Dear Carolyn: My father-in-law is a classic jerk; he neglected and abused my husband throughout his childhood and teen years. By abuse I mean clobbering him with closed fists in anger until my husband was old enough to hit back. As adults we have little to do with him, and I’ve taken a laissez-faire approach to his belittling comments and creepy lifestyle.
That all went out the window, though, when I became a mother and he, a grandfather.
Because the baby was premature we asked everyone to get the CDC-recommended vaccine boosters and to respect our privacy in the hospital. However, he brazenly showed up while I was in recovery attempting to breastfeed, and did not leave or look away. He insisted the vaccines were pointless and took my baby out of my arms (had I not been on two machines and a blood drip I would have fought him off).
Weeks later, I agreed to bring the baby to a family gathering at his home. That day he informed us that his wife had bronchitis but was feeling better due to antibiotics. I refused to allow the baby in his home and my husband and I had a huge falling out over it (he still takes his dad’s side due to a sort of familial Stockholm syndrome).
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His father then insisted on dropping by with a gift — three stuffed Disney princesses! One of the only things my father-in-law knows about me is that I’m a staunch feminist, as he teases me about it whenever he can. Disney princesses are a big NO for a newborn — why make her a consumer dimwit before she even decides she likes those characters?
My question for you: Can I limit her time around him knowing he is making a point of not respecting our rules and boundaries?
Of course, if she didn’t have a father and you didn’t have a husband.
But since those spaces are occupied by the son of this “classic jerk,” your only good options are the ones you come to both as co-parents and as husband and wife.
As a parent, you’ll want to throw his princesses back in his face. As a spouse, though, you have an important role in supporting your husband’s desire to solve this difficult father of his.
And as a human at the beginning of a looong road, you have a large personal stake in choosing battles wisely — as in, picking ones that still make sense decades from now. I respectfully submit that the political messages of toys she receives before she can crawl won’t make the cut.
You have a fragile baby, a scarred husband and an abusive grandpa. Fighting every battle is a luxury you can’t afford.
So, establish priorities. First, protect your child. Second, support your husband. Third, manage your father-in-law. Seventeenth, mine Grandpa’s every move for new justification to loathe him.
The seed of every good decision toward these priorities is in your marriage. You and your husband need to talk, as forthrightly as you’re able, about each of your goals with respect to his father. This is the long-range part of the conversation: “I want him in my life because he’s my dad,” or, “I’d prefer to have nothing to do with him, but you need this so I will rally, within limits.”
This is also where you talk about whether your husband will ever get what he wants from a person who, quite possibly, lives to deny giving what people want.
That dovetails into the next logical topic: figuring out what achieving your goals would look like. Can your husband speak to the kind of childhood he’d like to provide for your daughter? Can you then agree on what grandpa behaviors legitimately work against that, versus antics that are merely obnoxious? Where does undermining you two as people, as a couple, as parents, fall on that scale? Is he sufficiently aware of and healed from the abuse to speak to these things?
Depending on the severity of your husband’s emotional scars, this reckoning might need a push from counseling — family, couple’s, individual, whatever makes the most sense.
Next you talk about where you can and can’t compromise, all through the lens of your child’s well-being. You, for example, agree to make nicer than you want, and he agrees to visit less than he wants. You agree to accept gifts you deplore, and he agrees to back you publicly even when he reflexively sides with Dad. Etc. Infrequent visits already limit Grandpa’s reach, right? So are there peeing contests you can afford to let him win? Humoring him into complacency on trifles isn’t capitulation, it’s power.
With or without it, keep in mind throughout that your husband likely chose you in part because you’re as strong or stronger than his dad; you can reinforce your husband where he’s weakest (something he likely does for you in some other way). The trick to being strong for someone else is in maintaining the perspective he can’t.
Email Carolyn at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow her on Facebook at facebook.com/carolyn.hax or chat with her online at 10 a.m. time each Friday at washingtonpost.com.