I’ve just spent weeks reading through your archives. I’ve learned so much and made lots of plans for how to better interact with parents, friends and colleagues. One of the subjects I read about a lot are difficult mothers and mothers in law.
My husband’s mom is emotionally abusive and very sad all the time. For a few years after marriage, I tried to tiptoe around her and keep the peace… Not that it ever prevented screaming fights or insults where I was mostly silently stunned and my husband resignedly grabbed his coat and we left. After we had some kids things got both better and worse. My mil LOVES our kids and the only times I’ve seen her smile is around them. However, the bad times were worse because now there’s more to fight about (The baby’s name is already on the birth certificate! Drop it! We’re not changing the name!) and also because I don’t want her to someday hurt my kids the way she does my husband.
A few years ago, we stopped having any contact after a particularly bad episode. Recently, my husband has stated talking about reconciliation. I’m hesitant. I can see about 100 negatives and only 2 or 3 positives.
I can see that the scripts and advice you’ve posted would work really well to help manage this relationship – if we go ahead with seeing her again. But, just the thought of it makes me so tired. It is stressful and exhausting before, during and after to interact with her. And even using your advice – it’s a lot of mental and emotional work, especially now that I’m worrying over my kids and my husband-keeping all five (5!) of them calm, quiet, and out of her rampaging danger zone. We live so far away, and the number of times we’ve flown and arrived tired and hungry and unpacked the suitcases and then packed up and left in tears before dinner…Well, it’s more than twice!
My husband is great, smart, easy -going, and a wonderful dad. He won’t reconcile without my support and help. So if I say no – it’s no. If I say yes, I have to go there WITH him to keep him steady and notice when the fighting has become too much and say, “it’s time to leave,” and drive away. I think he relies on me too much, but when I don’t want to see her, he won’t go.
She’s a lonely, sad woman who has driven away all of her family and friends. Is my exhaustion at the thought of having to “deal with her” a good enough reason to keep away?
Thank you for any advice you have.
P.S. If you have the magic combination of words that would convince her to see a therapist, I’d appreciate them.
Fulfilled and happy career gal, mom, and wife… Turned exhausted stressed-out shell by MIL
Hello and welcome to Awkwardland!
If your husband wants to try reconciling with his mom, I think it’s up to him to figure out a process that might work and to put supports in place for himself to make it possible, and I think that it’s okay for you to put the onus on him to do the work here.
What that process could look like:
Baby Step #1: Husband institutes weekly (or monthly) phone chat with his mom – 10-15 minutes (max) at the same set time every time, with advance notice if plans change. If she says something mean to him, he should end the call fairly immediately (“Interesting idea, Mom, well, good catching up, bye!“) and not contact her again until the next scheduled call. (1-3 months)
Baby Step #1a: Husband lines up a counselor or therapist or friend or a journal or some sort of sounding board or other ritual to process his Momthoughts before and decompress after these calls. Maybe he needs to run or bike or kick a big bag at a gym or angrily do yardwork or wash dishes. Whatever works for him time-wise and budget-wise and energy-wise can be fine, with one exception: That sounding board shouldn’t be you. (1-6 months, the sooner the better)
Baby Step #2: If after a little while the chats are working – Mom is behaving herself, husband is able to decompress and soothe on his own afterward without you losing an entire evening to his ranting (for example) – maybe he can swap the solo chats out for a brief Skype session with one or two of the kids and closely monitor the conversations. If your mom behaves herself and doesn’t say nasty things, this routine will continue. If she does start up, your husband can end the discussion immediately and revert to no chats or solo chats only and ease back in at his convenience. (6 months – 1 year)
Baby Step #3a: Alternately, what if Grandma & kids became pen pals? She gets crayons and finger paints and glitter (the devil on my shoulder says “SO MUCH GLITTER!) and visible talismans of her grandkids to display and hold onto, your kids get a fun art project for an afternoon, and postal mail is a pretty relaxed way of maintaining contact in this digital world. Everyone makes fun of greeting cards for being trite, but think of it this way: Your husband can just sign his name and the kids can cutely sign theirs, and some copywriter does the hard part! Throw on a stamp and your husband is good for 1-2 months of “LOOK MOM, I’M TRYING” credit. (3 months – 1 year)
Baby Step #4: If chats are going well, and a visit seems in order, howabout husband visits solo or takes one of the kids along for a short trip? Maybe? He shouldn’t do these on major holidays (thereby ruining them for you), he shouldn’t stay in her house, he should schedule time with other nearby relatives or friends, and he should build in nearby attractions/activities that are kid-friendly….(after 1 year of successful lower-key interactions)
Baby Step #4a: If the visit goes well, maybe there can be more of them spaced out over time. If it doesn’t, back to square one and rebuild (or not) from there. If his mom agitates for holiday visits, or the whole family, he can say “Those big family trips really haven’t worked for us in the past, so we’re gonna keep doing it our way.” Translation: “Take it or leave it, Grandma. You have no rights here and were given plenty of chances to not suck at this.” (1 year – infinity)
His mom can’t be taught to be a nicer person, but she can be taught to behave better if she wants to see her grandkids. It’s not a perfect solution (it never is with abusive people) because if the kids form a relationship with her and they start to look forward to Chats with Grandma it’s harder to pull back on them without explaining why to your kids. However, if your husband focuses on protecting the kids and himself from abusive behavior, the kids will form their own opinion about Grandma over time. She may rally a bit and put a good face forward in order to preserve the tie. That can be a good outcome, even if it feels like a betrayal of everything you know to be true about her and you and husband giving each other the side-eye that means “It is so unfair that poisonous people get to mellow with age.” The kids may (infuriatingly) adore her. Maybe that’s how it heals, a little. Maybe they will figure out she has a shitty personality and ask to opt out of visits and calls. Maybe it never heals.
