Dear Carolyn: Our wonderful, beautiful daughter is living at home to save money, studying to be a pharmacist, earning straight A’s. She also works 30 hours per week as a technician in her field. She is intelligent and hardworking, a nice person with a great sense of humor, too. My husband and I could not be happier with her.
Unfortunately, my mother-in-law (“Milly”) does not feel the same way. She had her heart set on Daughter following a different career path, and is deeply disappointed. Even more unfortunate, Milly lacks a filter. So, Milly introduces Daughter as “my granddaughter, the drug dealer,” with no hint that it is a joke, makes frequent comments about Daughter being “too dumb” for Milly’s preferred field, and tells her to just drop out of school since she is going to get pregnant and have to quit anyway.
My daughter resents it, but is polite toward her grandmother.
Milly lives a three-hour drive from us. We visit regularly, though not as often as Milly would like, and sometimes we meet halfway for lunch.
Our daughter goes along for the short visits but avoids longer trips, though she goes sometimes out of respect for her father and me. I am sympathetic: If Milly wants a closer relationship, then it is on her to learn to shut up. All three of us have talked to Milly about it, and she knows what the problem is.
My husband, however, is really upset. He says this is how she always has been, and she is never going to change (agreed). He says, “The old bag isn’t going to live forever.” He feels that Daughter needs to be there for every visit. He is applying a lot of pressure, including threats to cut off financial help toward schooling.
It is getting uncomfortable around here. How can we handle this?
With a nest soon emptying and an exchange of vows between you, you and your husband have standing to prioritize your own relationship when facing difficult choices.
However. Milly’s behavior is so obnoxious and uncalled-for, and your responsibility as a parent so fundamental, and your daughter’s behavior so exemplary – she still visits her verbal abuser, in deference to her parents! – that justice demands standing up for your daughter.
Your husband’s willingness to withhold tuition suggests he has more Milly in him than any of you would like to admit. Note the pattern of expecting people to behave as you want them to, and punishing disobedience sharply. So, your daughter doesn’t become the doctor (right?) that Milly expected, then takes Milly’s verbal abuse for it. Your daughter doesn’t play the attentive granddaughter as her dad expects, then feels Dad’s wrath for it.
Milly and your husband both need a gifted therapist.
But lacking Jeannie power to blink them there, I can only advise you to represent sanity and pragmatism. Tell your husband, gently, that his tuition threat is a page from Milly’s playbook – assuming he’s rational and kind enough not to punish such truth-telling.
More important: Tell your daughter she’s entitled to protect herself here, however she defines this protection; how much she resists Dad, at what cost, is her call.
Your job is to decide how far you’ll go to protect her, then promise her you’ll do just that.
Email Carolyn at email@example.com, follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/carolyn.hax or chat with her online at noon Eastern time each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.