Q: I write as a loving and supportive grandmother who would do anything for my 1-year-old granddaughter, but increasingly I feel very put upon by my daughter-in-law. Two or three times a week, she asks me (often at very short notice) if I can babysit and I always drop everything and say yes. I want to help out, of course, but I feel she is taking advantage. What can I do without causing tension?

A: Upon first reading of your question, my initial response was “become more assertive and learn to say no!” However, as you have pointed out, family relationships are often complicated and after further thought, I felt that your daughter-in-law’s behaviour, perhaps warranted closer examination. Firstly, I think she obviously trusts you and that is a testament to you and your positive influence. Secondly, I wonder if she’s coping as well as she might be? A first baby is such a life changing event and sometimes it takes parents time to adjust (especially if the baby is not sleeping well!). Perhaps she is feeling overwhelmed by it all and her first instinct is to call on you so she can catch a break. While I totally understand how you feel about the situation, maybe you can use it in the short term to do a little bit of detective work.

To start with, you could diplomatically have a chat with your son, to see how things are when you’re not there. You could also suggest that he take care of the baby for a few hours, so that you can take your daughter-in-law out for lunch and just check-in with how she’s feeling. By doing this, you can truly assess the situation and then make your own mind up about whether they are struggling or whether they are just being opportunistic and banking on your good nature.

If the former is true, at least you will have opened up a dialogue and then perhaps you could suggest that you come over to support her when she is there in a mentoring role, taking some of the strain, but also being there to help her become more confident. If the latter is true, then it’s my opinion that you need to get something more formal in place. Tell your son and daughter-in-law when you are available to babysit and create a regular weekly routine. That way you’ll be able to build your life around your care for your granddaughter and they will have some free time each week to recharge their batteries.

 

Q: My in-laws are lovely people and we have always had a good relationship with them. However, there is one issue that is becoming an increasing problem; they spoil our two children terribly. They are very financially “comfortable” and have worked hard to achieve that status, but it means they never miss an opportunity to buy our 10- and 8- year-old expensive gifts. This doesn’t just happen on special occasions like birthdays, but almost weekly! We don’t want our children to grow up to be entitled and spoiled and we try to instil a sense of the value of money, but it’s hard when we’re so undermined…how can we put a stop to it without hurting their feelings?

A: Dealing with overindulgent grandparents is very tricky. That need to give obviously comes from a place of love and is well-meant, but it seems that your in-laws simply haven’t thought about the consequences for you as parents, or for their grandchildren’s futures. You are absolutely right to be worried that this instant gratification of their “wants” will have an impact. Not only does it contradict the messages you are sending out to your children about materialism and the need to wait or save for things they want, but it also means that gifts become increasingly meaningless as there is a never ending supply of them!

Russell Hemmings
Friday

 I wonder did they spoil your husband when he was a child? It’s worth discussing with him and this will help you to formulate a plan of action. If they didn’t (and I think that’s quite likely as you both seem to have similar shared values) then you could use this as a basis for a discussion with them. Maybe they just don’t know how you feel. We often skirt around issues that we fear will upset and so it might be that they haven’t received clear signals from you.

You could approach it in such a way as to make them feel you are enlisting their help. For example, explain that you have noticed your kids starting to exhibit entitled behaviour and you want to nip it in the bud. Ask them to spend time rather than money (which in my opinion is far more valuable) for the next four visits as a kind of “experiment” and maybe this will wean them off their over generous impulses. You could also suggest that instead of buying them so much, they put the money away as a college fund for each child, limiting gifts to special occasions and thereby ensuring that any extra money spent will be going towards educational success and a bright future for their beloved grandchildren. I’m sure, once they understand, they’ll jump at the chance!

 

Q: My in-laws are over involved in my family life. They drop in unannounced, pass comments criticising everything from the way we parent our new son to the clothes I wear! My husband never confronts them about it, which really annoys me. What can I do to create boundaries? I’m beginning to dread every day in case they turn up.

A: Dealing with in-laws can be tricky at the best of times, but when a new baby arrives it can become even more awkward. Some grandparents manage to walk the fine line between being supportive and not interfering. Others, (and it sounds like this includes your husband’s parents) see it as their job to give the “newbies” the benefit of their experience - regardless of whether they’ve asked for it or not! This approach is obviously leaving you feeling undermined and deflated, so no wonder you’re waking up feeling on edge. You’re absolutely right to want to create clear boundaries, taking back control of your own family space, but how do you go about it without causing conflict?

This all requires a certain degree of assertiveness. Not easy when you’re just getting to grips with being new parents and you’re tired. It probably feels like the last thing you have the energy to do, but if you don’t confront the issue now, it’s only going to spiral into something more daunting and difficult to face. I think the key to this is to present a united front.

It’s important that you share with your husband how you feel. Do this kindly and without getting upset if you can. You want to avoid giving him the sense that he is caught in the middle, but equally it’s important he sees how crushing this situation is for you and that he needs to be part of the solution. If they have dominated his life too, then he is going to find it tough to stand his ground, so make a plan before you actually tackle them together. And try to be kind in your dealings with them. Things can be said clearly without hurting people. It may be that they are blissfully unaware of their behaviour, because no-one has had the courage to tell them otherwise. However, if you want things to change, you will need to be brave, ride the initial wave of tension and see the plan through to its conclusion.

To counter the dropping in, set aside specific times when they will be welcome and if they ignore it, always be “going out” somewhere until they get the message. If criticisms are levelled at you, hold your nerve, be polite and say something like “I appreciate your advice, but this is how I/we do things.”

Finally, you could even ask them to take on a couple of hours of babysitting duty. Not only will this give you some much needed time together (or even just for yourself!), but it will also serve to remind them just how hard it is to look after small children!

 

Q: My husband and I are newly married (just 6 months) and it’s been the happiest 6 months of my life apart from one thing; his mother! I can take the interfering and occasional criticism she dishes out towards me, but what I can’t stand is the way my husband behaves when she’s around. It’s like he becomes a child again. He always defers to her and lets her cook for him and even sometimes chooses his outfits! It’s like I’m married to two people. How can I get him to see it’s not appropriate now he’s married?

A: I suspect there’s some very deep-seated attachment issues at work here. The likelihood is that your husband reverts to the role of child, because his mother has dominated him all his life and is now finding it very hard to relinquish her role as the main woman in his life. Though it is irritating for you, I think it would help assuage those feelings if you understand that your husband is probably unaware of his behaviour change around her, because he has been subject to years of conditioning and it has become an automatic response. If you think about it, he doesn’t behave like this all of the time, expecting you to be a mother replacement, so seeing this from a new angle might help you to help him develop greater independence from his mother’s power and become more assertive in her presence.

One of the first things you could do is very gently try bringing this issue up with your husband, after his mother has left. Don’t get upset and avoid accusations. Bring up only one or two specific behaviours, events, or decisions if possible. Try to take the emotion out of the discussion and tread very carefully; avoid statements that assign blame (especially to his mother as his first response might be to defend her). Look at it as a fact-finding mission, and not as a way to prove you’re right. When you’re married you become a team and it’s a good idea to explain that you find it difficult to see him change when he’s around his mother. Ask him if he has any suggestions about how you could work together to make some small changes. These will be new behaviours to him and as such they will take time to embed and I’m sure it won’t all be plain sailing, but if you remain supportive and understanding, you will gently usher in a new dynamic between him, his mother and yourself.

Russell Hemmings is a Dubai-based life coach and cognitive behavioural hypnotherapist (russellhemmings.co.uk).

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