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#821: “I want to reconcile with my abusive mom, but it’s up to you, honey!”

Dear Captain,

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.

Thank you,
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 (welcometoawkwardtown@gmail.com) 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!

 

 

 

 

 

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227 comments
  1. Hmkay. Not entirely unbiased here. I’m the grandchild of that kind of grandmother. My mother never fully cut the cord with her, and eventually I *had* to for my own safety and sanity, but it still only half-helped.

    Please be careful. The only thing that sucks more than being exposed to an evil adult influence in your family is doing so at the behest of your parents. I’m not saying you wouldn’t step up if grandma played up, but it can take a lot more effort to undo harm than to avoid it being done in the first place.

    (E.g., until very recently, when people talked about “grandmother Zen” I assumed it was a particularly dangerous or mean-spirited kind of Zen, that involved maximum emotional discomfort, social humiliation, and general head-fuckery. Shit you not. Because that’s what grandma means to me – a vituperous old hag who had given herself the right to make everyone around her as unhappy as she was.)

    • spook11 said:

      Mine was a hag too. I remember asking for a glass of water. She said no. I pretended to go to the loo, then drank from the tap in the bathroom while I pretended to wash my hands. I remember thinking – I hope she doesn’t catch me, I must be very careful to sound like I am washing my hands. I think I was about 8 – 10 years old at the time.

      • caryatid said:

        O_o

        i am horrified.

      • BigdogLittlecat said:

        That’s not a hag; that’s something I’m not sure comment policy allows me to say.
        Wow….

      • My little sister was visiting our paternal grandmother (a dreadful old biddy) once and got a tummy bug or had an allergic reaction and had several hours of violent vomiting. The first time, she didn’t make it to the washroom and vomited in the hall. My grandmother made her, whilst she was still actively suffering from the bug/reaction, scrub up her own vomit, intermittently running into the washroom to puke into the toilet.

        She was seven.

        • caryatid said:

          i am sorry that your sister endured that abuse and i hope that neither of you has suffered lasting damage from that horrible treatment. i am speechless!

        • johann7 said:

          Oh, also, in the context of my other comments, I have to give a huge shout-out to the behind-the-scenes work my mom did to shield me from not only abuse, but sexist, racist, and homophobic attitudes of my very screwed-up family (which I suppose could be viewed as a form of abuse). The consensus here seems to be in line with my experience: the real favor is not giving kids the opportunity to have relationships with awful family members, but shielding kids from their worst behaviors.

        • boutet said:

          My mother pulled that on me, having to clean up after myself while continuing to be sick. She still tells the story of it as a “great parenting idea” because she assures people that I never got sick on the floor again. I was 6 or less, it was before I was in school.

          I’m sorry to read that it’s a thing with other people as well.

          • I didn’t have to clean up but i was yelled at for it. Even back then (7? 8?) I realised it was insane because I never projectile vomit on purpose, funnily enough

          • LR said:

            Oh man. Like godsbastard below I got yelled at for not making it to the bathroom in time, and vomiting on the kitchen floor. Kick her while she’s done why don’t you.

          • Tapetum said:

            It definitely is with some people. The first time I got really sick after I got married, I threw up in the tub, because I was *ahem* already making use of the toilet. As soon as the uncontrollable output eased, I quite automatically started to clean up the tub, and was considerably startled when my husband came in and emphatically sent me to bed while he cleared up the mess. My parents had such a strict “you make the mess, you clean it up” policy that it had never occurred to me that it was a bit cruel to enforce it on sick people.

          • My grandmother had read somewhere that it was a good parenting practice because it taught children not to vomit on carpet.

      • My grandma wouldn’t get me water after I had surgery when I was fifteen.

        Me- Grandma, can you give me that water? I’m thirsty.

        Grandma-reads book, no answer

        Me- (louder) Can I have that water?

        Grandma continues reading book

        Lather, rinse, repeat above(3-4 times), until I said “Can. You. Get. Me. My. Water.”

        Grandma- “I know you don’t WANT me here, but you don’t have to be so RUDE.” Storms out of room, no water for me.

        I mean, my grandma is mostly not a bad person (usually she’s just annoying and passive aggressive at worst), but wtf was going on with her that day, I don’t know. I do know she was swiftly banned from being around me when I had surgery after that, because that was turdy. So I get exactly where you’re coming from, spook! I hope you had a nice grandma on the other side of your family.

        • Something Clever said:

          Ha! Don’t you know that it is your job as the younger person to wait on *her*. Like, how dare you inconvenience her while she is quietly enjoying her book! Paying homage in the form of servitude is what all elders are due, amirite?

          • I think she resented the fact that I was “keeping” her from doing fun stuff in the city (we travelled out of town for the surgery) and I was too nervous pre surgery to go to Rockefeller Center/Bryant Park/whatever, and Dad went down to the cafeteria to get some coffee (poor man really needed it) so she didn’t feel like she could leave without a reason. Hey, I told her, up front, prior to her purchasing a train ticket, that we were focusing on SURGERY, and contrary to what Dad said, there wasn’t going to be much outside of hotel-taxi-hospital-train station. I told her if she wanted to go back to the hotel, she was fine to do so. I mean, it was really stupid and made everything more annoying, but I was able to get the water after I called the nurse.

            Also- random flashback time! When I was 4-5, I’d be playing upstairs or outside, and suddenly, Grandma would yell “Maggie! Come downstairs RIGHT NOW!” I’d run downstairs/inside, and Grandma would be angrily looking at me, arms crossed. “Do you know what you did? Do you? You should know better!” and things in that vein. I would just give her a blank stare, and then suddenly, she’d stop, and smile, and say “Oh, I was just messing around! I used to do that all the time with your father/older cousins and they’d tell me everything they did wrong! Here’s a cookie!” It did bother me (especially since she knows I hate yelling), but not reacting got her to stop that b.s pretty quick. Although, this tactic was very effective on my younger cousin, who would immediately start looking anxious when she’d call for us, and is very quick to placate Grandma whenever she’s in one of her moods. Younger cousin spent her formative years living with Grandma, so I imagine that made a difference.

            LW- the Captain has given her usual awesome advice. The reason I mentioned the above examples was to give you a picture of some of the things your MIL *might* do. Despite what the above examples illustrate, I can have a good relationship with my grandma, although it involves some rules.

            1. No stressful situations. Grandma melts down, or all her passive aggressive tendencies really come out. LW, if your child(ren) ever have a medical emergency (heaven forbid), MIL should not know until it’s resolved.

            2. I see Grandma once a week, or every two weeks, and we do fun, structured things together. Any more than that, and she starts acting up. She is not good at seeing people everyday. Not sure why. Don’t care.

            3. Teaching your children to be assertive and firm with her (if that will work- it could be waving a red flag in front of a bull w/ MIL). My grandma generally responds well to me being assertive and calm. In case husband and kids do get back together with her, it’s a great idea to talk to your kids about boundary setting (in general and with her), and reassure them you have their back if she does something to upset them.

            4. There is a benefit to Grandma- I became very good at spotting and handling passive aggressive behaviors at an early age. She’s also very fun when you’re not around her all the time.

      • Adam said:

        She was afraid you’d splash it on her and then she’d melt

        • Evie said:

          ….bwahahahahaha!!

        • Tee hee hee hee!

    • johann7 said:

      While I didn’t suffer any DIRECT abuse at the hand of my grandmother and my mom did talk about her abusive behavior with me, my mom never cut contact completely, and I want to second this bit:

      “The only thing that sucks more than being exposed to an evil adult influence in your family is doing so at the behest of your parents.”

      Kids can be very emotionally perceptive, and they can pick up on things their parents want but don’t articulate, like for them to have a good relationship with an abuser. That may be impossible because abuser, and in those cases the kid might try to just put up with the abuse (or indirect, observed abuse of the parent) to please the parent. I lean toward cutting contact, but my own situation may not be generalizable.

      • Chessie said:

        I second this so hard. At one point when I was very young my mother tried to have her mom babysit me, despite the way her mom had treated her when she was growing up. My mother was on the fence about having her mom watch me but she went with it. I don’t remember this, but apparently when she came to pick me up, my legs were covered in bruises. She asked me and her mom what had happened and her mom said I had fallen down the basement stairs, and I immediately echoed, “I fell down the basement stairs.” She told me when I was older that that was when she knew that I would be complicit in hiding any abuse that happened, that she couldn’t trust me to report it if her mom mistreated me, because she could see that I sensed that she wanted me to have a good relationship with her mom, and that I would do everything in my power to make that happen. That was when she told her mom that she’d used up her last chance to have any contact with me. I don’t remember anything about this — I was probably four at the time and wasn’t aware of any of the drama. But when I found out about it later I was so grateful; I felt (and feel) very protected and cared-for.

      • Yeah! And for me, if mum makes me go see grandma every freakin’ Sunday so she can tell me what a piece of shit I am, and she does not stop her or contradict her, kinda ends up suggesting that mum thinks I’m as piece of shit too. Or at least thinks I deserve to be treated as such. Or that treating people like that in general is totally peachy.

      • For me the option of “one child going forth to the ogre’s house with somewhat-malleable-sounding husband” is fairly terrifying. Even if grandma learns to play nice to get what she wants, there’s no certainty she’ll do so once she’s got it.

        • No Longer In Academia said:

          Absolutely. This is one instance where I completely disagree with CA’s advice. If after all the previous steps the situation is still such that the LW don’t feel safe being in the same room as Evil!Mom, then no way should any of her kids be visiting. Protecting them is her first and greatest responsibility here.

        • Blue Meeple said:

          I agree – my grandparents were nice, and I still preferred my sister to be there with me. Going somewhere strange, with people I didn’t know but was apparently supposed to love anyway, was scary. I can’t even fathom what that would have been like if my grandparents hadn’t been good people.

          If Husband wants a relationship with his mother, that’s his prerogative, but keep the kids away from her.

        • Brisvegan said:

          That was the one thing that I thought wouldn’t work, too. For one, the grandmother may treat the child unfairly or be horrid to the father in front of the child. I wouldn’t pick one child to subject to that.

          The second worry I would have is Dad (or MIL) using the child to regulate, manage or take the brunt of emotions, in the same way that LW has been given the job of emotional manager of MIL, Dad and all kids. I get the feeling that Dad may have learned from his mother that his emotions are other people’s responsibility. (Far too many narcissistic parents put this on kids.) I’m speculating that to some degree he has learned this pattern and outsources his emotional regulation to LW (as she relates being responsible for calming situations and managing emotions, including for her completely adult husband.) People with habits like that fall back into them in times of stress. No kid should be put in a position where they might be made responsible for Dad and MIL’s screwed up dynamic and emotional fallout.

          • Holy crap, that sounds like me. Thanks for the insight! I learn so much from Captain A and the Army.

        • TO_Ont said:

          Not to mention, when I was little I would have found going somewhere without my siblings far more intimidating than going there with them.

          I’m assuming the thinking is if there’s just one kid, it’s easier to be sure they’re with the parent the whole time and never alone with grandma, and easier for the parent to focus all their attention on the child… but it also means the child ends up _alone_ with just the adults, without a sibling who’s going through the same thing and knows how they feel, or who they can play with and block out the adults.

      • MsBee said:

        “and they can pick up on things their parents want but don’t articulate, like for them to have a good relationship with an abuser”

        I think the advice relating to this would be to actually articulate it, with a strong helping of shutting grandma down or even leaving when she says hurtful things. Additionally, following it up with a chat about toxic behaviors AND demonstration of good emotional connections at home.

