I am a newly adoptive, married parent to a baby we have fostered since she was five days old. Our adoption will be finalized tomorrow and we are over the moon happy that we get to share our lives with this adorable little human. My husband and I tried for many years to make a little human to no avail. We’ve had failed adoptions, miscarriages, foster children come and go, so this child staying with us brings us joy upon joy upon joy.
My in-laws live less than ten miles away. They are both retired. My mother in law has subtly pressured us for years about having our own biological children. It was painful for me to hear that every time we saw them because having multiple miscarriages is not a walk in the park or a picnic on a sunny day. And, frankly, our reproductive choices and how we build a family are our f’ing own. So after much arguing here about it, my husband finally asked them to back off us both – we were going to do our own thing when it came to kids.
So now that this sweet baby is here, has been here, there is almost zero interest in spending any time with her or with us. She is the only grandchild they may ever have but it seems to me that she is not accepted in the way I would have expected given how much they say they want to be grandparents. My husband is the middle child, over 40, and is likely the only sibling to have a child for a very long time.
Fast forward to Mother’s Day – I got no card, no flowers, no acknowledgement that it was even my first Mother’s Day. We did, however, make sure we got the new grandma a card and a gift and took the in-laws out to brunch. Zero is the number of times my mother in law held the baby that day. I was pretty fucking hurt, I won’t lie. My husband was hurt for me as well but he flat out told me he didn’t feel comfortable saying anything because he didn’t see how it would end well with his parents. He is having these realizations that his family just may suck. His sister is a brilliant genius doctor for the Army and his parents spent a fair amount of time talking about their visit to her. It was actually the first thing they talked about when they sat down to brunch. He learned about that visit to her on Easter Day when they called two hours before we had family dinner planned to cancel (they wanted to “catch up on paperwork”). My husband has told me that he got the least attention as a kid because he needed the least attention. It bothers him that he lives the closest to his folks but they see him and call him the least, especially now that there is a baby who grows and changes every day. His sister is clearly the favorite. I like her very much (she is pretty awesome) and I enjoy her company and she and my husband have a nice relationship. But I have reached my limit of being the one who reaches out to them for dinners, get-togethers, holidays.
We moved our daughter’s adoption up by appealing to the judge to have it this week when his sister is in town before she is deployed overseas. We cancelled our vacation that had been planned for a year to be in town when she’d be here so he could spend time with her. What happens? She arrived on Friday and on Saturday she and his parents went up to their country house and on Sunday his brother joined them there. We were never informed, never invited. I’m not even 100% sure they will be back in time to attend the adoption ceremony or the luncheon planned afterward. I am pissed but my husband is really PISSED. Yet he still doesn’t know how to say anything or if he even wants to. That makes me both sad and angry.
Is it appropriate for me to say something to them? What would I even say? My friends say no, to let my husband deal with his family the way he wants to. They point out that his whole identity and his perception of how happy his childhood was hinges on his belief that his parents are good and loving people. I think they are self centered, inconsiderate jerks. I try not to fight with him about it because clearly their actions are not his fault nor a reflection on him. It just angers me that they treat him the way they do and they treat our daughter as if she almost doesn’t exist. They are all nice and smiles when they are here and it feels so fake now that I just stay silent and smile and nod back. They will undoubtably be sweet and nice tomorrow (if they show up) but then revert right back to radio silence after tomorrow.
What’s a daughter in law to do? Keep quiet? Say something? Stop caring?
Sad New Momma
Dear Sad Momma,
First, I’m overjoyed for you and your pending adoption. Congratulations! That is a huge, huge deal and I hope the day goes exactly as you want it to.
Second, the job of saying something to the in-laws belongs to your husband. If the family does show tomorrow, the script is “I am so glad you could all make it. It’s so important to us that you are here to observe this ritual of (Baby) becoming officially part of our family.”
There is another script that goes “I really wish you’d asked us to join you up at the house when (Sister) was in town. We were looking forward to spending time with her before she is deployed, and it made me feel really hurt and left out that you went up there without asking us.” That one’s not for tomorrow. That’s for after-the-fact.
