Carolyn Hax: Advice

Carolyn Hax: Mother-in-law needn’t be family referee

Dear Carolyn: My husband and I are both in our late 20s and have decided to start a family through adoption. A childhood illness left me unable to have biological children. My husband knew this before we ever started dating, and his parents have known for years as well. No one — until now — has led me to feel ashamed of my condition.

We’ve been talking about our adoption plans with friends and our immediate families, but recently my mother-in-law advised that we not discuss it with her extended family and should hide our adoption books when they are visiting. When I declined to put away the books, she hid them herself! She says she wants to break the news about our adoption plans to her parents gently because it’s not how they expect to have a great-grandchild and they'll be shocked and need an explanation.

Logically, I guess I understand where my mother-in-law is coming from. My husband’s grandparents can be abrasive at times, and she’s trying to protect us from the potential onslaught. But on the other hand, I feel hurt and betrayed.

Should I tell my mother-in-law how I feel or just let it pass?


(1) “I realize you’re trying to protect us from your parents’ biases.”

(2) “Unfortunately, the unintended message in hiding the adoption books is that we’re supposed to be ashamed.”

(3) “From now on, please don’t move our stuff. I will deal with the family myself, starting with Grandma and Grandpa.” (Then do it.)

It is not your mother-in-law’s place to referee the relationship between you and this set of grandparents.

It’s also not your place, except by default: The above script isn’t for you, it’s for your husband, since it’s his mother and it’s your back he needs to have, publicly and definitively.

You’re a grown woman who can speak for herself, of course, about your own relationships with these people. However, when you’re the in-law and when the topic is something that might trigger abrasive commentary — and especially when it’s none of the commentators’ darn business — your being the one to speak up leaves an opening for opportunists to blame you. Having your husband own this can be the difference between “This is the thing she forced on our precious relative” and “This is the thing our precious relative chose.”

Your husband might have no interest in the spokeshusband role, and that’s fine — there’s no one way to solve this — as long as you talk your way to an alternate plan together. You two are all that matter, and the approach that works here is by definition the approach you both embrace.

As for any “onslaught,” I suspect your mother-in-law is acting out her own unresolved stuff more than anything, and these grandparents will manage. Adoption as pearl-clutching occasion just doesn’t register to me.

If a disapproval onslaught comes, though, you don’t have to answer to it, listen to it, or stay in the room for it. Let it be that poor falling tree with no one in the forest to hear.

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