        Growing up, my own dad complained about things his mother did, but also did the same behaviors to me. Stuff like wanting to be called every single fucking day since cell phones were popular (my parents divorced) and if a call was missed I’d be harassed. If I called later and said I was in class or at work it would shut him up, but without an apology.

    • Jennet Lynn said:

      Wait, this is a thing that other people are upset about, that I am also allowed to be upset about? I had a vicious grandmother and really resented my mother for exposing me to her, but I always get told “yes, but she was your mother’s mother. Your mother had an obligation to let you have a relationship with her.”
      The fact that it’s not just me and this is a thing that other people can get upset by is really validating.

      • Anothermous said:

        I’m so sorry you were forced to have a relationship with her. You’re not obligated to have a relationship with anyone, and you’re not obligated to allow anyone a relationship with your children, period. No exceptions. The people who’ve said that to you are dead wrong.

      • Minister of Smartassery said:

        My paternal grandmother was horrible to my mother, my brother and myself, as in “offering to raise my sister (her favorite) because my mother was ‘clearly not up to the task of caring for such a sensitive, special child.’ As in not coming to visit ONCE when my brother was hospitalized for more than a week and diagnosed with a life-altering chronic disease in preschool because “she didn’t like hospitals.” (She had worked in a hospital for 30 years.) As in telling my mother that I had emotional problems and needed to be seen by a psychologist, because I devoted my playtime to pretend games and books, rather than dolls, like a “normal girl.”

        I said once in front of some friends that I lost a lot of respect for my dad, who observed all of these statements from grandma and did nothing to defend any of us, and expected us to continue to spend time with grandma because that “is just the way she is.” Friends said, “OH, but she was his mother. He couldn’t keep you kids from his MOTHER. She was your grandmother! She deserved to see you!”

        And I’ll tell you what I told them, “The hell he couldn’t. He could have shielded his wife, the woman he pledged to love, honor and cherish from a woman who took every opportunity to abuse her. He could have defended his small children from judgements and criticisms that affected the way they saw themselves for years. But instead, he chose to chase after the approval of a woman who repeatedly shown she was never going to give him the love he wanted. He could have had that unconditional love from his family, but instead, we learned not to trust him, because we couldn’t even count on him to keep us safe from his mother.”

        This idea of people suddenly becoming decent and loving and deserving deference and respect just they become grandparents is bullshit. Assholes grow old and become elderly assholes.

      • Me too. My maternal grandparents are/were complete terrors. I am grateful that that grandmother passed away when I was an infant, because she was a monster– she beat her kids, she said horrible things to them, she’d lock them in closets, she’d have them walking on eggshells and it still wasn’t enough. My grandfather is a sexist, racist, generally -phobic jerkass, to the point where I once considered jumping out of the car in a strange neighborhood because of the undying badness I felt when I heard him refer to kids playing in a yard as (tw: racial slur) “niglets.” But. (There’s always a but).

        Small Me *wanted* to be loved by her grandparents (Grandfather remarried; his second wife is not broad-minded, but she is not cruel). Small Me tried very very hard to make them proud, and genuinely reached out in the earnest fashion of small children time and time again. They failed me, time and again. They never came to school plays or grandparents’ day. They never played with me, not even sedate games, not even when they watched me after school or on weekends (or when we lived with them, briefly). They were distant and impossible to please and liked to laugh at the things I said. I kept giving, and they stayed monsters, and eventually I learned that there was just something wrong with me that made me fundamentally unlovable and unimportant (Mom helped with that; she’s a violent narcissist). It took a long time to get over the damage they did, because grandparents are supposed to be safe people, and when they are not, it can hit kids *hard.* I honestly don’t give a fig for that whole side of the family now, but it was a long time getting there, and I question my parents’ wisdom in pushing me to be around and vulnerable to someone who literally throttled his eldest daughter for not liking his new wife enough.

      • ruinousillusion said:

        One other thing people often miss is that you shouldn’t be required to touch/kiss/hug anyone. Even if you’re shy. Even if you’re hurting your great-aunt’s feelings by not hugging her. Great-aunt is an adult and can manage her disappointment over someone else’s physical boundaries, even if the someone else is a child.

    • me, myself, and I said:

      oh goodness, I’m not the only one? Mine came in contrast to the most loving wonderful grandmother you could ever want (on the other side of the family) so I knew that wasn’t the only option, but she was sneaky about her meanness for years (she was nasty mean to girls and women in a way she *never* let the men-folk see). When my dad (her son) finally caught wind of just how bad it was and started shielding me from it I was *SO* grateful after years of instructions to spend time with her because he really truly didn’t know how bad it was and assumed with the best possible intentions that it was good for us to spend time with family.
      .

    • Victoria said:

      I’m so sorry that happened to you, and everyone else in this thread.

      My mother went no-contact with my grandmother years before I was born and I never met her or heard stories about her. I have to say that in thirty years it’s never once occurred to me to be sad or regretful about that. I just accepted it as the way things were and loved the family I had and everything was fine.

      So, LW, if people say “Oh, you can’t cut the kids off from their grandmother!”; you absolutely can. It’s not some kind of cardinal sin.

    • Nanani said:

      I appreciate that people are venting about truly toxic people, but can we do it without misogynageist insults being thrown around? This is the second recent thread where terms disparaging older women for being older women have been thrown around, and it really clashes with the rest of the site.

      • RSVP said:

        I agree. In my case, it was my father that was somewhat more abusive and my brother that insisted his kids spend time with my parents (both abusive in different ways). So what sort of insulting word is there for abusive grandfathers that is the equal of words like “hag”?

        • wagtail said:

          There isn’t. The whole reason that insults like “hag” are effective is because an animus exists against elderly women which has no male equivalent. If there were equally hurtful and common terms for both men and women then it would just be ageist (as opposed to both ageist and misogynist).

      • johann7 said:

        I agree entirely: we have some perfectly good epithets that do not rely on gender or age or other vectors of marginalization to slur people.

    • cruelmistress said:

      My grandmother was all the things described here to my mother and her other three children while she was parenting– physically and emotionally abusive, real horror stories.

      I have nothing but fond memories of her though– we were especially close, one of those chemical things, from the moment I was born, and that bond we had became a kind of refuge for my mom too. Because then they shared something, for like the first time? My grandmother may have turned out mean to me too– definitely not as poisonous as some on this thread, and not as awful as she was to her own children, she had undoubtedly mellowed– but she died when I was still quite young, before it ever would have been an issue that I’m a queer atheist feminist with a dirty mouth (and maybe she’d have been charmed by that– like I said, I never got to know her as an adult). I do know that it was healing for my mother to have that relationship with my grandmother when I was young, because we’ve talked about it quite explicitly. It did not take away the traumas of her childhood (which we have also talked about explicitly, as I have grown up), but those were good times for her too.

      As an adult, if I’d learned that she’d been in misery every minute I’d been playing in the pool my grandmother kept in her yard just for me, that instead of enjoying a long-overdue connection with her mother she’d been hiding in the bathroom to blink back tears at nasty comments, I wouldn’t think those nice times were worth it, honestly. I’d feel angry at the phantom of my dead grandmother for being abusive to my mother and guilty that Mom was subjected to this unpleasantness for the sake of my relationship with Grandma.

    • Kara said:

      My mum put herself through endless amounts of stress and misery when my brother and I were young because she felt (and was pressured by those around her) she had to help us develop a relationship with her. Her mother was physically, mentally and emotionally abusive in ways mum is still dealing with, but added to that, feels immensely guilty for exposing us to her, because she was obligated to, because ‘faaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaamily!’.

      What I went through at her hands is nothing compared to what mum went through, but they remain some of my most traumatic childhood memories – things like her throwing a stick for her dog to fetch, but laughing and throwing it over the sea wall on purpose. The dog survived the long drop, but I think that was the final straw for mum, and she noped the fuck away. We moved to the other side of the country and cut all contact, but I still had to plan my wedding carefully in case she decided to turn up.

      • I have no words for that. Well, no words I want to put on here. That’s just…. aaargh.

  2. Sheelzebub said:

    “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.”

    This is what I was thinking in reading the letter. LW, I empathize with your husband and do not think badly of him for this, I promise. I also think that this is something he needs to do without you, and he shouldn’t put the decision on your shoulders. Get your input in that it can affect you and the kids–yes. But tell you that *you* need to make the decision (and leave the comfort/therapy/pieces-pick-up-duty to you if you say yes) is not going to help him, and will put too much pressure on you.

    • Courtney said:

      “But by telling you “it’s your call” your husband is already outsourcing the emotional work of all of this to you…”

      Maybe I’m just a suspicious person, but what I see is that husband is outsourcing the BLAME as well as the emotional labor. I feel for the LW’s husband, but I also wonder if he even wants the reconciliation. My spidey sense is showing me a scenario in which husband is getting pressure to reconcile but a) doesn’t want to and b) doesn’t want to be the bad guy. The set up where he puts all of the work and the decision of whether or not to reconcile on to the LW potentially allows him to achieve both.

      • I don’t think you are a suspicious person for thinking this, because it crossed my mind as well. It would be much easier to say “Welp, I would to do that, but Wife said it’s a bad idea,” than to honestly and directly reject an estranged mother. Either way, CA’s advice was rock solid. Whether he wants to to outsource emotional work or was hoping for a scapegoat, LW handing him the reigns to this potential nope sleigh puts the responsibility back in his hands.

      • Not gonna lie, this is emotional labor I’d be happy to do if I got the impression that’s what my spouse wanted. I’m always willing to be someone’s excuse to stand up to pressure and say a difficult no.

        • neverjaunty said:

          I am, too….right up until the point where 1) that someone else outsources their conflicted feels about the situation to me and/or 2) standing up for them actively hurts their ability to learn to stand up for themselves.

        • ruinousillusion said:

          When I want to use my partner as an excuse for something like that I tell them up-front what I want and why I’m not comfortable standing on my own and ask if they’re ok with being my excuse. You should know going in that you want to be saying no, not ask your partner to decide yes or no for you.

      • Ariane said:

        Or it could be the inverse — Husband really doesn’t *want* to reconcile, just feels like he *should*, and is looking to LW to give him the excuse he needs to stay where he feels safe. Of course I don’t know for sure, but I know there have been times in my life where I so badly wanted someone else to be the strong one for me. But that never works. If it doesn’t come from husband himself, he won’t really find peace with it.

      • Mary said:

        I think there are lots of different versions of this dynamic, some healthy and some not so healthy, and the LW and their partner need to sit down and have a lot of conversations about it. It is completely understandable for LW’s husband to feel very, very conflicted about being in touch with his mother and “want to be in touch, feel like I oughtn’t to be”, “don’t want to be in touch, feel like I ought to be” and “sometimes I want to and sometimes I don’t want and I have no idea which is the “right” thing to do” are all completely legitimate reactions.

        From there, there are all sorts of levels to the relationship with LW herself, from “want a shield”, “want a scapegoat”, “want someone to blame”, “don’t wanna make the decision” to “my family comes first, and even if I want X I’m not risking my family’s happiness”. But you need to be both on board and utterly clear about what your respective roles in the decision-making process are, and what your roles will be in the subsequent reality.

        LW, I think the emotional labour that you probably *do* need to do here is sitting down with your partner and help him figure out what he wants as an individual, perhaps distinct from what he feels he ought to do or want, and from there what is right for you all as a family. But your partner should be doing this right alongside you!

        • Seconded. I feel like this is a situation where Spouse hasn’t unpacked his emotions yet. Yes, he’s assigning the emotional labour to LW in a way that’s not healthy for either of them, but we can’t know why or what to do now because HE may not know why. Maybe – probably – on a conscious level he doesn’t think he can be trusted to make good decisions about his Mom.

