Hi, Carolyn: My husband and I have been together for three years. I came in to the relationship with a 2-year-old son. My husband’s family has been extremely accepting of my son, and I’ve felt really lucky to have them.
Now we have a 6-month-old baby and things have changed. My glass bowl of a father-in-law seems to really like the baby and ignores the older one. The now-5-year-old took a nasty spill recently and cut up his knees. My father-in-law made baby-crying noises under his breath at my son. My father-in-law referred to last month’s as my husband’s “first Father’s Day.” My husband mentioned that it wasn’t his first, since he’s been raising my 5-year-old for the last three years. His dad replied with, “Well, I meant your first Father’s Day with your actual DNA.”
We are at a loss of what to do. My son will struggle enough dealing with a biological father that was never there for him so he doesn’t need a miserable step-grandfather. I’d like to cut him out of the children’s lives, but I’m aware it will change my husband’s and his relationship. Any ideas on how to proceed?
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You wrote that “we” don’t know what to do, and “I” would like to sever the tie. We need “we” here.
If you banish Glass Bowl Grandpa, then you are coming between father and son. If instead your husband insists, then Grandpa’s behavior is the obstacle. The latter locates the blame outside your marriage, while the former drops it right in the middle. The most important thing is to protect your children, yes, but a healthy marriage is a key element of that protective shell.
Grandparents who buy into the family ethos can be powerful protectors, too, so fortunately we are not yet at the point where banishing Grandpa is the only option.
Assuming your husband is open to this solution, he can ask his dad not to show any favoritism, with five key points:
“Dad, I understand you feel a special tie to the baby.”
“A 5-year-old, though, won’t understand. Instead he’ll believe he’s not as important a kid.”
“I feel sad as I notice your focus on the baby. I also feel bad for the baby, because favoritism creates conflict and competition between siblings, not mutual support.”
”You have been so good with the older boy all along, I have to think you’re not fully aware you’re doing this.”
“Would you please approach future visits with fairness in mind?”
If he pushes back against even this measured a request, then you’ll need a hard limit.
You actually don’t need your father-in-law to love your older child as much as he loves the younger, or to regard the two as equals among grandchildren. You just need him not to demonstrate his preferences in any way visible to the children.
And when the “why” doesn’t matter — all you need is the “what” — you have one of the rare situations where an ultimatum is appropriate. Equal treatment or no Grandpa. I hope it won’t come to that.
Dear Carolyn: My children are the only grandchildren for my in-laws, who live somewhat nearby. So when our first child was born, they bought her expensive items, bags upon bags of clothes, personalized gifts with her name etched, painted and embroidered. Two years later, our second child arrived. They bought her a single outfit. We assumed the fanfare was just over with a second child — babies certainly don’t care about hand-me-downs — and didn’t think much about it.
But the favoritism has continued since then. Child 1 received a pile of birthday presents, special attention and a special dinner with the whole family. Child 2 received two outfits a month after her birthday, handed to her father to give to her, unwrapped, and no-shows for her birthday dinner. Both were given books with their name as the main character: Child 1 got the large edition, Child 2 the travel size. Child 1 is the one snuggled and entertained, Child 2 is told there are a couple toys in another room she can play with. They’ve gone so far as to say how much they enjoyed when Child 2 was ill and they got to spend time with just Child 1.
My husband has attempted to respectfully say we do not want the children to be treated differently, but it is mostly ignored. Any advice on how we can approach this?
Yes. See my answer above, and see that your in-laws have roared past the “respectfully say” intervention stage and are about 20 lovingly inscribed gifts into the ultimatum zone. You both square yourselves and say that if this open favoritism continues, they won’t see their only grandchildren again. Save your kids. This is not hyperbole. Save them, now.
If these in-laws are as emotionally warped as they sound, your husband might need help finding the strength to stand up to them. Three words: skilled therapist, fast.
Email Carolyn at email@example.com, follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/carolyn.hax or chat with her online at 10 a.m. each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.