremost consideration here, but I’m assuming that, pre-baby, you put up with this batshit woman in order to preserve a relationship with him, and that you still want one. Given that assumption, I’m going to say yes, you have to expose your kid to Olivia Colman-manqué once in a while. All you can do is establish some boundaries — she’ll tromp all over them with delight, but you’ll feel better for having set them in advance. Maybe it’s that all visits have to take place at your apartment, or in some neutral location where you and your kid feel comfortable and in control. Or maybe you lay down the law with her in advance about whatever you care about most, like food or nicknames. Just asserting yourself and your primacy as Mother can make a big difference when dealing with grandparents of all stripes. It’s actually the rare grandmother who doesn’t occasionally forget that she lacks the authority to parent her own child’s child; even non-monsters make that mistake on the regular. (Hi, Mom.)

Speak up for yourself and your kid before and during visits, even if it feels awkward or out of character. Calmly articulated, firmly expressed limits like “we have a hard out at 4:45” are like kryptonite to this type of person. As long as you summon the courage to follow through on whatever rules you set for the visit, you will leave without feeling like the marrow has been sucked out of your bones.

Also, no one says that if you decide to see these people at all, you then have to see these people all the time. Perhaps you have a standing set-in-stone commitment to some regular weekend activity, or your son gets carsick on long drives, et cetera, et cetera — tell whatever lies you have to tell. Anything you need to do or say is kosher if it helps to keep this grandparent duo at a comfortable arm’s length away from your family, but still in the mix just enough that you aren’t estranged from your dad when and if he finally (let us pray) cuts this baggage loose.

And what happens if he does develop a bond with Grandmère and Papa that makes you uncomfortable? It’s unlikely, but it could happen given enough charisma and bribery. And if it does, you will have to fall back on something reassuring you already know about children, now that yours is 2: All little kids’ enthusiasms are as intense as they are fleeting. When my younger son was 3 he insisted on wearing the same tattered Elsa-from-Frozen nightgown over his clothes to preschool every damn day (we eventually got duplicate dresses so we wouldn’t constantly have to launder the original). He did this for a solid year. And then one day he just didn’t want to put the dress on. No more Frozen, no more Elsa, we were fools for even mentioning them to him. He had moved on to Numberblocks, or Octonauts, or something else with an annoying and irrepressibly catchy theme song and infinite episodes on Netflix. Since then he’s cycled through umpteen different obsessive phases (Taylor Swift, Hannah Montana, that horrible Nickelodeon sitcom about quadruplets who maddeningly look nothing alike). None of these fads has stuck for more than a few months. This can happen with people, too. Lasting loyalty to a look or a show or a person is simply not a toddler trait. Know that you can ride out the storm, counting on the fact that it will be over soon.

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‘Should I Let My Kid See His Weird Grandparents?’