          Which is understandable, but can’t continue if he wants to pursue this, and probably shouldn’t continue if he doesn’t want to pursue this. He’s going to have to make a decision eventually, and he needs to trust that decision/those decisions.

          At the risk of pointing out the obvious, being abused is damaging in a lot of ways, and until you drag them out and unpack them you’re not necessarily aware of them.

        • Lou said:

          “LW, I think the emotional labour that you probably *do* need to do here is sitting down with your partner and help him figure out what he wants as an individual”

          See, I think that’s a better job for a therapist. LW is still helping Husband manage/process his emotions, and while that is not in and of itself a bad thing, I think for something as big and messy as Husband’s relationship with his mother that it should be a job for a therapist.

          • Redgirl said:

            I agree that this should be the work of a therapist. It’s one thing to be a sounding board for your spouse, but LW is not trained in guiding someone through the emotional aftermath of abuse, and should not be put in that position. And even if she has been trained in it, there’s a reason why therapists don’t take on close family members (particularly spouses!) as patients.

        • Mary said:

          Quite possibly! But since it’s the LW who wrote here, and not their partner, even that process would need to start with sitting down and talking.

          • Yep. Boundaries are incredibly important, and a lot of the work here is the husband’s to do, but at the same time “how do we handle the ongoing effects of your mother’s abuse on you AND protect you, me, and our kids?” is a mutual problem.

            I think LW’s emotional labour here at this point is best spent encouraging her husband to see a therapist, but she’s obviously and rightly got strong opinions about how MiL affects her children and the stability of her household.

            I don’t think anyone would be well-served by LW stepping out of this entirely.

      • Cyberwulf said:

        Something that occurred to me (and I admit there’s probably a very slim chance of this happening) was that if husband decides not to reconcile because LW doesn’t want to, then later regrets it for whatever reason, he could blame the LW for it (“you didn’t want to help me reconcile with Mom and now she’s been run over by a reindeer and I never got to work things out with her”).

    • I dunno, I interpreted that as “if I reconcile with her, it is guaranteed to bleed over into you and are you willing to deal with that?” There’s no way he can keep LW completely out of the situation even if he actively tries to.

      In her case, I think I’d recommend a no, because it’s easier to stick with cutting someone off after you already did it and re-opening that door probably doesn’t bode well.

    • espritdecorps said:

      Spouse has an uncomfortable relationship with his parents.
      They were physically, verbally, and emotionally abusive to each other, with honeymoon periods of making up before finally splitting up for good. They ignored Spouse unless they needed an emotional pick-me-up, then shamed him for having needs and expectations as soon as a new partner/drama came along.

      This pattern continued into adulthood, and they both have initiated multiple ‘reunions’ where they suddenly desperately need to be parents and grandparents, they’ve seen the light and want a real family relationship. The person who dealt with the emotional load from first hopeful contact, to giddy reunion, to despair after the inevitable abandonment was me. For him and the children.
      On top of that, I had to organize outings, visits, and graciously host people who were openly nasty to me half the time, grilling me (and our kids) for info about the flaws of other parent for the other half.

      I made some rules around his parents during our separation that have saved my sanity.

      1) They are not allowed in our home. I will not host them.
      2) Spouse is responsible for all contact with them. I will not send cards, gifts, or organize get-togethers. If he wants to see them, he’s responsible for making that happen.
      3) I don’t want to hear anything about them, good or bad. He can process his feelings with friends or family members
      4) Spouse can take the children to see them, but he is honor-bound to leave immediately if uncomfortable or outrageous behavior starts. He has to refuse to take inappropriate gifts for the kids, rather than politely accepting them and letting me be the bad guy who wouldn’t let them play with actual adult weapons (this happened more than once). He is also the one who has to either head off grandiose promises being made to the children, or console them when the horse or Caribbean cruise doesn’t come.

      • RSVP said:

        Actual adult weapons???

        • espritdecorps said:

          Yep.
          A gun that I was assured had a broken firing pin, thus making it an ideal toy. (“All their friends will be jealous”)
          A switchblade (“It’s to dull to cut anyone”)
          A bowie knife and sheath (‘Every kid needs one”)
          An ornamental sword (This was billed as a practical gift because one of the kids is in martial arts)

          They give them whatever random thing they have laying around that they don’t want anymore. Books that are far to adult for them, broken jewelry, old makeup, random tchotches and dust catchers, terrifying old collectable dolls, broken musical instruments, weapons.

          • Cyberwulf said:

            They….they gave your kids a GUN?!

            It was funny when the grandfather in Malcolm in the Middle gave one of the kids an antique (but still live) grenade. Because it was FICTION. Jeepers Creepers. I am so sorry that people like that exist in real life.

          • espritdecorps said:

            It’s very surreal to be arguing with someone about giving weapons to children, like “How are we even having this conversation?”

            I live in the US and even if the weapons were perfectly safe in themselves, I don’t want my children shot by the police when a neighbor calls 911 after seeing my kid running around with a gun or sword.

          • WHAT?!! The house is full of evil bees. Even if they don’t work (and I don’t know if there’s a 100% way to disable all those weapons, especially a sword?!) still not a good idea to give children REAL weapons that might REALLY work, because it reinforces the idea that weapons= totally cool toys.

            Your in laws realize that a child running around with (an unworkable gun) could get them and you into a big mess, right? I feel so stupid even typing this stuff out. What if neighbors saw that and called CPS, or if one of their friends got jealous and decided to try out their parents super cool real gun for themselves, or if a child said to their teacher “Hey, my grandparents gave me a real gun to play with!” could at least make the next parent teacher conference awkward, at very least. I am so sorry you have to deal with them.

          • smidgenofthesea said:

            Oy, this is reminding me of my dad’s awful abusive stepmom, who would give me her old office supplies whenever we came over. No where near as dangerous, but completely baffling to a small child. Why does she think I want ten different colors of post-it notes?

    • espritdecorps said:

      Spouse has an uncomfortable relationship with his parents.
      They were physically, verbally, and emotionally abusive to each other, with honeymoon periods of making up before finally splitting up for good. They ignored Spouse unless they needed an emotional pick-me-up, then shamed him for having needs and expectations as soon as a new partner/drama came along.

      This pattern continued into adulthood, and they both have initiated multiple ‘reunions’ where they suddenly desperately need to be parents and grandparents, they’ve seen the light and want a real family relationship. The person who dealt with the emotional load from first hopeful contact, to giddy reunion, to despair after the inevitable abandonment was me. For him and the children.
      On top of that, I had to organize outings, visits, and graciously host people who were openly nasty to me half the time, grilling me (and our kids) for info about the flaws of other parent for the other half.

      I made some rules around his parents during our separation.

      1) They are not allowed in our home. I will not host them.
      2) Spouse is responsible for all contact with them. I will not send cards, gifts, or organize get-togethers. If he wants to see them, he’s responsible for making that happen.
      3) I don’t want to hear anything about them, good or bad. He can process his feelings with friends or family members
      4) Spouse can take the children to see them, but he is honor-bound to leave immediately if uncomfortable or outrageous behavior starts. He has to refuse to take inappropriate gifts for the kids, rather than politely accepting them and letting me be the bad guy who wouldn’t let them play with actual adult weapons (this happened more than once). He is also the one who has to either head off grandiose promises being made to the children, or console them when the horse or Caribbean cruise doesn’t come.

      • espritdecorps said:

        Admin please remove this double post. Sorry 😦

      • THIS!!! I did this and all of a sudden they weren’t in our life anymore. As soon as it was his responsibility he didn’t seem to care that much. 15 years of me being polite and considerate (and being treated like crap for it)…and he just didn’t care. They did…but that’s another story entirely!

  3. The Captain’s advice is excellent. The only thing I would add is that if you do go visit her, there’s a lot to be said for meeting in a public place for some activity that’s distracting and potentially creates fun memories. I find this makes me feel better about the person in question as I associate her with positive stuff, she’s less likely to have a meltdown if in public and doing something distracting and it can be easier to walk away, although that doesn’t sound like it’s been too much of an issue for you.

    Last time I visited my mother I said I was never going to her house again, and meant it. She has much lower inhibitions (and feels more powerful) inside her own home.

    • I was going to say something similar. Does your MIL live somewhere fun, LW? If so, a visit to her city (stay in a hotel) where the family meets up with her for Time-Limited Outings such as dinner or a trip to the zoo or whatever could fit in around…hmm…Baby Step #5. Oh she wants to do more than that? TOO BAD! You have plans! What plans? OH JUST PLANS (your plans are: do fun things she does not know about).

  4. Ask Cara said:

    I agree with this advice, especially the part about boundaries. My mom, who I like to call “The Devil,” can be very judgmental, rude, bossy, domineering, petty, hypocritical, self-centered, (I can keep going) etc. I have cut her off plenty of times in the past. Now I only see her maybe once or twice a month, and we live IN THE SAME SMALL TOWN. lol Things have gotten better once she has realized I am a grown up and run my own life. She knows if she want to see your grandchild, she better act right. it took a while to get to this point, but she’s much better. So I definitely encourage him to set clear boundaries.

    • Proffie Galore said:

      Cara, do we have the same mother?

      CA asked parents to weigh in. Mother of two young adults here, living across a continent from my toxic mother. CA’s advice to not stay with her is very important. SO (bless his heart) and I used to take the kids to visit every summer, renting cheap beach houses somewhat nearby. (My dad helped us with airfare.) Now I fly alone and stay in a hotel despite Dad’s insistence that I use the guest room. It’s an investment in my hard-won mental health.

      My siblings still live near her, which takes a lot of pressure off me and provides other things to fill visits with (as CA suggested).

      As for the kids, we didn’t speak ill of her to them, and unlike LW’s MiL, she didn’t start in right as we arrived. But she drank constantly and dug at me in a steady stream of very unpleasant ways, so we kept time with her to a minimum. When she repeatedly offered to keep the boys for longer, or for them to stay overnight or to fly alone next time and go to camp nearby (WITHOUT ASKING ME FIRST), they’d look at me, worried, and relax as I brushed off her suggestions as jokes.

      Something interesting happened when “Arrested Development” started streaming on Netflix a few years ago. Both sons independently told me it was weird how much the grandmother was like my mom. So I asked how aware they were of my efforts to shield them. Neither one realized that I had never left them alone with her or let her drive them anywhere. They have their own cordial and distant relationships with my folks, which was my goal.

      This may read as if I was a cool customer who had it all in hand. I wasn’t. I was an anxious wreck before every trip and often regressed to my mousy teenage self during the visits. I applaud LW’s husband for his assertiveness so far.

      I wish I’d had CA’s advice years ago re phone call scheduling and mad flute playing afterwards. I’ll be doing that. [Note: buy flute.]

      • Proffie Galore said:

        P.S. I wrote the above when there were only 26 comments. Now that so many grandchildren have commented, I am appalled that I made my kids visit my folks so often (because FAAAMILYYYY). Time to ask them some more questions. How early were they aware of “Ganghi’s” drinking and digs at me? Did they dread the visits? Did I act selfishly (with regard to them) by not having the backbone to call my mother out or just avoid the whole family?

        Upsides? Am I kidding myself that these justify the trips? Playing with cousins, lots of tide pools, completely different climate, my native accent which sent them ROFL, regional foods and customs.

        Does this help? The rest of the year they saw loving, relaxed grandparents almost every week.

        • You did the best you could with the tools and information you had. Talk to your kids, yes, but don’t beat yourself up, okay?

