Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Hi Carolyn: I’ve upset my daughter-in-law deeply, but am not sure exactly why. She is a stay-at-home mom. She kindly offered to watch their 16-month-old son for the long weekend while my husband and son went on a special father-son hike for my husband’s birthday. I thought this would be a wonderful opportunity for just us girls to spend time together. I also don’t drive much and don’t love being home alone when my husband is gone.
For these reasons, I suggested that I also drive up with my husband (about eight hours) and help her out. In no uncertain terms, she said that would “not be the best thing” and gave a few reasons it probably wouldn’t work out. I considered them and thought I could deal with some of the things she pointed out.
Well, I surprised my son and daughter-in-law by coming up anyway. Much to my dismay, when my daughter-in-law saw me, she burst into tears and ran out of the room. My son wasn’t pleased with me nor was my husband, who “thought I had worked it all out.” My daughter-in-law ended up pulling it together and was cordial, but distant. I enjoyed seeing my grandson, but I left feeling very unwanted and unloved.
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What exactly did I do that was so bad? How do I remedy a situation when I don’t know exactly what the issue is? I don’t want to be “that” mother-in-law.
How to Be Close?
The issue is that you showed complete disregard for your daughter-in-law’s wishes because you wanted to visit.
She wanted to be alone with her child for the weekend, for countless possible reasons that may have had nothing to do with you. Maybe she just wanted to live by her own rhythms for a weekend. Maybe she had some girl time planned with friends. Maybe she and your son have been arguing, and she just wanted a few days to think.
Instead, she had to host you, and it’s tiring to host anyone, much less a “surprise” guest.
Yes, you thought the reasons she cited for saying no were fixable, but (a) they were her reasons, so it wasn’t up to you to work around them; and (b) maybe they were just polite, made-up reasons because she was being discreet; and (c) you didn’t even allow her any say in your Plan B!
Regardless of the specifics on her end, you decided that your wants and needs were paramount and just steamrolled her wants and needs completely. You still seem confused that she has needs.
And that is what you have to apologize for, fully, immediately and without defensiveness, which means no “but I thought ...” constructions.
In fact, I think you have to go beyond an apology and offer to make it up to her somehow: “I see now that I imposed myself on you unforgivably, so I’d like to give you a makeup weekend somehow — we’ll watch the baby while you and Son get away, or we’ll treat you to a weekend away for the three of you.” If you can’t manage the trip or afford the gift, then send a gift card to a restaurant they like. Something tangible, ASAP.
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