Carolyn Hax: Mother-in-law needs more than hints

February 16, 2014 

Carolyn: I am desperate for help, and my mom isn’t cutting it. My mother-in-law (whom we see often) insists on weighing in on everything we do for our son … usually indicating that we are somehow doing it wrong because it’s not what she would do. Nothing objectively wrong, just not “her way.” For example, she keeps trying to feed him baby food and formula, at our house, when we’re trying to feed him “real” food and he clearly doesn’t want formula or baby food.

It feels like a judgment of our abilities, so my mom says, “Just tell her she’s making you feel like she thinks you aren’t competent.” But that’s easier said than done.

How do I convey “He’s our child, let us do it, respect our decisions, please stop, put the bottle down,” without seeming nasty or rude? But at the same time with enough conviction that she gets the hint, when prior efforts (“I’ll do it,” “It’s just easier,” “He’s not hungry”) didn’t work?

I want to find a way to convey to her that I’m at my wits’ end, she has to back off, etc., without seeming too nasty.

R.

So, “easier said than done” equals “I won’t bother to try”? Mom is cutting it, with honest communication.

Of course it’s hard to say how you feel, to be vulnerable and potentially awkward. But the alternative you’re advice-shopping for is clearly combative — and besides setting you up to be another combative daughter-in-law in the sad continuum of mother-in-law/daughter-in-law hostility, it creates the long-term discomfort of an antagonistic environment, versus the short-term discomfort of communicating your way toward mutual respect.

Yes, I’m telling you to listen to your mother. But I’m offering an extended sample script, too:

1) “It must drive you nuts to see us doing things you would do differently — I get it.”

2) “When you jump in with suggestions, though, I’m not just hearing, ‘Give him formula.’ I hear: ‘You don’t know what you’re doing! Let me handle it.’ ”

3) “It’s not that I think I’m always right or you’re always wrong. It’s that I want to find my own way, what works for me and Spouse and Baby.”

4*) “You did such a great job with Spouse that I married him/her! I do respect your opinion.”

5*) “I just prefer to ask for it. You were in my place once, surely you understand.”

I gave 4 and 5 with an asterisk because anyone who is genuinely trying to help, versus trying to run your life (or boost her own ego), will stop you after No. 3 and pledge to back off, probably with an apology and possibly with gratitude for the second chance your candor permits.

The ones who want to control, control, control won’t get the message even after Nos. 4 and 5, but saying them will lay a foundation of empathy you can build on, in case you need a firmer “Please put the bottle down, and respect our decisions.”

Also useful: following through with the promise of seeking her perspective. “Baby has started doing X. Did Spouse ever do that as a child?” Always try including her on your terms before barring the door.

Email tellme@washpost.com. Chat online at 10 a.m. Fridays at www.washingtonpost.com.

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