          • Ask Cara said:

            I totally agree. Don’t beat yourself up about it. You did the best you could at the time. Every time I pull up to my mother’s house, I think to myself, “Is this even worth it? Maybe she won’t make any smart comments today.” When my child is around, she is on her best behavior… sometimes. I have caught her talking bad about me to my child. I put an end to that right away. I always told myself that I wouldn’t lie to my child, so I did tell her that Granny is not always nice. She seems to understand. My daughter is 7, in case anyone is wondering.

        • RSVP said:

          Playing with cousins probably made up for a lot of it. And tide pools! Definitely tide pools can help make up for a bit of limited contact with a toxic grandparent.

        • Mary said:

          >>When she repeatedly offered to keep the boys for longer, or for them to stay overnight or to fly alone next time and go to camp nearby (WITHOUT ASKING ME FIRST), they’d look at me, worried, and relax as I brushed off her suggestions as jokes.

          This kind of suggests to me that you got it right. Sounds like your sons were aware that their grandma was Not Great, but also trusted you to have their back. Don’t underestimate how incredibly important that is. The protective power of a parent who models and enforces No and consistently shows that her children’s comfort and happiness is more important that the toxic adult’s desires is huge.

        • ThatGirl said:

          Whoa. There’s someone else who calls their grandma Ganghi? My great-aunt is called that by her grandkids — but I’m 99% sure it’s not the same woman because she does not drink….

          • MuddieMae said:

            It’s what they call the grandma in Arrested Development, so I think Proffie Galore was referring to that.

        • For what it’s worth, my paternal grandparents sound a little like your mother, and I ended up with a cordial but distant relationship especially with my grandfather, who I have really happy memories of. My paternal grandmother especially was adoring of her son, my dad, but really nasty and unkind toward any women relatives of hers – daughter, daughter-in-law, sister-in-law, you name it. She was not pleasant to be around for most of the family, and we visited once a year for about a half day and that was that. My dad did the rest of the work – wrote letters, sent pictures, visited by himself, encouraged me to write to my grandparents per CA’s suggestion.

          It took me until adulthood to realize how much my parents managed that relationship and allowed me to have good memories of my grandfather, who mellowed out a lot after my grandmother died (too young for me to remember her). To be sure, they weren’t even close to the level of some of the grandparents mentioned here – more just disapproving and cold people. But the “faammily” stuff worked out well in our case and allowed me to see their good points, though my parents’ pov would be EXTREMELY different. It sounds like your kids are aware of reality and still able to work with what they’ve gotten.

          I also had loving grandparents nearby, which more than made up for it and is probably the reason I didn’t even notice the great distance from my dad’s family for so long.

      • Discombobulated said:

        You know, even after the horror stories elsewhere in the thread, it was your anecdote about your sons independently recognizing their grandmother in Lucille Bluth that made me gasp and put down my tablet. There be dragons.

  5. Jill said:

    I totally agree that the responsibility for the bulk of this (if any) reconciliation needs to be shifted to LW’s husband. Not just for LW’s own sanity, but for the message it will send her kids. My own mom was unable to stand up to her domineering mother. It really diminished the level of respect I had for her because of that. LW’s kids need to see a father who can set limits and protect his wife and children from verbal abuse – even if it means standing up to his own mom. Bonus if he can do that in a way that is firm yet respectful.

    LW, your desire to protect your kids is spot on….but you can protect them without having to take the lead and/or do all the legwork with Grandmother.

    • Nanani said:

      I disagree that this has anything to do with “father” roles. It is for LW’s husband to deal with because IT IS HIS MOTHER. Not because of some patriarchal duty to protect the women and children.
      It’s important to keep this things distinct.
      The advice wouldn’t change if LW and their partner were a same-gender couple, after all.

      • I didn’t think that Jill’s comment indicated that she subscribed to the patriarchal view that men must protect that family. I thought her comment was more general: that it is important for children to know that their parents (of whichever gender) will set limits and protect their family from abuse of any kind. In this case, it’s important that the father do it because the offenders are his parents, and the children need to know that their father will protect them, even if his natal family are the ones doing the abusing.

  6. For what it’s worth…my father’s mother was abusive and terrible pretty much my whole life. My dad took pains to make sure I saw her once a year (Christmas Eve) in group settings (we also saw her brother and other family from my dad’s side that night). By the time I was 18, I was so sick of her terrible behavior and how she made my dad feel (even though he tried to hide it) that when I had to see her three times that year (my birthday, my high school graduation, and Christmas Eve) I ended up avoiding her at all three events for as long as humanly possible. I don’t think I was profoundly negatively impacted by being forced to see her, but I never developed a loving relationship with her and I knew just how miserable and upset the whole thing made my dad, which made me dislike her even more than ever. He was suffering out of some sense of duty and the desire for me to have a chance to know her and have a functional relationship with her…I love him for making that sacrifice, but sometimes I wish he hadn’t.

    From your kids’ perspective, reconciling with grandma might not be worth it. I never resented my dad for wanting me to know her, I just resented her for making him miserable and angry all the time.

  7. Szan said:

    LW, I tried to stay on civil terms with my mother for a few years after she blew our relationship to bits (long story) so my kids could have a relationship with grandma. It didn’t really work. She hadn’t really been part of their lives, since she’d lived 1500 miles away since before they were born, and while I tried to encourage them to write letters and call on the phone, they didn’t have much interest. This also forced me to have some sporadic contact with her, which gave her opportunities to be nasty, and finally I just cut her off. The next couple of years were strangely peaceful.

    We started talking after she had a serious illness, but she never apologized, and what relationship we had was intermittent and superficial. By the time she passed away, I had already spent quite a bit of time (with some help from a therapist) processing the relationship we had and mourning one I wished we had. It was over long before it was over, if that makes sense.

    My suggestion would be for your husband to work with a therapist on his own for a while, figure out why he wants to reconcile, what he wants vs what he thinks is likely, etc. before he gets back in contact. It may not be possible. It will not be easy. But it’s his work to do, not yours.

    Good luck.

    • BigdogLittlecat said:

      The suggestion that LW’s husband work to figure out *why* he wants to reconcile is brilliant.
      He might figure out that he only thinks he wants to reconcile.
      If it turns out that he’s actually longing for the relationship they *should have had* then he can consider the chances of her having changed enough to make it even worth trying and work on setting reasonable expectations.

  8. jane said:

    From this point forward, “jam out on your jazz flute” will be code for “do something to rid my body of these horrible and hateful feelings I carry from that conversation out interaction I just had.”

    • Ms. Lemonade said:

      Eeexcellent.

      Although it does have a bit of “go jump in a lake” tone to it. Which, to be fair, is one element – “Oh, I’m sorry that happened; maybe if you go jam out on your jazz flute you’ll feel better?” = NOT MY PROBLEM.

      • RunForChocolate said:

        I keep mis-reading this. Does “jam out on your jizz flute” sound more relaxing? Yeah, maybe…

        • To be honest, I read it as “jazz” and still interpreted it that way, at first…

  9. Madb said:

    “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?”

    This sounds a lot like what my father and his sister have been pulling about their mother. (The one I disowned ages ago.) The thing I want to stress here is that she made her bed. It would be above and beyond to put yourself and your children into that situation. My father’s mother is so very like what you’ve talked about and pretty much from the time I understood what was going on I dreaded the trips to see her. I wish that my mother had put her foot down about trips down there that meant sitting very quiet and very still while trying not to be noticed.

    My younger sister “T” decided when she was a teenager to spend some time with Glenna and went down there a couple of times a year. She said that it was better when it was just the two of them, until Glenna pulled the stuff she always pulled and put my sister in the middle of a feud that started before T was born.

    Extrapolating from my own experience I would suggest that your kids are probably well aware of the tensions going on and uncomfortable with the whole thing themselves.

  10. Charlene said:

    Oh, I was the grandchild too. My life would have been infinitely better had my parents just Cut Evil Grandpa and Grandma Out, Forever, and never never never never never never never given them second, third, fourth, tenth chances because “she’s the only grandmother, grandparents are so important”.

    Grandparents are absolutely and without question or exception unimportant. If they were so important that children couldn’t develop into healthy adults without them we would not have modern civilization of any kind, because only in the past hundred years have kids had the luxury of even good grandparents (and especially grandmothers). Please, husband, if you’re reading this: do not assume that having a grandparent in your children’s lives is a good thing if the grandparent has abused you. Keep them safe!

    • TO_Ont said:

      They’re important in the sense that all loving relationships are for children, i.e., kids need caring relationships but WHO they’re with doesn’t actually matter. If a grandparent turns out to be someone who can provide one of those caring relationships, that makes them important – if they can’t, then they aren’t. It’s the relationships that matter.

      • Ldot Idot said:

        This is such a great point. Thank you for spelling it out like that.

    • Koffee said:

      Grandparents have and can be an important part of many families. However, they aren’t necessary.

      • TO_Ont said:

        No one is necessary, including a mother or father. Someone or ones to love you and care for you is, specific people aren’t.

    • No Grandmas? “Grandparents are absolutely and without question or exception unimportant. If they were so important that children couldn’t develop into healthy adults without them we would not have modern civilization of any kind, because only in the past hundred years have kids had the luxury of even good grandparents (and especially grandmothers). ”

      Nitpick here, but that is historically not true. A woman who survived childbirth(s) was likely to live to be seventy and see her grandchildren. Old women were the village wise-women and the village memory, and often contributed a LOT to their grandchildren. Old women watched the children as young women, AKA mothers, worked in the field or in other people’s houses.

      And Nice Old Women provided a counter-example to horrible old women that a child might be related to.

      • Hth said:

        True, and there’s actually a theory that says the Grandmother Effect is the reason why humans alone, of all primate species, have females who outlive their reproductive years. Because human children are helpless for so long, grandmothers were essential to the years of full-time child-care required. My computer is being weird about copy/paste, but hit up “grandmother hypothesis” on Wikipedia to read a summary of the debate. (Remember also that even though we tend to envision Grandma as a little old lady, we’re probably more often talking about a woman between forty and sixty, historically — by no means impossible ages to attain!)

      • Charlene said:

        Nine out of ten women in 17th century London who made it to twenty didn’t make it to forty. In contrast, about seven out of ten men who made it to twenty made it to sixty.

        • Cyberwulf said:

          I’m going to go right ahead and guess that’s all thanks to the “miracle” of childbirth.

      • Ganymede said:

        And also, to be fair, a woman probably had her children younger and could easily be a grandmother by 35. This still happens today of course, and in the UK the average age of grandparenthood is 49. My husband became a grandpa the day before his 49th birthday, but he did start young (21).

    • Tui said:

      One of my best childhood friends was raised by her grandmother. Grandparents raising grandchildren is pretty common. Other grandparents make it possible for single parents or double-income families to keep going by providing free childcare. Still more grandparents are family storehouses of memory, knowledge, warmth. We spent one day a week with my grandmother for the duration of my childhood and she taught us to sew and knit, skills I still use, and gave my parents a day off.

      It’s possible to be perfectly fine without grandparents, and obviously no grandparents is a huge improvement on abusive grandparents, but man … that’s an unfortunate generalisation right there.

    • Esselyn said:

      Charlene said: ” Please, husband, if you’re reading this: do not assume that having a grandparent in your children’s lives is a good thing if the grandparent has abused you.” Yep, yep yep!

