Dear Captain Awkward:
Quick backstory: my mom and stepdad babysit my daughter for free one afternoon a week while I work (I telecommute the rest of the time). My mother offered to do it right after my daughter was born and I was thrilled. I’ve checked in with both of them a few times to make sure they’re still ok with it, and they’ve responded enthusiastically every time.
Lately things have been weird. A few weeks ago I had an appointment before I went into work and I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to take the baby, so I asked Mom ahead of time if they could take her a bit earlier and she said yes. I told her I’d let her know for sure if it would be at the usual time or earlier, but forgot to call when I’d promised, and then my phone died just after I left my appointment, so I ended up showing up at the usual time (without calling) and apologizing profusely to both of them for making them wait around for me. I was expecting them to be annoyed, but I don’t feel like it was a HUGE deal – it was an honest, though inconsiderate mistake on my part, and I promptly apologized for it.
When I got there Mom berated me for half an hour until I finally got a word in edgewise to ask her what she wanted me to do, other than apologize and not do it again. She told me that she needed to vent at me because she was angry, and she needed me to show more remorse. I apologized again and prepared to leave, but on my way out Stepdad confronted me (he’d been in another room, not out of earshot, for the preceding conversation) and began an identical tirade. I cut him off almost immediately and told him that while I was sorry for inconveniencing them, I really couldn’t stay to talk right that second because I had to get to work.
Ever since that afternoon, Stepdad hasn’t spoken a single word to me. I tried to talk to Mom about it, but she simply said that Stepdad is angry for good reason and that I should apologize to him more. I feel like an asshole, but also kind of unfairly treated, and I’m not sure how to move forward, or how to deal with this should something similar arise in the future. Though obviously I will be more considerate going forward.
My best guess about this is that your Stepdad feels like you dismissed him when you left without listening to him because you had to get to work. In his mind you owed it to him to listen to everything he wanted to say. But you DID have to get to work, so I don’t know what could have solved that moment, really. You’re not a child who has to sit still for a finger-wagging lecture, and the total silent treatment seems disproportionate.
It could also be that he doesn’t want to babysit anymore and is seizing on this as a pretext. But because he hasn’t said so in so many words and is choosing to use the Silent Treatment, all we can do is guess. It could mean “I ate a serrano pepper that I thought was a jalapeno and now my mouth hurts so I can’t talk.” Or “I am in a pissy mood and don’t feel like chatting.” “There is some ongoing fight I am having with your mom that this inadvertently played into.” Pro-tip: If you make people guess about your feelings and desires, they might guess wrong, and that will piss you off further. Oops!
A few things I’d suggest:
- Buy them a thank-you gift, like a gift certificate to their favorite restaurant. Write an apology note to go with it. “I am sorry, Mom and Stepdad, that I inconvenienced you, and especially sorry that I could not stay and talk things through that day. Please enjoy a night out on me.“
- Tighten up your game with how you schedule things with them. Be extra on time for any pickups and drop-offs, schedule things far in advance. I’m sure you were doing this fine before and that this was a one-time thing, but if there is anything you can do to show them that you are hyper-aware and respectful of their time, do it. When someone’s pissed off at you, running 5 minutes late because of traffic will feel like “SHE ALWAYS TAKES ME FOR GRANTED AND IS AN HOUR LATE ALL THE TIME FOR FUCK’S SAKE” to them.
- This is cheating a little bit, but if you have a partner and s/he gets on well with your folks, let that person handle the logistics of scheduling childcare for a little while. Then call your mom just to say hello & see how she’s doing. Take her to lunch or to some social thing she’d like. Your folks might feel (fairly or unfairly) like you only talk to them when you want babysitting, so put a little nurture into the relationship and see if it doesn’t improve.
- If your mom and your stepdad stopped babysitting your daughter, what would you do instead? Do a little research so you are not so beholden to them and feel like you have other options. Do you have a partner whose family or friends could take her for that day? Can you hire help or send her to daycare for that window? I realize that this looks like giving a possibly reluctant Stepdad what he wants without a fight, but this is both your child and your livelihood you’re talking about, so whatever shakes out in your relationship with your folks you need to make sure that both she and you are taken care of.
- Go ahead and make alternative arrangements for looking after your daughter for a period of a few weeks. Give them a break from babysitting her and you a break from worrying about this. Don’t make a thing of it, just say “I won’t need you to take ___ this week, thanks!” You don’t have to tell them your alternative arrangements or why. This isn’t Discussion Time, this is Re-assessing The Situation Time. This is Giving Everyone A Little Space To See If Things Resolve On Their Own Time. If they’ve been feeling taken for granted, this will alleviate that and show them that they can actually ask to stop being caregivers if they want to. If they really love having her and miss seeing her every week, this will help that sink in.
- After this break, talk to your mom. “It’s really helpful to me when you look after (daughter), and I know she loves spending that time with you. But I definitely don’t want to inconvenience you and Stepdad or wear out your good will. In a perfect world, how would you like this to all work out?“
- If your mom says “We would still love to have her and continue the old arrangement!” take her at her word and resume normal interactions. If Stepdad has a problem, they can work it out between them. You don’t have to manage everything about everyone’s feelings!
- If she brings up reservations, you will be in a position to say “That’s fine! We can make alternate arrangements and find times when you can just visit with her without the responsibility.”
In the meantime, when you run into your Stepdad, greet him normally and briefly and then don’t engage with him beyond that. When someone doesn’t really want to engage with you and is showing that to you, it’s important to be respectful of that. See: Previous letter. Maybe he just needs to be mad for a while, and that’s also okay. But he is the one who is acting strangely by not talking to you at all, and you don’t have to reward the Silent Treatment by continually auditioning for the person’s approval and trying to read their mind. If there is no way you can apologize or make up for what was, seriously, a one-time miscommunication about an hour or two of extra time on a day they were scheduled to babysit anyway, and you’ve done your best to make amends and apologize, the decision about whether he talks to you again or how he feels about you is really out of your hands.
One more broadly applicable question here is, “How can I be sure that someone who is doing me a favor really wants to be doing me that favor?“
I think you have to take people at their word. Your mom volunteered to do childcare, so she wants to do childcare. You are safe to assume that she wants to do childcare.
And then you have to check in with them periodically and ask if everything is okay. Which you did. And they said it was. So it is.
And then you have to trust that they are adults and will speak up about their own needs and boundaries if things change. Which maybe they will not, but if they don’t, you can’t manage that for them beyond a periodic “Is this still okay?” check-in where you give them the opportunity to raise any concerns. Periodic = Every six months or so, not every single time you see them or you talk. Constantly second-guessing people and asking “Are you sure? Are you REALLY sure? Are you SURE you’re sure? About being sure? Are you positive?” is irritating and unnecessary.