Dear Ann Cannon • My husband and I have long had a contentious relationship with his parents, for which I know they blame me. Now there are grandkids around — our son and his two cousins — which provides a nice buffer to our interactions. But it also brings some new concerns! I feel like we have opposing opinions on everything about raising kids, from nutrition (the cousins eat plates full of sugar!), to religion (their grandson is going to become a godless heathen and it’s all my fault!), to politics (avoid! avoid! avoid!).
I find myself worrying ahead of when we’re going to spend time with them, imagining hypothetical situations in which they’ll do or say something with my kid that I don’t approve of and I won’t know how to intervene, as I always just try to avoid conflict. They mean well and are outwardly generous, but we just differ so much, and my mother-in-law takes offense quickly and holds a grudge. How can I assert my authority as the parent, when doing so will outrightly flout what my in-laws think is best and possibly cause conflict in an already tenuous relationship?
Dear Daughter-Out-Law • No doubt about it, this is all hard stuff. Thanks for your excellent question. I’m sure plenty of readers will relate.
OK. I’m going to start by asking you a question. Regardless of your personal feelings about your in-laws, do you think having them involved in your son’s life is a net gain or a net loss … for him? Every child can benefit from having lots of loving adults in his or her life, even if all those adults don’t see eye-to-eye, so if you believe your parents-in-law can add value to his life, I wouldn’t shut them out.
This, of course, IS SUPER EASY TO SAY! The truth is, relationships with in-laws can be tricky — especially if you feel like they judge or blame you or undercut your authority. So, how can you proceed for the sake of your son? Here are a few options:
- Mount a charm offensive •Send your parents-in-law lots of photos of their grandson. Text them whenever he does something adorable. Express gratitude for the things they do for him. These actions may go a long way toward softening their response to you.
- Ignore what you can • I know it’s hard when you feel like your position as a parent is being challenged, but the truth is you have way, way, way more influence over your child than they do. I don’t think you have to worry that they present any long-term challenge to your authority. Realizing this may help you to relax more when you see one another.
- Speak up if you need to • On the other hand, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t speak up if you really feel like you should speak up. Say something positive, express your concern politely, and end with another positive. This is a strategy that often works well when you need to have a difficult conversation.
- Choose not to take offense • Here’s the deal. Taking offense gives the other person power over you.
In conclusion, I want to take a moment to write about my own mother-in-law who recently passed away. From the moment we met until the day she died, she acted like she was THRILLED that her only son (and the apple of her eye) had brought me into her orbit. I eventually realized, of course, that there were plenty of things I did and said that could have made her roll her eyes. In fact, she probably did roll her eyes. But she didn’t do it in front of me. And she never told me what to do or how to do it.
Here’s something else I came to realize about my mother-in-law: She would have treated any daughter-in-law the way she treated me. I wasn’t that special. But she made me feel that way.
The world would be a better place if more parents-in-law followed her lead. RIP, Ruth Cannon.