      Growing up, I only had three grandparents. My parents’ parents were all alive, but the alcoholic, abusive, waste-o-space that was my father’s sperm donor was not a part of my life. And I missed nothing. I still have lots of happy memories of grandparent interactions, sans trying to connect with a grandparent whose idea of parenting was: “here’s a pet, wait, I’m going to take it away it because it’s noisy and then hit you because you should have kept it quiet.” A relationship with an abusive person, no matter how curated and managed and supervised, is NOT, by default, better than no relationship.

      • JenniferP said:

        I think there is something valuable, too, in a parent *honoring their own experience* of abuse at the hands of their own parent, and in protecting their children from the same. Even if Grandma does just great with the kids, you get to honor your own experiences with her and not subject yourself to her for some Hallmark idea of family.

        • sometimeswhy said:

          This. This. This. Thiiiiiiiiis.

          This concept was what gave strength to both my parents in their respective estrangements from theirs. It still took a while and it was still HARD and messy and imperfect and painful but it helped get it done.

  11. Okay, disclaimer: I don’t have any abusive relatives, so go ahead and take this with a grain of salt, but:

    I would be VERY careful about restarting any contact at all with this woman. Reading through things like /r/RaisedByNarcissists/ suggests that people who have alienated their entire families are being avoided for a reason, and second chances are likely to be wasted. LW, you didn’t give us any details about what she has done or how she was abusive, but if your husband tries to reconcile all by himself, he may end up being abused even more — and if you expose your kids to her they may simply become further targets. People who have never had abusive families have a tendency to assume that problems with family situations can be fixed, and often they can’t, and trying just reopens old wounds. Be careful. Be VERY careful.

    • Jessica said:

      It is hard for people with complicated family relationships to not have regrets if they don’t try. The advice for LW’s husband to set the tone and pace is really sound. It establishes expectations and also some operating rules which allow for self care, while also exploring the possiblity of reconciliation. People change and if LW’s husband wants to establish a relationship with firm boundaries, it’s good to have that experience, even if it ends with just a final answer to the question “what if I’d tried….?”

      As an adult, I developed a relationship with my grandmother, which was complicated. She is incredibly passive agressive and intentionally hurtful. After a very hurtful end to a visit with her, I decided that I wouldn’t pursue mending the relationship. I was at a really terrible and depressed place in my life during the time, but even with time and space, I can’t see it as worthwhile to try “one more time”. I haven’t spoken with her in 3 years and she is 90 years old. My father calls her monthly, but she doesn’t have a meaningful relationship with any of her grandchildren. My babysister, when I said something about this gave a scoff and said she knew how to contact us if she wanted a relationship. We’ve all had our experiences of being hurt by her and made the decision, with the quiet support of our parents, to simply not have a relationship with her. My grandfather (who passed 12 years ago) had a similar mean streak. Most of the time, both were funny and energetic, but they knew how to deliver a gut punch. If I hadn’t had the experience of being hurt by her, I would probably regret not having a closer relationship.

      • Vicki said:

        I had a somewhat difficult relationship with my father, and eventually said “no more.” Once in a while I regret not trying to reconcile and find a way to see him again, but that regret isn’t as sharp a pain as some of the memories from my adolescence and young adulthood, like being yelled at over the phone for not living up to his expectations.

    • Guava said:

      I agree with everything you’ve said. Especially the part about “people who have alienated their entire families are being avoided for a reason.”

      My concern is, it’s one thing for LW’s husband to interact with MIL on his own. But as soon as the kids get involved, it’s going to be damn hard to keep the effects of being back in touch with MIL from affecting the LW.

      Is LW’s husband on the same page as LW when it comes to deciding what’s ‘safe’ around the kids? Is he the type to freeze in the moment, and then realize something was Not OK in retrospect, after the kids have already been hurt by it? Is he the type to respond to reconciliation with ‘forgive and forget’ and ‘water under the bridge’ and then not support the LW if MIL starts trying to use the kids as proxies for manipulation and abuse? MIL might be attentive and loving to babies or toddlers, but will she still be an emotionally safe person for them to be around as they get older? Is MIL the type to try to mine the kids for information about LW and Husband’s plans and private lives as they grow up?

      Having navigated some pretty fraught estrangements in my family, I would say that it’s nearly impossible to isolate yourself from an abusive person’s shenanigans if they are in contact with your children, at least while your kids are young.

      • MarsClover said:

        Is LW’s husband on the same page as LW when it comes to deciding what’s ‘safe’ around the kids? Is he the type to freeze in the moment, and then realize something was Not OK in retrospect, after the kids have already been hurt by it?

        These are extremely important questions!

        My mother is verbally and emotionally abusive, and has been all my life. My father never protected me from her or even comforted me after her attacks. It would have meant the world to me if someone, anyone, had ever told child-me that her behavior wasn’t okay. Instead I grew up thinking I deserved that sort of abuse. I didn’t even recognize that it was abuse.

        Why didn’t my dad protect or support me? Because he didn’t recognize her behavior as abuse either! She treated him the same way, and he just figured that he deserved it, too. He had lost the ability to see how abnormal she was! (He was equally useless when my grandfather, his father, got in my face and rage-screamed at me as a small child.)

        My point is, LW’s husband may need A LOT of healing and practice in setting boundaries before he can be trusted to take his children to visit MIL. If husband currently relies on LW to decide when enough is enough, he is definitely not ready and won’t be for a long time.

        • I wholeheartedly agree with this, having parents who…well, you could have been describing mine there.

          By the time I was born, my parents had been together more than a decade and married nearly 9 years. By then, my mother’s emotional and verbal abuse, manipulation and passive-aggressive haranguing were completely normal to my dad, who is a passive, shy, mild mannered guy. Not only did he do nothing about her abuse of me and my brother (I remember once he tried and she screamed at him about betraying her and taking sides until he fled the house for several hours just to get away from her), but sometimes she pushed him so hard that he lost his temper and joined in the abuse. That wasn’t okay, I’m not absolving him of blame by a long stretch. Point is, he is a basically nice guy who allows himself to be manipulated into abusive behaviours.

          I don’t think your husband would be manipulated into abuse, LW. But I am agreeing with MarsClover: your husband has no equivalent experience with which to compare his childhood, so what’s normal to him might not be normal to you and he might have some trouble recognising subtle abuse for what it is.

        • Dana said:

          This is what happened in our family. My mom was totally under the thumb of her domineering and manipulative father. I avoided his wrath for some reason, but my sister was his chosen target for insults and free floating anger. My mom and dad simply did not have the emotional backbone to protect her from him. A world in which they had the power to cut him off simply didn’t exist. His wife, my grandmother, who was a very sweet passive woman, was totally under his thumb too.

          I only figured all this out in hindsight.

          Boundaries. So important. I learned them as an adult because they didn’t exist in our entire extended family.

        • Guava said:

          So true. I’ve noticed that when it comes to certain individuals in his family, my husband really does not notice a lot of Not OK behavior, and I guess it’s because he was conditioned to believe it was normal. And his response is to minimize it…which means that I can’t really trust him to protect the kids from the wrath or bad behavior of certain relatives of his unless it’s already gotten the point where it’s completely out of hand. At first I thought he was just blowing me off or blaming me when I’d point this stuff out (and he was)…but it’s taken me a long time to realize that his bluster actually hides a deep discomfort with setting certain kinds of boundaries with certain kinds of people.

  12. MrsLokiofAsgard said:

    Oh LW….you have my sympathies. I am the grandchild of that kind of grandmother (through my mom) and married a man with that kind of mother. (Believe it or not, they were born on the same day!!!)

    While growing up my mother handled my grandmother by creating boundaries. She absolutely insisted on being treated a certain way and wouldn’t accept any other way. I clearly remember leaving family parties or the Sunday afternoon visits because my grandmother failed the three strikes and you’re out rule my mom had. My mom always stuck to her guns on this and as a result it gave me a better handle on how to deal with my MIL.

    My husband, on the other hand, didn’t have that boundary making role-model and struggled during the first few years of marriage and parenthood. All of our big fights have been about his parents. My MIL is used to having her bad behavior overlooked and though my husband and I have been together for 15 years, he was her son and under her thumb for the 26 years before I met him so it’s been a process. Reading CA’s advice I know my husband can do all of those wonderful steps she outlined NOW, but those first 5 to 7 years of us being together? Nope. He wasn’t capable of standing up to her at that time. I had friends who thought he was weak, but he wasn’t. He was programmed. Our way of handling her in those years was to have me step in to set up the boundaries. I never cared if we didn’t get along. I never cared about her manipulative, hateful speech. I never cared that she cried her crocodile tears. And because I didn’t care, boundaries were easier to put into place. It also gave my husband a crutch that he used for a while when she pressed him for an alone visit (which he hated because his mother, father and co-dependent brother would gang up on him but were so hard for him to say no to because she laid the guilt on thick) “Let me check with the wife and see what the calendar says”. Once kids were added to the mix, we were quick (as in: “the baby was in the process of being pushed out as he and I were finalizing our boundary expectations quick”) with setting up boundaries for things like visits, holidays, birthday, grandparent “rights”, etc and no word of a lie, we laid down the law there in the hospital room as people visited. She still continues to test the boundaries but nowadays my husband does it all on his own and does it well. And our kids? My daughter (aged 10 / nearly 11) recently told me she hates going to my in-laws because her Nana is nasty mean to everyone except my daughter and son and she thinks it’s like the mean girl at her school who is only nice to certain people but nobody can trust when she’ll turn on them. My son only wants to go visit when my mother in law calls with the promise of a new Lego set waiting for him at their house. I’m waiting for the day when he tells them “No thanks!” or “Can you ship it to me??” 🙂

    Boundaries, when in place and held there with iron resolve, are a wonderful thing!!!

  13. MellifluousDissent said:

    As the daughter of a mom who managed the relationship with toxic grandma (dad’s mom) for most of my childhood, the Captain’s point about your husband doing the emotional work is so, so crucial. My parents’ marriage would likely have been shaky and terrible even without the intervention/influence of toxic grandma, but the amount of work my mother felt she “had” to put into managing her children’s and husband’s relationships with a woman who hated her and was emotionally abusive to basically everyone (except me and my siblings, we were, for reasons unknown, her favorites, which came with its own variety of weirdness and pain) definitely added another layer of resentment and difficulty to my parents’ already fraught relationship, and made things really, really confusing for us kids – we could tell she was awful to mom and dad from a really young age, but she was awesome with us, and we did love her, but how could would love someone who was horrible to our parents, and so on, you get the idea. It didn’t help that when we tried to discuss the cognitive dissonance, our parents did the “everything’s fine, what are you talking about?” dance.

    I think, in addition to following the Captain’s guidelines, your husband also needs to be prepared to be transparent with your kids if/when they start asking about why things with grandma are weird, or why she’s great with them but awful to you and your husband, or why sometimes she’s mean and sometimes she’s nice, or whatever other weirdness comes out of being in a relationship with someone like your mother-in-law. Kids are perceptive, but need help from grown-ups processing what they perceive. My parents let their own unresolved stuff with grandma get in the way of helping us process, and it led to a lot more confusion and pain for me than I would’ve experienced if someone would’ve just sat me down and explained, in an age-appropriate way, that my perception of grandma was correct, she was mean to some people and nice to others, and while it wasn’t okay for me to act like her and be mean to other people like she sometimes was, it was okay for me to have a relationship with her as long as that relationship wasn’t making me feel sad or mad or scared.

    For my own part, I don’t have children yet, but I do have a narcissistic mom who I have decided to have a carefully-managed relationship with – it has taken *years* of therapy, tons of reading about narcissism and what it means to be the child of a narcissist, and constant work on boundaries to get to a point where the relationship is manageable and is (mostly) no longer a source of pain for me. I think therapy could help your husband immensely if he wants to resume contact with his mother – for me, it was a great place to go and puzzle out what was and wasn’t going to work for me, and what I did and did not want, with a neutral third party who wasn’t going to have to carry the weight of my work the way, say, my husband would have if I’d gone to him for help instead.

