DEAR CAROLYN: My retired mother-in-law graciously provides day care for my two daughters while my wife and I work. With child care in our city being practically unaffordable, it’s a huge help to us and beneficial for the children, we feel.
But she exacts a toll for her efforts. Mainly in the form of constantly haranguing and lecturing my wife on her deficiencies as a mother — i.e. doing anything differently than she did because she was obviously the perfect mother.
Mainly we put up with it quietly, but the latest rant really bothers me. My wife and I wanted to celebrate our fifth anniversary and my mother-in-law basically told us it’s selfish and self-centered to do anything as a couple, as your focus should be entirely on your kids. It took all my nerve not to shout at her that maybe that attitude is exactly why your relationship with your husband is terrible (they barely speak).
My wife just wants to move on and not do date nights because of it.
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How can I explain to her and her mother that doing things as a couple is essential to a healthy marriage and not “selfish”?
DEAR BOTHERED: When you say day care is “practically unaffordable,” you’re just talking money.
But you can’t afford your mother-in-law’s care emotionally – not for much longer.
I suppose if you had no other work or day-care options, or if it were just a matter of counting to 20 during “Milly’s” judgmental rants and then politely ignoring her to do as you see fit, then it would make sense to keep paying her toll.
However, your wife doesn’t shrug this off; she’s actually overruling her own judgment in response to the criticism. Even if she doesn’t agree with Milly’s take, she’s buckling under the weight of it and making choices she wouldn’t otherwise make.
That’s poison. It’s bad for your marriage, you’re dead right about that – but it’s also corrosive to your wife’s confidence as spouse and parent, and confusing for your daughters. Let’s not pretend you’re keeping it from them, because kids learn to read you fluently well before they can form the words to explain that.
Not to mention, this dynamic is flat-out terrible for whatever relationship you two have left with Milly.
That’s the least of my concerns here, since Milly seems intent on smashing that up single-handedly, but it might hold sway with your wife – and you need her to summon her strength to resist Milly.
To see how, let’s zoom in on two modifiers in your letter: Milly provides day care, but to do so “graciously” would require some baseline respect for you two as parents; and day care is “practically” unaffordable, which means you can afford it, if barely. Yes?
These words are your two points of access to the problem. You either set whatever limits you must with this caregiver for her attitude to pass for grace, or you curb your spending enough to afford a new caregiver. It is really as simple as that.
The former is profoundly overdue and best handled by your wife, but if she’s not up to it (yet? See below) then it’ll suffice for you to handle it with your wife’s blessing. Here’s how, using your example: When Milly says it’s “selfish and self-centered” to go out, you say, “We will hire a sitter then. Please do not tell us how to conduct our marriage.”
Period-full stop-done done done.
When Milly lectures your wife, stand up for her where she can’t stand up for herself: “ [Wife] is an excellent parent. I’m grateful for her every day.”
When Milly persists: “You raised her. Maybe it’s time to trust you did it right.”
And when Milly refuses to respect these limits: “You stepped in to care for our kids, which was an enormous help, and our kids love you. We love you. But we can’t continue this arrangement if you don’t respect us and our way of doing things.
“Can we count on you to support us vs. correct us, no matter how well-meaning your corrections may be?”
To you and everyone now thinking, “Yeah, right”: I agree. If she’d merrily agree to this — if there weren’t some element of control to Milly’s stepping in as caregiver — then you wouldn’t be forced to insist.
But this is how it goes when placing new limits where none have existed. You must ask for what you need.
When you don’t get it, then you must attach consequences. If Milly refuses to serve in your household by your rules, respectfully and therefore graciously, then she cannot serve in it at all.
Which is why even if you’re strong enough to take this on – your quiet caving says it’s not a given – your wife must find her strength, too. This works only if she can fire the very mother who raised her to acquiesce.
Email Carolyn Hax at firstname.lastname@example.org.