If they don’t show up tomorrow, there’s another script that goes like this: “It is really important to us that you are involved in (Baby)’s life, and we were really counting on having you present on the day that she officially became a part of our family forever. Is there a reason you stayed away? Because I’m feeling very hurt right now, and I’d love it if you could try to make me understand your decision.”
I’m hoping that you have some “chosen family” with you tomorrow. Who are the people you can count on to be there for you and back you up 100%? Have them with you if you possibly can.
The fact that you don’t know for sure that they are coming boggles my mind. I understand why you are feeling crappy and rejected, and I’m really sorry. Even if your in-laws are thinking “LW and our son will be around all the time, we can see them anytime, so this week we want to focus on our daughter who is about to be deployed for a few days,” it’s a crappy justification for leaving you hanging about whether they mean to come at all. I mean, I assume you told them about re-arranging the dates so that you could do the ceremony when she’s home and invited them well in advance?
There are a lot of issues here, and a lot of history, and it’s going to take a lot of time to heal this relationship and you and your husband can’t do that with a few scripts.
Your letter made me go and re-read this old letter. And it made me want to write about the expectations, both spoken and unspoken, that we have for our friends and family.
So many letters I get are about expectations. “But they are my friends! Shouldn’t friends do _____ thing? She’s my mom. Shouldn’t she behave like one?” We’re all trying to figure out what we can trust and count on from other people.
I know I write a lot about how you get to break up with people who don’t respect your boundaries or who treat you like you need to be treated, which always leads to the twin reactions of “It’s not that simple!” and the victim-blaming flipside: “You need to cut the person off forever or else you’re signing up for however they treat you.”
Trust me: I don’t go around ruthlessly severing my connections with imperfect people who treat me imperfectly. We’re all imperfect and we all mess up sometimes. Maintaining friendships and family relationships and romantic love require a lot of patience, forgiveness, giving the benefit of the doubt, and a healthy dose of BYGONES.
But I remind people that they can sever all ties with people if they need to because there is power in reminding yourself that to remain in a relationship with another person is a choice, and that you get to try rewrite the rules of those relationships a couple of different ways. One way is to speak up sincerely about what you want and ask people directly to give it to you. If the other person is open to it, it gives you the opportunity for both of you to articulate and re-align your expectations.
Another way is to reset your expectations for what that relationship will be like – in light of your history with the person, in light of what they may be capable of – and to try to find some kind of middle ground where you can enjoy what there is to be enjoyed without expecting too much. You may not get the other person to change how they behave, but you can break the cycle of setting yourself up to be hurt over and over again by being honest with yourself about what they can really give you and pulling back your own investment accordingly. Sometimes there is a lot of grieving involved in resetting of expectations, because you have to let go of the vision of what you hoped it would be and deal with what is.
I want you to think about the possibility that your in-laws are doing some grieving (that they themselves might not even realize that they’re doing) for the final loss of any hope of having a biological grandchild, especially on the eve of one of their children going off to war, and that it’s creating some ambivalence on their part. That’s an ugly thing to contemplate and probably a really ugly emotion to feel, and when people feel ugly, shameful stuff they sometimes avoid the source of those feelings. They won’t be the first or the last family members in the history of the world who take some time to warm up to adopted offspring who then loved the hell out of the kid later on. It takes time and trust and can’t be forced.
I also want you to think about the possibility that they just aren’t baby-people, and that combined with their ambivalence/grief plus the guilt they feel about how they *should* love her more, means that they might not fully bond with her until she’s a little older and more interactive. My best friend’s son is about the age of your little girl, and now that he’s smiling and flirting and interacting he’s a WAY better time than he was when he was more of a BabyBlob. Maybe they were afraid to bond with her before now because they were afraid that the adoption wouldn’t go through, and they’ve been holding some part of themselves back until it does.
I’m not saying that any of this excuses the way they are treating you around this, or that you shouldn’t feel the pain and anger that you’re feeling. I’m just saying that they are maybe in the process of having to reset their expectations about what becoming a grandparent would feel like just like you and your husband are in the process of resetting your expectations and dreams about how grandparents should behave. It’s messy and painful. It’s unfair for you guys to have to take on the role of “bigger person” right now, when everything is so raw. It’s really hard to look at a whole history of behavior and draw a bright shiny “BYGONES” box around it so you can move forward, while still being hip to the behavior and trying to minimize how much it affects you.