  14. Bunny said:

    Absolutely, 100% on board with the Captain, here.

    LW, if your husband decides now is the time to re-establish some form of relationship with his mother, he can do that. But it needs to be…

    1- Limited and Controlled. Very heavily, especially at first. If not for your husband’s sake, then for the safety and well-being of your children. There need to be some STRICT limits and expectations in place about how it’s going to pan out.

    2- Your husband’s responsibility to deal with. He has a history with this woman that you do not, which will absolutely make pursuing this relationship very hard on him. But he can’t have a relationship with his abusive mother by having one managed through you, or through the kids, so making this “your decision” cannot work here.

    Regardless, I really think that actual in-person visits with his mother should not be a thing that happens for a long time. They shouldn’t even be on the cards as a possibility, or given a time-frame, right now. Phone, skype or letter-based contact only. It allows more space, it allows more time for preparation before responding to stuff, and it makes boundary setting and maintaining way, way easier than if you’re physically in the same space as a person.

  15. Resses said:

    Aw, I don’t have much to add to this excellent advice aside from: sorry you’re dealing with this, and way to be an excellently empathetic person on top of having 5 (5!) kids, a husband and a job, you are amazing.

    I guess just don’t forget to take some space for yourself in all of this trying to balance a bad situation. However you all decide to handle things, feeling exhausted and frustrated and like, “Look, I know she’s a lonely old woman, but SHE’S LONELY FOR A REASON,” or like “I know she’s your mother and you’re trying to handle an abusive lifetime with her, but she’s screamed at me a lot and I am very tired” does not make you a bad person. Maybe while you’re building Husband-Jazz-Flute hour into these interactions, try to fit some “My boxing class/venting with trusted people/unrepentantly drawing caricatures of MIL as Emperor Palpatine” time in there for you as well? It can feel horribly selfish doing this in a situation where you’re taking on more of a caretaking or support role, but I find this whole process super necessary for my ongoing ability to provide support or take care.

  16. thebewilderness said:

    Don’t try to fool the children. They know. It is safer to talk about it with them, in an age appropriate way, than to pretend nothing is happening.

  17. neverjaunty said:

    LW, another reason this has to be on him and not you: outsourcing the emotional work is also outsourcing the emotional responsibility. If it’s up to YOU, then he frees himself emotionally of the responsibility of managing his relationship with his mother. I don’t think, from your description, that he would do so consciously – but it’s still there. And it’s not emotionally healthy, or wise in the long term, for him to be able to tell himself ‘nope, I didn’t make that decision to cut Mom out of my life/limit contact with the grandkids, that was Wife’s decision.’

    • cavyherd said:

      Also, outsourcing the work and the responsibility has the effect of outsourcing the skill and strength building that comes with it. LW does her husband no favors by allowing him to avoid this path of “growth.” “Teach a man to fish,” (or, more appropriately, “Give a man the opportunity to learn to fish”) and all that.

    • MadDissector said:

      The husband deferring to the wife’s decisions here to arbitrate relationships with other people is the thing that makes me cringe the most. My father is a frequent user of deferring big decisions to my mother (“whatever you want”, “whatever you decide”). He’s also a frequent user of blaming her for those decisions (“everything must be done to your satisfaction”, “I never have a say”, “it was you, not me, who decided that”, etc). LW, I know a case (not my parents, this behaviour apparently runs deep in the extended family) when a cousin refused to have a friendly relationship with a husband’s sibling (I never asked her reasons, I assumed they were good ones) and years later, when the sibling died, the husband proceeded to hammer all his guilt and resentment onto the wife (“he was my brother, I stopped seeing him because OF YOU, now he’s dead and I lost him and I could have had a relationship if I wasn’t trying to satisfy you!”).

      Your husband shouldn’t refer his decisions to you. Especially when his family is concerned.

  18. wondering said:

    Daughter of parents who didn’t cut off contact with a nasty gram here. In fact, she lived next door for years until she and gramps split and she moved in with an aunt.

    Our gram was pretty good with the kids, but she was jealous of my mom’s freedoms (travelling to visit her parents every summer, working outside the home) and disliked how my mom kept house. (Couldn’t keep up – working out of home, living on a farm, many, many small children, lots of house pets, you get the picture.) So while she was good with the kids, she’d constantly pick at or grumble about grampa or mom, especially if mom was away and she was helping to look after us. When I was small, it made me very angry but I bottled it up. By the time I was 18, I was telling her “shut up and help or get out”.

    On the other hand, she was the only example in my life of a woman who would stand up for herself when a (usually male) authority figure tried to put her down, so I definitely owe her that.

  19. As someone who has dealt with abusive relatives, I am confident in stating that it is never, ever, worth it.

    Not for me, at least. Everyone has to make their own decision about it. But this is where, with LW or with a therapist, the husband should explore why he wants to get back in touch, and what he expects to get out of it.

    Guilt about the kids? He is doing them a favor by keeping her away.

    Guilt about himself? She burned the bridge. She’s even in his head, telling him he’s not allowed to stand up for himself.

    Guilt from other people? Let them deal with Devil-Mom.

    I don’t know what, if any, of these situations are pertinent in this case. But I can say that they all involve the suffering of the innocents, and that’s never good. We don’t have to have a relationship with anyone. We don’t have to let them treat us badly. We don’t have to feel guilty about it.

    When we are the only ones to take care of ourselves, we are morally obligated to do so. Gunning for some idealized relationship with someone who is incapable of giving it is incredibly stressful and doomed to failure.

    Some people are happier with some kind of highly boundaried relationship at long intervals, and good for them. But I wound up feeling that I had an excruciating dental-care-without-anesthetic appointment that I dreaded for months beforehand. And for what?

    I decided… For nothing.

  20. johann7 said:

    From CA’s response:
    “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.”

    I’m curious if a lot of people see this as a problem. My mother’s mother was an abusive asshole to my mother and her siblings, and much like is the case here, she LOVED me (as much as someone like her could actually love anyone else). That didn’t actually translate into her treating me WELL, exactly – she was still an imperious, controlling narcissist, but she wasn’t overtly/intentionally cruel to me like she was to my mom. She WAS still cruel to my mom in front of me, which isn’t much better. I don’t recall my mom explaining my grandmother’s abusive behavior patterns to me to be a difficult conversation (from my perspective) in any way.

    In fact, I would think it would be a good idea to warn kids about possibly threatening behavior patterns (and this is a pattern here) of their relatives so they can potentially guard against them or know that others recognize the bad behavior and will support the child if ze becomes a target (many survivors of abuse, especially young survivors, report that fear that they won’t be believed or that their concerns and perspectives aren’t important or feeling complicit and associated shame discourage them from reporting abuse). This impulse to not talk about someone’s history of abusive behavior seems to me to be part of a pattern I think is one of our society’s greatest faults: we try to keep children (and sometimes adults) ignorant of unpleasent aspects of reality instead of trying to inform them so they can be on guard and equipped to cope. (I also think that we generally and frequently underestimate the perception and social intelligence of children.) That’s MY perspective as someone who WAS told about bad parts of life as a child (including abusive grandparents specifically) and who doesn’t have children myself, but I’m curious to see what others with different experiences think.

    • Guava said:

      I think it’s important to tell children some of it, but to frame it in an age-appropriate way. When my kids were little, they were already absorbing a lot of rules about how to interact with other people. Things like, “we don’t scream at people,” “we don’t call people mean names,” “we don’t tell lies,” “we say please and thank you,” “we don’t take people’s stuff without asking,” “this is what it means to have good manners,” etc.

      When you really think about it, a lot of adult abusive behavior violates those basic rules of socialization that we teach to toddlers. Kids may be too young to understand the whys of abusive behavior – but they can recognize behavior that violates those rules, and that can be a good springboard to discuss why it’s not OK.

      • MrsLokiofAsgard said:

        And you might be surprised to hear your child scold the abusive relative themselves. My MIL snapped at my husband once in front of the kids and grabbed something out of his hands. My son, about 3 or 4 at the time, told my MIL in his sternest voice “NANA! We don’t use bad words and we don’t grab things out of our friend’s hands! APOLOGIZE!” He also scolded my husband when my husband used “It’s okay” to answer the apology my MIL gave him. “Daddy, it’s NOT OK. You can accept her apology but it’s not okay.” LOL! My husband still remembers how awesome that felt.

        • Mary said:

          ❤ your son!

        • Guava said:

          My kids have done that too, it’s awesome 🙂 Mine are always getting on their grandmother for yelling. It hasn’t stopped the yelling, sadly, but it has really driven home the fact that it’s not enjoyable to be around someone who acts like that.

        • Rose said:

          Parenting – you’re doing it right 🙂

  21. alwaysanswerb said:

    But by telling you “it’s your call” your husband is already outsourcing the emotional work of all of this to you…
    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…
    In some ways it’s a sign of respect that he values your opinion so much…

    Even without the spectre of abuse lurking behind Husband’s outsourcing, the question of emotional labor is so taxing for this very reason. That Best Ever metafilter thread really drives home how much emotional labor is just farmed off to women as a matter of course, and reinforced for me personally that I need to stick up for myself sometimes when I realize I’m doing more than I want or should have to do.

    But at the same time, we do feel a tremendous obligation — and when we are in loving relationships, it’s almost as much of a desire as it is an obligation — to support that person when they need us to! And when they are in difficult situations with their families, it can be tremendously helpful to be the person who didn’t grow up in that family, who can see the dynamics slightly more objectively, and offer guidance based on that. Obviously LW and Husband are a great team on this issue, but while teammates support and bolster each others’ strength and confidence, it’s Husband’s responsibility to step up to the plate (to continue the sports metaphor) on this issue.

    CA’s list of Baby Steps is fantastic. Based on the letter, I am wondering this: LW says if she does not want to be involved with MIL, Husband will also not be involved with MIL. Is the concern that he would make this decision based on LW’s recommendation not because it’s potentially the right one for himself and his family, but because he’s a bit too steeped in inertia to do the emotional labor that he still kind of wants to do? And that he might be eventually resentful that LW didn’t help him through the reconciliation process? Because if there isn’t really a danger of that being an issue, then it seems like the most sensible thing for the mental health of the parents, not to mention the happy development of their kids, is to just keep on as they all are.

    • Your last paragraph concerns me as well. Based on her description of her husband as “easy going” and how he’s handling this decision, i can’t help but wonder if he’s not already outsourcing of big decisions and emotional labor to her. (And being the final say, or the veto on major family decisions is SERIOUS emotional labor. People who don’t feel stressed and burdened by being put in this role should probably not be.) I know that often easy going people do this in order to avoid conflict, and sometimes it is really great, but other times it can leave the other partner feeling the stress of being THE DECIDER.

      If the LW’s husband isn’t already doing it, I think he should be seeing a counselor already. He’s been dealing with the impacts of abuse here, and whether he decides to go the route or reconciliation or not, having someone besides his wife to process his past with can only help him. And it might help him feel more equipped to do this kind of emotional labor without relying so heavily on his wife.

