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Reader question #112: My mom wants to call herself my partners’ kid’s grandma.

Big blue tricycle

The tricycle of second chances and awkward hopes.

Dear Captain,

I’ve been part of a polyamorous triad (3-person relationship were everyone is in a relationship with each other) for a little over year now. It’s a serious and committed relationship. We’re in it for the long haul. My two partners have a kid together (herein Kiddo). Kiddo will be two this weekend. I love Kiddo a lot and I’m very involved in caring for her. 

Recently, my mother commented on a Facebook post I made saying something about her “grandchild,” meaning Kiddo. She also sent Kiddo a tricycle for her upcoming birthday, despite the fact that when my mother brought up the idea a few months ago I told her we didn’t have room and that my partners weren’t cool with Kiddo having a tricycle at this age.

The thing about the situation that is making my head/stomach hurt is that I have a long history of boundary issues and emotional/verbal abuse from my mom. Things are more or less in check these days (I’ve been out of the house 10 years now) but they require constant vigilance on my part to stay that way. There was a stretch of several years where I had -no- contact with my parents because they couldn’t figure out how to treat me with normal human decency and that was the only was I could teach them that now that I’m an adult I refuse to put up with that behavior any more.

So now I am concerned. This feels like red flag behavior– ignoring my/my partner’s wishes and claiming Kiddo as “hers” even though she lives 600 miles away and has only met Kiddo once. At the same time, it was a nice and generous gesture and I know part of what my mom is trying to communicate is that she is supportive of my poly family and wants me and them to know that. Lots of parents would not be that cool. Further, because of the physical distance between us and a disability my mom has, there’s a pretty finite limit to how much she can impose on our lives.

So, now I don’t know what to do. I’ve talked to my partners and they are uncomfortable with the “grandmother” designation and also not happy that their wishes were ignored regarding the tricycle, but they know my relationship with my mom is delicate and are not very confrontational people. I don’t want to be a bitch to my mom, I don’t want to be ungrateful, I don’t want to overreact but I also don’t want to underreact. Any suggestions on how to proceed?

Sincerely,

Concerned

Dear Concerned,

Not to get Cary Tennis all over you, but I love the image of the tricycle as a metaphor for your 3-way relationship and also as a suggestion of the intrusive “third wheel.”

Your mom is definitely overstepping the boundaries by styling herself as Grandma and by buying a present that you’ve already said clearly that you and Kiddo aren’t ready for.  She is always going to overstep boundaries, because that’s who she is.

However, as you point out, she is trying.  She wants to reach out and figure out how to be a part of your life, and she is trying to affirm your choices.  Since this relationship is for the long haul, there is potential for a moment of grace and forgiveness in here somewhere.

I think one thing you can do is to find an alternate designation for Kiddo to call your mom. “My partners aren’t comfortable with calling you ‘Grandma,’ but we’d love for Kiddo to call you Auntie ____.”

You could send back the trike or refuse to accept it, but I think another solution is to write a nice thank you note to Auntie ______ from Kiddo, take a picture of her with the trike, and then donate the thing to a neighbor or a charity who can use it.  You can always buy her a new trike when she’s ready, and say that that one is from Auntie at the time, preserving the spirit of the gift.

Also, I want to say that you’re completely within bounds to be annoyed!   Your mom is not a boundary-respecter, and your relationship with her will probably always be fraught and involve a lot of managing your own expectations and second-guessing. It sucks to always feel like you have to be the bigger person and to deal with the parent you have instead of the one you need and deserve.  Keep doing what you did to survive her – keep your expectations low, interact with her in small, controlled doses and try to accept her intended kindness in the best possible light. Kiddo will not be worse off for having a random relative who sends expensive age-inappropriate presents.

I hope this helps.

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10 comments
  1. karinacinerina said:

    As always: YES.
    The bigger truth here is that while you definitely had/have boundary issues with your mom, her disability and the distance will buffer most of them naturally. I have suffered from similar myself and recommend strongly the continued protection of your space with her.

    That said…

    It’s wonderful that you can see the positive side of her gift, which is very accepting of a lifestyle which many folks of her generation might struggle with or even reject you for. She may be mothering you wrong (and by extension Kiddo) by disrespecting your wishes, but her heart is in the right place and there is no reason to seek to punish new infractions that aren’t (yet) hurtful – she may be reaching out in the only way she knows how. She may very likely fail, but right now, she’s pretty much still far away, still interested in a relationship with you and your family, and not yet reverting back to how she was with you before. Keep an eye out, but also look at the bigger truths behind the button-pushing.

    Captain’s suggestion of an alternate nickname (maybe Gammy or Me-Maw or all those cute/odd grandmotherly nicknames, rather than “Auntie,” since she is grandmother generation; perhaps she sees Kiddo as her only chance at a grandchild, depending on your poly plans) is wonderful and could also be softened with the reminder of the actual grandparents: “Well, Mom, Partner A’s mom is “Grandma” and Partner B’s mom is “Granny,” so how about “Gam Gam” for you?” If she pushes, you can always fall back on “the bio grandmas get first dibs on being called grandma.”