Anyway, please notice that we are a loooooooong way away from six people getting on a plane for a tense & expensive holiday visit with you as Chief Logistics and Emotions Manager.
Also notice that in these imagined scenarios it’s your husband who is taking the steps to contact his mom, setting boundaries with her, monitor her treatment of him and your kids, and emotionally take care of himself through the process.
Finally, please notice that the steps outlined what that process could look like but does not address whether it should happen at all. If your husband can’t or won’t take on the majority of the emotional labor, maybe he shouldn’t reconcile with his mom right now. He’s the only one who can really make that decision, and I think you are 100% allowed to say “That’s up to you, and I want you to have whatever relationship with your mom you decide you want to pursue, and you know I will always support you and believe you and remind you of your worth. But I won’t I won’t drag myself and all our kids there anymore, so if you want to visit her, plan on going solo or taking one kid at a time, and I’ll support you by holding the fort down here.”
You could also say, “Tell me more about what ‘reconciling’ looks like for you?” which does two things: 1) It shows him that you are willing to listen and support him and 2) it assigns the question of what exactly his wants and needs and plans for this are as something he should generate. If he moves ahead, there will also be the little ongoing conversations where you suggest & maintain specific boundaries, for example, “After you talk to your mom tomorrow week, could you make a plan to go for a run or play a video game or jam out on your jazz flute for a while? I want to support you, but the full, immediate download is overwhelming for me.”
Letter Writer, you’re rightly feeling uncomfortable right now, and I don’t think that’s just because of your well-founded pessimism about how this reconciliation is going to go or your stellar instincts to shield your kids from the woman who abused your husband(!!!!). You clearly have a lot of empathy for your mother-in-law even after how she’s treated you and yours, and it’s a very kind of you to try to imagine a way that she can have a relationship with her grandkids and to want to give her something good to hold into. But by telling you “it’s your call” your husband is already outsourcing the emotional work of all of this to you, and that’s not okay. It’s natural and understandable and forgivable that he would do so, on many levels – you’ve been a great support and buffer in the past, and as the chief survivor of her abuse he’s not a bad person for wanting someone to brave the lion’s den with him. In some ways it’s a sign of respect that he values your opinion so much and recognizes how much work it is for you to support him through this that he won’t proceed without your buy-in. But it’s not okay to put the pressure of the decision on you, and definitely not okay unless he is willing to shoulder the majority of the work and to take steps to put more of a support system than just you into place. Probably the best thing you can do for your entire family including your husband is to model good self-care and good boundaries by saying, “I won’t stand in your way, but I won’t take the lead either.”
P.S. Bonus therapy suggestion script, since you asked:
I don’t think you or your husband will necessary persuade his mom to go to therapy, especially if they have been out of contact for a while and aren’t close. Down the road, if he sees a counselor (not the worst idea if he’s going to re-open the can of worms marked ‘Mean Mom’), one approach might be: “You seem really angry and sad to me when we talk lately, Mom. Have you ever tried talking to a professional about it? I’ve tried that out lately, and I was surprised by how helpful I found it.” If she has a primary care doctor that person could probably recommend someone, or if there is a local “Department on Aging” they might be able to offer some phone numbers, and he might be able to fold it into “general health” concerns, like, “Ma, get your annual checkup, and please make sure you tell your doctor how sad you’ve been feeling lately, since that can affect physical health.”
P.P. S. In the comments, I bet the Letter Writer would love to hear from parents who have and those who have not made efforts to make peace with a problematic parent for the sake of fostering a relationship with grandkids.
P.P.P.S. Finally, Winter Pledge Drive Week remains a thing that I will mention during all posts this week. Maintaining the blog takes about 30 hours weekly when you add in comment moderation and it’s a big help to have your support. If you’re able to send a few dollars, feel free to use Paypal (firstname.lastname@example.org) or contribute via Dwolla or Cash.me. Thanks for all the contributions and the kind words so far, it’s amazing to be connected to so many kind people!