Dear Captain Awkward,
A couple of weeks ago, I tried one of your scripts on my parents to ask them to stay in a hotel when they visit.
My wife and I have a two-month old baby. Any house guests are disruptive, especially with a newborn in the house. But my parents are the most disruptive. They don’t visit so much as descend. They arrive when they want, regardless of what I’ve asked – usually obscenely early in the morning. They bring all their own food and cook every meal, which always includes things my wife and I don’t eat and often includes things my wife is allergic to. My mother insists on sleeping on the couch instead of in the guest bedroom, even though the couch is in the main living area and she goes to sleep hours before anyone else. They wake up before dawn and proceed to bang around the house until we get up. They find “projects” to do when they come, like cleaning out the gutters or washing the siding and expect us to be available to help, regardless of whether or not we even want or need these things done. Basically, they don’t listen because they think they are always right. “Please put the baby down so she can sleep.” “She can sleep on me!” (She couldn’t.) “Please don’t give her a pacifier – fussing like that means she’s hungry.” “Maybe she just needs to cry to exercise her lungs.” (…..No.) It’s big things and small things. “Please don’t give the dog toast.” “We’ll just wait until you’re not looking.”
Learning to parent my daughter has finally allowed me to overcome my fear of setting boundaries with my narcissistic mother, who strongly resembles Alice. I want to put my daughter’s needs first in a way that I have struggled to do for myself before now. When my parents announced their plans to visit again – they never ask – I jumped in. Armed with my script, I announced my boundary. I let them know they could come down to visit just for the day, or they could stay at a hotel if they wanted to visit for the weekend.
It didn’t go well. I expected there to be push-back, but I thought their desire to visit their granddaughter would overwhelm their objections. What actually happened is confusing: they seem to be acting as though the boundary is completely unacceptable.
First, they agreed to come just for the day. Then they canceled at the last minute. Then my mother started the silent treatment. My father was the one to deliver the news that they were “uncomfortable” with staying at a hotel and felt it was a rejection of them. They couldn’t understand how they could be so disruptive, and that’s kind of the issue.
I had more phone calls from my father where he reminded me my mother just has so many emotions. My mother sent a package of clothes (all seasonally inappropriate and/or too large for my daughter to wear) with an emotionally manipulative note addressed to the baby about how much she loved spending time with her. Finally, my father told me my mother was heartbroken, and that it was time I fixed things, or it was implied that things would continue on this way indefinitely, with my mother never finding it in herself to speak to me again.
My mother tells herself stories about how she is wronged and how people are against her, and I know all of them well because it was my job as a kid to support her, agree with her, and above all, make sure she was never upset. I watched my mother alienate person after person, family member after family member for slights against her. And now it’s my turn, because I’ve done the one thing you’re never supposed to do: I upset Mom. My father is buying into her narrative. He says he can see both sides of the story, but he’s willing to “overlook” the hurt I’ve caused and temporarily honor my request until I decide to change my mind down the road. He claims to be the peacemaker, but his solution is what it has always been: for me not to express my needs in the first place.
Are boundaries really this dangerous and scary? Do parents really stop talking to their daughters over seemingly reasonable requests? Do I continue to stand firm even though I will be cast as the worst daughter in history ever? Can I maintain a sane relationship with my father while he continues to believe my mother is acting reasonably? Is he actually just as unreasonable as my mother?
I’m writing because I want to know what to do now. I would like for my daughter to have a relationship with her grandparents, but I need to protect her from the emotional manipulation I’ve experienced, and right now those two things seem mutually exclusive. My parents are so far off script, I don’t even know how to talk to them. And I want to know how to tell when it’s time to stop talking to them at all.
-New Mother, Worst Daughter
Dear New Mother,
Worst Totally Reasonable Daughter,
I have some good news for you for the short-term:
Your baby gives zero fucks right now.
At two months, Grandma & Grandpa are NOT MOM or WARM BLOBS or WEIRD SMELLS or however babies process the presence of people who are not you and your wife. Your daughter can’t even sustain eye contact with other people and she will definitely not notice if your parents need to have a good long pout about boundaries. There is plenty of time for you and your wife to work out the appropriate protocol and conditions for visit with your folks. There is time for your daughter to form her own relationship with and opinion of her grandparents, and for her to someday (maybe!) thank you for the work you did to make a relationship possible. As a new parent, as a new parental boundary-setter, as a person learning to survive without sleep and deal with being constantly punched in the face by waves of impossible, ridiculous waves of love and worry for a tiny creature who is dependent on you for survival, the best way you can take care of your daughter right now is to take excellent care of yourself.
If you need to shove the inappropriate baby clothes in a drawer or drop them off at a donation center and throw the accompanying note in the trash, then do it.
If you need to say, “We’d love to have you visit us and the baby. For this to work for us, we need lots of advance notice and for you to either plan a day trip or stay in a hotel, and also for you to respect our house rules and parenting decisions,” then that’s what you need to say. If your parents don’t want to come under reasonable conditions like “don’t feed the dog people food” and “don’t rearrange our stuff or ‘fix’ our house” and “the final word on what the baby eats and how she sleeps is ours, not yours,” then that is a choice they are making and your script is: “Well, we’ll miss seeing you but it’s your choice! Let’s talk again in a few months.”
And then, with the help of your wife and (maybe) a supportive counselor and a (maybe) book like Will I Ever Be Good Enough? you work out the kind of adult relationship with your parents that you can handle, and you take all the time you need to do it. It might mean that the grandparents miss out on some milestones, and it might mean that sometimes you grieve for the way you sense that the picture of a happy family “should” look. Your mom might throw tantrums and say terrible things (the way she has always done) and your dad might enable her and pressure you in her name (the way he has always done) and both of them might repeatedly invite you into their terrible game where they are always right and you are always punished (the way they have always done). Once upon a time you were dependent on them and you had to play their game, more or less, but you do not have to play this time. You are not the child in their lives anymore, you are the adult in your own life. You are allowed to risk upsetting your parents and make choices they don’t agree with. You are allowed to say “If you want to come and visit, plan a day trip or plan to stay in a hotel” and let them decide what it’s worth to them to be a part of your life. If they cancel a visit at the last minute in order to punish you, try to see it as a gift in the form of a respite from their presence, and give yourself a good break so before you even attempt to agree to reschedule. It’s time to show your parents that you can live with their upset feelings and disapproval, but you refuse to live with the disruptions their visits cause and their disregard for you as a host and as a parent.You are allowed to protect yourself and your family from entirely human-made stress and bullshit.
Your daughter is going to be just fine and so are you. Your parents are going to act like jerks until they figure out that you are serious. Then they will pretend to comply in order to get back into your house and your attention, when, BOOM, they will spring a bunch of jerkiness on you. You will say, “Huh, that’s unfortunate, but it’s time to cut the visit short. Let’s try again in a few months” and then you’ll cut the visit short. This cycle will repeat itself until the trade-off of “Behave yourself, get time with cute grandchild” vs. “Don’t behave yourself, be ignored/excluded” sinks in. Your daughter is probably going to eventually (maddeningly) love them despite their difficult qualities and you are going to bite your tongue a lot. You have plenty of time and many, many tries to get it all right, so if you do nothing else, relieve yourself of the strain of feeling that you have to work it all out right now. Enjoy your wee baby, and remember that she has zero fucks to give about your annoying parents right now and for a long time coming.