  22. tawg said:

    I think a postal relationship between your MIL and your kids could be great – I loved getting mail as a kid, but a 6 year old doesn’t exactly have a lot of correspondence happening :p

  23. I’ve never quite forgiven my parents for obliging me to have a relationship with a grandparent who behaved appallingly, especially to the women in the family. The situation was only resolved with her death, but the only regret that I had about the whole situation was not being able to spend any time with after she developed dementia and ended her days, bedbound, in a nursing home. I’d spent too many years on edge, expecting and waiting for her to come out with appalling comments to be able to spend time with her once she was in care. LW, if your husband wants to offer an olive branch to his mother, he needs to do it on his own (with as much support as you can manage). But you need to protect your children from the fall out and give them the choice to walk away from the relationship with dignity and understanding. Children are more perceptive than they are often given credit for and may well have realised that all is not well, so would accept that there is a reason the relationship is so firmly curtailed/limited.

  24. Temporary Null said:

    My maternal grandfather was abusive, loud and self-absorbed. We shared a house for 5 years, and it was a relief when he and my grandmother divorced and he was disinvited from all holiday dinners.

    No one in my family wants to see him, but they do because “they should”. I hated seeing him as a kid, and I hate seeing him now. Your kids won’t miss a nasty relative they never knew, but they might regret being forced to know one. If you MIL regrets anything, that’s her problem. She’s an adult; she can take care of herself.

    • glomarization said:

      Your kids won’t miss a nasty relative they never knew

      Indeed. We have one single photo of the abusive grandmother in the family cradling me in her arms, and I have one vague memory of being in those grandparents’ house when I was a very small child. Otherwise I never knew them. I guess I thought it was odd, and I guess I felt sad when I was a kid because “everybody else has four grandparents.” But I’m glad had to deal with that, rather than with memories of an abusive set of grandparents.

  25. Miss Wintertowne said:

    I just want to chime in as someone whose father cut off contact with his abusive mother a super long time go. I’m 27 and haven’t seen her since I was 13. I did see her a lot more up until I was about 8, when my dad just decided he didn’t want to deal with her anymore. Annnnnd honestly, I never minded. Ever. I never thought of her as mean to me, but not having her in my life has basically upset nothing, and my loyalty was always, always to my dad first.

    My mom’s parents are more than enough in terms of grandparenting, but even if I didn’t have them, I’m not sure I’d miss my paternal grandma. So I guess when people talk about mending fences with their abusive parents for the sake of their children, I just wonder if they realize just how little it might actually matter to the kids themselves.

    • okrysmastree said:

      This was my reality, too – I saw my paternal grandma a few times as a kid (my main memories are of her teaching me to play cards and winning 12 cents from me and of her telling me I was her favorite grandchild, not my little sister) and then just didn’t anymore, and my dad goes back to visit her alone once every few years. I didn’t feel the loss, I never really loved seeing her even though she was pretty nice to me (if a little off – I could already tell then that she played fast and loose with the social contract), and I had great long-distance-twice-a-year-in-person relationships with my loving maternal grandparents.

      I never really resented the loss – she was just “the lady who sends cards and $5 on Christmas and birthdays.” I don’t have a big extended family – my mom was an only child and my dad is estranged from all of his (childless) siblings – and I remember actually being sad I didn’t have aunts/uncles and cousins to hang out with or an awesome twin sister like the Olsen sisters more than I ever thought about the fact that I had less than the maximum number of grandparents, and I fantasized about having cousins or a badass twin sister about as often as I fantasized about being a Pokemon trainer. It really wasn’t a big deal to me as a child or as an adult.

      I don’t think “the kids having a potentially-positive relationship with their grandmother” should be the top or even middle priority in the parents’ decision making here.

      • SM said:

        I mean, three of my four grandparents died when I was too young to remember them, & the last one lived too far away to see her often. I was kind of jealous of friends whose grandparents lived close by and spoiled them, but I wouldn’t say I was scarred or genuinely felt like I’d missed out. My parents probably feel that loss more than I ever did.

  26. oregonbird said:

    I agree with the captain and the other responses — this is an immense amount of emotional and physical work you’re being asked to take on. It seems to me you feel badly because with five children and a husband who needs daily support, you honestly can’t take on the work of dealing with your husband’s emotions, and his mother’s emotions, and the work of weaving those old, weary emotional problems into your children’s lives. It’s a Good Thing, that you realize you can’t do this; now you just have to get comfortable with that fact. Try to feel good about saying No – as in, ‘the end of this conversation forever’ – and get on with your own family life.

    Yes, as a woman you’ve been culturally trained to give without thinking of the cost, but you cannot give your husband what he wants. You can’t fix his relationship with his mother, and the cost of your children being exposed to her would be far too high. Just Say No. Decisively. Instead of encouraging your husband to waste family time on a lost cause, redirect his attention to building a respectful relationship with the children, so that this dynamic will not continue into the next generation.

  27. No Longer In Academia said:

    I had a whole long comment typed up, but actually it just came down to, LW, is there any actual good reason to expose your kids to a hateful, toxic child abuser who had repeatedly attacked and insulted you and your husband? You sound like you don’t think there is, and I agree. Just say no.

    And if he decides he can’t stay away, DO NOT go with him. You don’t ‘have to’ position yourself as a meat shield to make his interactions with his mother more bearable. Yes, it’s sad that your husband is still struggling with breaking away, and is fluttering back towards the tempting light of maybe-this-time-she-will-love-me for another round of wing-singeing, but for the sake of your children and yourself, please don’t enable him.

    • “Another round of wing-singeing”

      But maybe this time! It is to cry.

  28. The Other Kat said:

    What I don’t understand is why you think you should be exposing your kids to this lady at all. Let your husband have whatever kind of relationship he wants with her, by himself. He’s an autonomous adult. But you’d be doing yourself and your kids a huge disservice to foster a relationship. She’s an abuser. You wouldn’t work to keep a physically or sexually abusive grandparent in your kids’ lives (or at least I hope you wouldn’t), quite the opposite actually, so what makes this lady’s emotional abuse any different? Why don’t you think your kids deserve to be protected from her? How does it benefit them, in any way, to have a relationship with her? “She’s family” is not a satisfactory answer to these questions.

    My dad’s mom was a huge jerk to me as a child. Not necessarily abusive, just always playing favorites and making shitty comments about my weight. My parents made me spend time with her anyway because they cared more about appeasing her (and secondarily my dad) than they did about protecting me. Guess who’s now estranged from me as an adult? That’s right, my parents. Don’t be my parents. Put your kids first. What abusive grandma wants should not even be on your radar.

  29. It has occurred to me that “it’s up to you, hon” could also mean he’d like to cut her off, but it too afraid for it to be his decision. Letting LW make the move lets him avoid actually doing it. “Nothing else I could do to keep harmony in the home!”

    Yet, this is not right, if so. All the more reason to explore why, after so much peaceful time, the husband wants to open this door again.

    • It has occurred to me that “it’s up to you, hon” could also mean he’d like to cut her off, but it too afraid for it to be his decision. Letting LW make the move lets him avoid actually doing it. “Nothing else I could do to keep harmony in the home!”

      I was thinking something similar. LW, if this is true of your husband, you can tell him that it’s ok to tell your MIL that the ongoing break is your fault. Partners do use each other as sidewall the time.

      Even so, it’s his decision to make.

      Good luck LW

      • MarsClover said:

        He could just tell his mother that it was the advise of his therapist, for that matter. Whether or not said therapist even exists. No need to give the mother more ammo against LW.

      • M-T said:

        W, if this is true of your husband, you can tell him that it’s ok to tell your MIL that the ongoing break is your fault.

        – I would add a few caveats here: it’s okay for him to tell her that IF he and LW discuss it, and agree together that a) cutting off Granny is the best choice and b) it is okay for him to tell Granny that this was LW’s call. Partners absolutely can be shields / excuses for each other – I have called out of I don’t know how many godawful work functions because “partner has a thing”, and she’s avoided unnecessary family contact because “MT has work” – but that’s something that we have mutually decided is okay, and that we discuss with each other as it happens.

        Basically, there’s a world of difference between, “We have jointly decided to tell this white lie, because Granny doesn’t have your cell phone number / Granny is scared of you / You’re more comfortable being the Face Of No in this particular instance” and “Hey, I’m cutting off my mom, and I told her that it was your decision, oh, is she calling you twenty times a day? Sorry”, and most of that difference is consent & communication.

        • Yes. LW and husband would have to agree that husband can say it’s all LW’s fault.

  30. TO_Ont said:

    I’m wary of the idea of bringing the kids around her, even one at a time. She doesn’t sound like a trustworthy or safe person. Your husband is an adult and can choose for himself to risk getting hurt, but if he has trouble protecting even himself (and it’s not surprising that he finds it difficult) how well is he going to be able to protect a far more vulnerable child at the same time? And why should he take a child to a place where how to protect them is even a discussion?

    My instinct would be, he can choose to have contact with her himself. But I would go suuuuuuper slow, if at all, when it comes to contact with the kids.

    • MarsClover said:

      This x 10,000

  31. “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”

    Depending on the age of the children, this might not be that hard. We’ve done it, and mostly we’ve done it by cheerfully saying “OK, I’ll see what I can do” or “Yeah, maybe we can do that.” The kids then don’t bring it up again for quite some time (like, weeks, or even months). It’s not the most straightforward thing in the world, but it lets us stretch out the time between chats to something that works better for us.

    It helps that they didn’t have a regularly scheduled chat. So maybe if the chat IS regularly scheduled, don’t let the kids know that. A lot of times kids won’t notice that unless told.

  32. megpie71 said:

    If your husband wants to reconcile with his mother, that’s his choice. He’s welcome to do so if he wants to. He’s probably best off getting set up with a therapist or counsellor to help deal with the emotional blow-back, but still – his choice.

    If your husband wants you to reconcile with his mother… Ahahaha! I’ve heard it’s nice to want things!

    If your husband wants your kids to have more contact with their grandmother, well, okay. Heavily supervised, at neutral locations, where it’s possible to pick up and leave as soon as she starts getting obstreperous in whichever way she chooses to do that day. Oh, and if the kids are old enough to express an opinion in the matter, and say they don’t want to see grandma, they shouldn’t have to.

    • MrsLokiofAsgard said:

      Oh, and if the kids are old enough to express an opinion in the matter, and say they don’t want to see grandma, they shouldn’t have to.

      I AGREE with the above statement wholeheartedly. A parents job is to raise a person with thoughts, ideas, and feelings of their own and we, as parents, should respect and listen to those ideas as much as possible. If the reason the kids don’t want to see Grandma are legit – grandma makes me uncomfortable, I don’t like being around her, she’s mean – then by all means let the kid stay home.

  33. Lisa said:

    As the adult daughter of a mom with an abusive father, I wanted to chime in that it can work. I have mostly find memories of my grandpa. I even stayed with him myself for a week in college and it was great. I know that he definitely mellowed with age but I also know my mom did a lot of work shielding us from his worst behaviors and setting good boundaries.

  34. Tanya said:

    I’d tell him that if he really just do this, he needs to seek therapy for at least six months first, and do couples therapy after that. His normal meter is broken. I’ve been there, and done that, with my own grandmother — and I have the literal scars to prove it.

  35. Anti Kate said:

    I have a kind of similar story. My father was pretty nasty. I broke off the relationship periodically, and my siblings would play the “but it’s FAAAMILY” card and I would cycle back in and then out again. It was a lot easier when I moved a whole continent away.

    Then, I had children. Part of me thought, they need a relationship with their grandfather, so we visited, one afternoon, once a year. He would be mildly rude to me, but was fine with the kids, so I tolerated. When my eldest child was about 10, my father started his routine on my son. In front of me at the dinner table, no less! I never took the kids back to see him again. My obligation to protect my children, to work at breaking the cycle of abuse, was so much more important than any obligation I may or may have not had to my father. My dad died a couple of years ago. It might be heartless, but I don’t miss him. And he missed out on a couple of great kids, because he just could not behave himself.