So the path I see in front of you involves some resetting of expectations and some grief. And also some speaking up and asking for what you need. One way you can do that when things are tense and strained is to ask the other person to describe their best-case scenario for how they want things to unfold. It gets their expectations and hopes out on the table. It also takes the emphasis off the past (and complaining about how things were in the past) and asks them to articulate a positive vision of the future. And it takes things from the realm of vague feelings into the realm of concrete actions.
A possible first step would be sitting down with your husband and talking about this. In a perfect world, how would his parents behave toward your child? Okay, you don’t live in that world. So what’s one thing you could ask for to try to make things better right now? Keep in mind: You can’t really make people feel stuff they don’t feel, but you can translate feelings into actions.
For example, you want them to show more enthusiasm for your daughter. Instead of asking for “more enthusiasm,” can you ask for a visit (and/or babysitting) once every two weeks? I know that your expectation is that this Grandma & Grampa would behave like “most” grandparents and be actively agitating for time with the baby, but since they’re not, it will probably help if this gets phrased as them doing you a favor. Your husband can say “With your help, LW and I would like to re-institute date night. Would you be able to take (baby) every other Friday so we can spend some quality time?”
Try that at first and see what happens. After a few months, he can check in with his parents and say “We’re so grateful to you guys for taking her, it’s been really great to reconnect. How’s this schedule working for you? Would you want to or be able to take her for another day or evening during the week?”
And take the longest, most generous view possible. As your daughter gets older, she’ll form her own relationship with her grandparents, and it will probably look different from anything you imagined. It may never be all that you hoped for. As long as you guys love her, and you surround yourselves with people who love you and her, she’ll be fine.
Now, let’s talk about holidays, Easter, ADOPTION CEREMONY & LUNCH, etc.
You can’t change what happened in the past or control what will happen tomorrow, but here’s one thing you can do:
Accept that your in-laws celebrate & care about holidays differently than you do. If you continue with your current expectations (that they’ll RSVP & mean it, that they’ll show up, that they’ll give you the card & present and observe rituals with the same fanfare and consideration that that you would give them), you’re going to be disappointed forever. Whatever vision you had about how that would go is gone.
I have a small assignment for you. What’s the next big holiday or holidays that you would all “expect” to celebrate together? Fourth of July or Labor Day? Thanksgiving? Christmas? For the rest of this year, my assignment for you is to think about what you would “expect” to do and then make a completely different plan with no regard for your in-laws. They can’t disappoint you if you don’t expect anything. Put the baby in the car and take a road trip to see friends or your family or your husband’s brother or just go on vacation somewhere warm. Join up with a friend’s party instead of hosting something or going to their place. Whatever you do, spend it only with people who make you feel awesome, and if that ends up being a party of three, so be it. And honestly? Don’t even tell them what the plans are until or unless they ask you. “Sorry, we made other plans this year, but we’ll call you on the day!” Remove yourself entirely from the position of seeking their company or auditioning for their approval. If they want to see you they can make the effort. Because, honestly, FUCK the whole idea of cooking an expensive and time-consuming holiday meal for people who cancel at the last minute because: “paperwork.”
This will probably be awkward, painful territory at first, because it should be different. Because you and your husband wanted it to be different, and because filial piety (and guilt) is strong. But the more you can think of it as giving yourself permission to create your own holiday rituals and to free yourself of the cycle of expectation and disappointment, the happier you’ll be. Remind yourself it’s not forever. Next year you can revisit the idea of holidays with them, but it will be a matter of deliberate choice rather than expected routine. You will have set the reset button on how holidays work for your family and can renegotiate. Also, keep in mind that your in-laws are choosing the kind of relationship they want to have with you, their son, and your daughter. By remaining aloof and flaky and putting y’all last they are giving you permission to put them last. Some of the hardest but most important boundary-setting involves the fences we build for ourselves, and “I’m not going to even try to kick your stupid football anymore” is one hell of a fence.
Tomorrow is going to be amazing no matter what they do. Remember to bring extra batteries for the camera, and please accept congratulations from this adopted lady.