    As Carolyn Hax AND The Ethical Slut would say, the more loving adults in a child’s life, the better. The “take a photo of the gift” approach honors the gift AND gives back one in the form of a photo of the recipient enjoying it, and then charity donation tops it all off with the community-love win!

    I wish you and your family much happiness! And as always, salute Captain Awkward!

    • I agree with you on how to introduce the alternate names. My family is filled with divorces and remarriages, and some of us called parents/grandparents by the familiar nicknames (Mom, Dad, Grandma, Grammy, etc) and some by first names (25 years later, I still call my stepdad by his first name, because there was already somebody whose first name was “Dad” as far as I knew). I always found that the non-traditional family nicknames did not in anyway interfere with the status of my relationships with various individuals; Kiddo is young enough that whatever you end up deciding is appropriate will just be normal to her.

  2. xenu01 said:

    I am curious- your partners do not wish her to be called “Grandma”, but are they comfortable with her involvement in Kiddo’s life?

    • Confused said:

      LW here.

      My mother is not actually very involved in Kiddo’s life at all because she lives 600+ miles away from us. She visited once and met Kiddo once. Oh and besides the tricycle she bought Kiddo a tutu a while back. That is the extent of the involvement.

      • Confused said:

        Aaaaaaaaaand I forgot my own pseudonym even though it’s posted in the letter above. Just great >_<

  3. Not to focus on the wrong part of the issue – but my youngest could ride a trike, safely, at one. They do make helmets that small! I know as a parent my concerns about safety are often assuaged by hearing from other parents’ experiences, so that is the spirit in which I am offering this. No judgement, as Kiddo’s mileage may vary, and y’all know Kiddo best after all!

    To the larger issues – the boundary-crossing, disrespecting of wishes – I wish I had something more to offer in addition to the fantastic advice already offered! The suggestion of an alternative nickname sounds like a good one to me; we used it with our own children because my partner’s parents wanted (quite badly) to be Grandma and Grandpa, so in the interests of avoiding drama, my mom and her husband are Lala and Lolo, and my dad is Grappa. Bingo: everybody is happy! And we do also have issues with Grandma and Grandpa buying the kids things that we have either explicitly rejected, or – because they are garage sale/swap meet fiends – buy “just because,” with the end result that we have loads and loads of stuff. We absolutely do the thank-yous, and let the kids play with them for a little bit if they are not completely inappropriate, and then into upcycling they go. (Or Grandpa’s garage; the “but the kids will need toys here when they come to visit!” line is particularly effective with them, and feel free to use it if you do plan or hope to visit your mom in the future!)

  4. robiewankenobie said:

    would it make you feel better to know that this is a traditional in-law/parent dance? we’ve got a pretty standard set-up, and we still had to do our share of boundary drawing. i find that wish lists and suggestions preempt some of the more heinous toy fouls, and have liberally taken advantage of the distance when dealing with unwanted gifts (if a toy is donated to goodwill in a forest will, wait, hrm, you get the drift). i guess i feel like good happy feelings towards my kids? lovely. i just work around the details. ymmv.

    • Confused said:

      LW here.

      I want to just see it as well-intentioned and mostly harmless but there is a whole ugly track record that has to be kept in mind. Over time an ignored request here and there will lead to guilt trips, angry tirades, unreasonable demands and cruel, cutting remarks. I don’t want to deal with that myself and I especially don’t want my partners or Kiddo to be on the receiving end of such behavior.

      I suppose part of what I am asking is how I can shield my family from the person my mom use to be and still sometimes is.

      • JenniferP said:

        Have you ever read Will I Ever Be Good Enough? by Karyl McBride? Rarely will I recommend a “self-help” book but that one lit a lot of lightbulbs for me and I’m sensing you might find it helpful.

        You can’t always protect yourself (or your family) from your mom’s unkind behavior because you can’t control it. But you also don’t have to manage your mom’s image for her – If she acts like a jerk, she’s at such a remove that it wont have a long-term affect on Kiddo, and your family can say “Wow, sometimes Auntie __ can be a big jerk!” and stop inviting her to stuff.

        If you donate the trike, for instance, and she finds out, you can say “Sorry, we told you we didn’t have room for it and Kiddo wasn’t ready, so we passed it on to someone who could use it. We’ll get her a new one from you when the time is right. Next time check with us.” If she throws a tantrum…let her. Hang up the phone. Block the emails. Leave the room. Change the subject.

        It’s not easy, but you’ve already done the hard work of separating yourself from her.

  5. Virginia said:

    My parents took up a VERY old-fashioned Southern tradition when I became a Wicked Stepmother: the kids call them “Miss X” and “Mr Y” (where X and Y = “{first name}”).

    They also decided that buying Stuff for the kids was rather pointless, since they don’t see one another often. So for years each of the kids has gotten, for Christmas and birthday, a savings bond. They view this “hey! future money!” with a remarkable amount of excitement. GirlKit apparently plans to use hers to furnish her grown-up apartment with “cool IKEA furniture.”

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