Dear Captain Awkward;
When I was pregnant with my daughter, my husband and I made a deal: he picks first name, I pick middle name, and then should we have a 2nd kid, it would be vice-versa. We decided at the time to name our daughter after his (late) maternal grandmother and my maternal grandmother.
I heard no end of grief from my mother about the chosen first name for literally months. Every day, my mother would tell me how much she hated the name, how her friends hated it too, etc. Each time I calmly explained that the name was chosen and that was that, and to please stop criticizing it. This happened over and over again daily for months until I finally lost it and there was a huge blowout. Thank God that seemed to end it, and I named my daughter as planned with no further drama.
Well, it’s two years later and I’m pregnant with my second child (another girl). This time I get to pick the first name, and I’ve always wanted to name a child after my late maternal grandfather, so I have chosen a name that is a female version of his. My husband, not having known any of his other grandparents, has chosen his mother’s name for the middle name.
Two years ago, just after my first child was born, my mom asked, hypothetically, what I would name another girl if we had one. I said I had no idea, it wasn’t something I’d thought about (being in the throes of new mom exhaustion) and who knows, maybe after her and husband’s mom? Well, that hypothetical answer about a hypothetical baby who was two years from conception was apparently a promise, and now I’m getting the freeze-out from Mom.
So my mother is causing drama again, this time by way of frosty behavior and silence. Right at the end of our Christmas visit, after being genial the whole day, she ninja-ambushed me with it: she felt she was the “only grandmother left out” and it is “disrespectful” of us to not name the baby after her. I explained that it had nothing to do with disrespect, that everyone knew I’d always wanted to name one of my children after Grandpa and since I wasn’t having a boy, this was it, and further, that it’s just how the math worked out; husband doesn’t have any other grandparents so his Mom’s name was the next best pick. She just kept saying how “hurtful” it was. She also told me to “ask around, everyone will tell you it’s disrespectful”, and when I said I had, and no one did, she said, “Well, they weren’t grandmothers, then.” When I became angry, she said she “didn’t want any drama”, to which I responded “then you shouldn’t have brought it up.”
I’d love to know what it’s like to name your own child whatever you want without drama, but I’m not planning on having any other kids, so there goes that. I’ve seriously considered giving this new baby the name we intended PLUS my mother’s name as a second middle name, but the longer this goes on, the less I feel like rewarding bad behaviour. And I’d only be doing this to mollify her; I really feel like my mother is exhibiting the most ridiculous, selfish and presumptuous attitude and I can’t even begin to understand how to handle it. Further, I suspect Mom would just snort derisively at having her name come third instead of first.
Now, I could add a lot more backstory into my relationship with my parents, but I don’t want to make this TL;DR so I’m hoping you get the gist.
Please, help me understand how to handle this. I can’t take it.
Exhausted and Very Pregnant
I have a lot of Very Pregnant Friends right now (Yaaaaaaaay!) so I am answering this in honor of them.
“Mom, you had the chance to choose any baby names you wanted….when you had kids. I’m sorry that you are upset about this, and believe me that we did not set out to hurt your feelings when Husband and I chose the names, but the way you are pressuring me about this is making me seriously angry and exhausted with you. This is a closed discussion. You can be hurt, but you’re going to need to do it elsewhere/not at me, because I really don’t want to hear it again.”
She may bitch and rail for a bit. Give her about 5 minutes, and then cut her off. “Okay, Mom, you’ve made your feelings really clear, and guess what: We’re still going with the names Husband and I chose. We’re going to change the subject now. If you’re still angry, you should to talk to your friends/rabbi/priest/Scoutmaster/therapist about it, because I cannot have this discussion again.”
And then you enforce the boundary. If she brings it up, you say “New topic, Mom, + a question” and if she can’t switch to a new topic, you exit the conversation. If it happens on the phone, for instance, hang up and then turn your phone off. Do not take her calls for 24 hours. The next time you talk to her, let her save face – be nice and pleasant and treat it like it never happened, but if she brings up the name thing again, you know what to do.
This comes up in all sorts of contexts – dating, inappropriate touching, constantly harping on weight or when you will get married or when that dissertation will be finished – if you say “no” and the other person keeps trying to convince you or browbeat you, you rapidly go from owing them a normal basic level of politeness and deference to owing them zero of those things. Saying “no” over and over again means you are continuing to engage with them, so they keep thinking they have a shot at convincing you and/or putting all of their negative emotions onto you and trying to make them your responsibility. Unfortunately sometimes you have to be willing to get really, really rude in defending your boundaries before some people will get the message.
People like your mom (from what you’ve described here) like to throw around the threat that they will give you the silent treatment or have a lot of negative emotions at you to get what they want. What you figure out as you get older is that they are going to find a way to do that about something no matter what you do, so you might as well do what you want and ride it out.
My mom does a thing that I find kind of funny and endearing now because I’ve realized she is deeply introverted and that parties give her social anxiety, but believe me, there were many years where I DID NOT find it so. Any time the family is getting ready to go somewhere, like a wedding or holidays with family, she will do a last-minute critique of everyone’s outfit, and the question she’d usually ask me was “Is that all you have to wear?” Frequently the answer to that is “Yup,” because a) I’m traveling home for the event and have only what I brought with me and b) usually what I was wearing was some version of a black sweater and pants or a black dress of some kind, and also I am an adult woman who dresses fine, so WTF? She will also frequently bring up that she hates my glasses, which, I mean, strangers come up to me and ask me where I got my glasses (Answer: Eye Spy Optical), so I’m not exactly insecure about them or looking to Worcester County (where many, many people still have big bangs) for fashion inspiration.
I realize now that she was channeling some anxiety or other onto all of us, but what stopped it finally was a few rounds of me saying “Hey, when you tell me stuff like that it doesn’t make me want to change my outfit (even if I could), it just makes me feel sad and weird and mad at you, and like I want to avoid you for the rest of the night. Is that what you’re going for?” Once, in a conversation about glasses, I literally said “Hey, that doesn’t make me want to get new glasses, it just makes me think you are being a jerk, so howabout keeping opinions like that to yourself from now on?” I got a little bit of “But I’m your mother” harrumphing and then she backed off and has been downright pleasant in later years. She’ll still do the “Is that what you are wearing?” thing to my dad, which is hilarious because a) he is 66 years old and if he can’t dress himself by now…? and b) she picks out all of his clothes, but after 43 years of marriage they can do whatever works for them. She will still scan my outfit for a moment, and I can see her forming the words, but when they come out now they are “You look very nice.“
So what I mean to say (again) is:
- Hints don’t work, but telling people directly to step off sometimes does.
- Internalizing someone else’s bad behavior and wondering what you could do to make them not have behaved like that doesn’t work, but telling them directly to step off (even risking another “blowup,” like you had about your first daughter’s name) sometimes does.
- Relationships can survive a little bit of conflict. What feels like the end of the world usually isn’t.
- Your mom is the one who is way, way out of line here. She is forcing you into a position of having to defend your boundaries pretty seriously, and you’re not the one violating the social contract.
- You can’t teach people how to be, but you can sometimes get them to moderate how they are around you.
- Manners and boundaries are important in families – you don’t get a “But we’re related!” pass for being a jerk.
Name your daughter whatever the hell you want and don’t put up with any bullshit, is what I say. Congratulations!
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