    But my relationships are *mine* to manage. My husband was always supportive of whatever I chose to do in regards to my father. It wasn’t his job to handle all that stuff. Maybe there’s some gender role stuff in there, the emotional labor stuff, I don’t know.

    So, I second what the Captain said. Don’t sign up to handle this for another person. It’s not only not your job, you cannot really do it for someone else. Offer what support you are willing to make available, but the job itself is not yours.

  36. My grandfathers died either before I was born or when I was very young. I had very little contact with my grandmothers; they lived in Minnesota and Wisconsin, I lived in California. and those were the days when “long distance” calls were quite expensive. I visited with them a few times with my parents. They loved me, and there were no issues, but they really weren’t a part of my life.

    I say this to point out that living without grandparents is not really a great loss. They’re fine to have; my in-laws make great grandparents for my nephews and nieces. (I am an only child and have no children, a point of great contention between me and my mother when she was alive.) But in the greater scheme of things, kids do fine without grandparents. And I’m sure they do better without abusive grandparents.

    • bleh said:

      Mine were an ocean and expensive flights/long distance calls away. I met them twice. I’m fine.

  37. Anisoptera said:

    This sounds pretty sucky LW. I would keep the children away from her for now though – or perhaps only visits in public places. I say that specifically because while I complain mostly about my own unfortunate mother (who in my mind I’m starting to call the “wire mother” because of a commenter here using the term a while ago and it resonating so strongly), my father’s family is also pretty terrible. Which is probably why he thinks the way my mother behaves is OK and to be tollerated. Anyway – growing up watching my Dad treat various ridiculous behaviours as OK helped *me* to learn that those behaviours were OK and normal, which it turn brought me some pretty awful relationships in my own life, that seemed tollerable and entirely familiar. Even if she’s OK to the grandkids, if your husband is visiting her with the kids I strongly suspect they’ll witness her treating him crummily and him tollerating all sorts of things that shouldn’t be tollerated because they’re quite normal to him and he’s trying to reconcile. And that’s a learning experience. I just…the adult children of abusive parents are probably not great at modelling healthy boundaries when they’re around said parents. It’s a massive work in progress for me.

    I don’t think it’s too much to ask that you be allowed to keep a known abuser of children away from your own children. I get that it’s complicated, and perhaps if she behaved for a year or two and it was all very closely monitored and mainly they interacted with her in the form of letters and the occasional skype call it would be OK. But well. I’ve spent most of my life trying to unlearn crappy patterns that abusive adults modelled for me and I would love to have been kept far away from it. And the thing about emotional abuse is that so much of it is hard to pin down, hard to define, hard to react to without being immediately accused of over-reacting – that’s like 90% of the iceberg of abuse even when there’s that 10% of really obviously, clearly awful stuff that you’d definitely put your foot down to.

    • AMM said:

      my own unfortunate mother (who in my mind I’m starting to call the “wire mother” because of a commenter here using the term a while ago and it resonating so strongly)

      Hey, another child of a Harry Harlow “mother”!

      The worst is when they seem like nice mothers, and your friends all say, “I wish she were my mother,” but you don’t feel like you have a mother. You feel like “it must be me.”

      • My wire monkey mom is really great at squeezing into a cloth monkey mom suit around witnesses, and showering me with love and praise (because it reflects back positively on her, in part). And she’d never overtly neglect me or a pet or anything. But under the quickly-shrugged-on cloth exterior, she’s still a wire monkey, and you can feel the wires under the cloth suit, because it’s not a real cloth monkey mom.

        I think it was noted in previous CA discussions that neither the cloth nor wire monkey moms were ideal, and that human beings and monkeys being experimented upon are not an exact analog of each other (for many reasons, including because it wouldn’t be considered ethical to subject a human child to similar tests) but for these purposes assume that child-me much preferred the cloth mom costume, much like the little monkeys would endure the wire monkey solely to get nutrition, but would cling to the cloth monkey for comfort, despite it doing nothing to sustain them besides being soft.

        • Anisoptera said:

          Yeah, this is why I think it might be sort of OK if they meet her in public places, because she’ll probably be putting on a show of being a normal human parent/grandparent. But even so. Actually this is such a hard question – I don’t have children but I’ve been thinking about how I would handle this if I did, because I’m not estranged from my mother (at least not yet). So would I want my children to be alone with her? She would offer, and she would expect it, and she would be super upset if I didn’t allow it. Especially if the children were staying with their hypothetical paternal grandparents sometimes (assuming those were nice people… uh…I’m single so this conversation is entirely fantasy). But anyway. I don’t envy the LWs husband this situation at all. 😦

      • Anisoptera said:

        What took me a very long time to understand, is that when I set boundaries or react negatively to my mother’s freaky awful assumptions about how crap I am that she throws into most interactions with me, she tells me she’s always telling people how amazing I am (as evidence that the thing she said isn’t actually awful). But eventually I worked it out – *of course* she tells other people I’m amazing. Because that’s about her performing “awesome mum” to others and also showing off something I’m pretty sure she still thinks she owns even though I live 1000km away and see her maybe twice a year and am 38. :-/

        But yes, the wire mother description resonated. I learned about that experiment years ago at uni, but I never thought of applying it to my own parent – it just so aptly describes the kind of mother-shaped-object that inhabited my life and did mother-things but was just…empty of empathy and comfort.

  38. My mom had a terrible grandmother. I never met her, but Grandma G as everyone called her was judgemental and mean and controlling (even by my family’s standards) and apparently covered up the sexual abuse of my maternal grandmother as a child. My mother tells stories about her like they’re funny, like being taken to visit her and being forbidden to touch the walls (?) and how she would sit there and listen to Grandma G tear into her mother (my grandmother) about her clothes, appearance, her kids’ behaviour, and anything else she could think of. She’s a good storyteller and the stories do sound funny. But Grandma G has been dead since long before I was born and my mother insists that my kids call her “Grammy” because she can’t bear the thought of being “Grandma” anything.

    These things have long shadows, LW. Kudos on being supportive towards your DH, but I think your instincts to protect your children from your MIL’s abuse are sound. Even if she doesn’t direct it at them they will still suffer for it.

  39. My mom had a terrible grandmother. I never met her, but Grandma G as everyone called her was judgemental and mean and controlling (even by my family’s standards) and apparently covered up the sexual abuse of my maternal grandmother as a child. My mother tells stories about her like they’re funny, like being taken to visit her and being forbidden to touch the walls (?) and how she would sit there and listen to Grandma G tear into her mother (my grandmother) about her clothes, appearance, her kids’ behaviour, and anything else she could think of. She’s a good storyteller and the stories do sound funny. But Grandma G has been dead since before I was born and my mother insists that my kids call her “Grammy” because she can’t bear the thought of being “Grandma”.

    These things have long shadows, LW. Kudos on being supportive towards your DH, but I think your instincts to protect your children from your MIL’s abuse are sound. Even if she doesn’t direct it at them they will still suffer for it.

    • That awkward moment when you’re telling a story because it’s funny and you sense the room change and everyone is looking at you with a simply terrifying pity and you stop and go “Oh…oh, that’s not funny, is it?”

      :/ Your poor mum.

  40. I don’t know if I necessarily have anything new to add, but I’ll chip in anyway.
    Grandchild of a narcissistic Grandmother, my mom was the baby of the family and her siblings managed to shield her from a lot of it, and she was grandma’s favorite most of the time, so she felt obligated to haul all 3 of us kids three states over in her crap car every summer so we could spend time with grandma (and her alcoholic husband and our alcoholic uncle). And then halfway across the country to visit more alcoholic relatives, and then to the south end of the country to visit the other grandpa on her side (who was dangerous purely by the fact of being so incredibly inattentive that he’d likely drop us down a flight of stairs just because he didn’t realize the floor ended, but was otherwise a very sweet man I was genuinely fond of). It was pretty much a study in How Not To Be – Total Lack of Boundaries edition. The only rule she ever put down and enforced – on us kids, not the OTHER ADULTS – was to never get in a car with grampa or our uncles if they were driving.

    I can pretty honestly say that, as a child, I would have been happier, healthier, and safer if mom would have just let me stay home with some books. I never felt any tie to any of them aside from a “what a sweet, silly old man” fondness for the one grandpa. I did enjoy getting to see my cousins, but at the time the 7-10 year age gap was enough that we didn’t really do anything together anyways and have gotten much closer on our own now that we’re adults and have facebook. Kids will do just fine without grandparents, as long as they have loving relationships with the family they do have. The FAAAAMILLLY argument really doesn’t hold water.

  41. Jennifer said:

    Expecting the LW to be the one who manages the visits – keeps her husband calm, decides when grandmother’s gone over the line and they should leave – is an unfair expectation, given that it’s her husband who is interested in reconciling. If he were single, how would he manage the relationship? So the LW putting it back on her husband is a completely reasonable thing to do.

    I would be very wary, though, of him taking any of the kids along. If he’s not sure he can manage to be around his mother without his wife to emotionally protect *him*, I wouldn’t count on him to be able to adequately protect the kids. And the kids don’t have the power to get fed up and decide to leave – they’re dependent on the adults.

    I think started with limited phone/Skype contact, in conjunction with therapy for her husband is an excellent one. If that goes well, then he can go to visit her without the kids. If that goes well, for more than one visit, *then* they can think about adding kids to the mix, but only while they stay in a hotel, and have other activities planned for the trip as well.

  42. kukkaseksi said:

    Count me in as another one who tried, for a time, to do everything I could to make sure that my kids had a relationship with my narcissistic (and downright nasty and unpleasant) mother. I live on another continent from her now, and I cut her off for a lot of reasons (her last visit, five years ago, was truly vile and ended with her being left alone with the kids for a few hours and scaring my then eight year olds so badly that my son hid under a bed in terror and my daughter peed her pants and yeah, we were done at that point) and I have to say that one of the things that should have been a big red warning sign for me was the fact that I was putting in all of this crazy effort to keep this relationship alive while she did…nothing. Sure, she visited once a year…and she complained 24×7 while she was here (including constantly saying how much she resented being with us and not getting to travel to other more exciting places), paid for nothing (and we were struggling for cash, and she knew that, and she had cash to spare), never helped cook or clean or anything else remotely useful, picked on my wife endlessly, pitted my kids against each other in order to win her favor and essentially ruined our entire summer. She was a miserable, bitter and nasty person, and she dramatically changed the entire tone of our family whenever we were in contact with her, whether it was during one of her visits or during one of her Skype calls which were always whenever she wanted them and were never considerate of our time or time zone, for that matter.

    None of us miss her. At all. She was not an important part of our life, you know? She’d come to visit and bring the kids a suitcase full of dollar store crap and things like hotel soaps from her travels and then get furious when the kids’ other grandmother gave them meaningful presents that the kids wanted and enjoyed. (She’d tell the kids they were ungrateful and would expect them to write her thank you letters for HOTEL SOAP and no, I am so not kidding.) She wasn’t supporting us on a day to day level – no babysitting, no spending time with us, certainly no financial support – so when we cut her off all it meant was that we a)didn’t have to answer Skype at 6 in the morning only to listen to my mother talk about herself for 2 hours and never once ask what was going on with us or b)didn’t have to spend 3 weeks of summer vacation listening to her complain about everything and making us all miserable and c)we had to provide our own soap instead of using slivers of hotel soap.

    In short, she was adding nothing but misery to our lives. We did not lose a meaningful relationship on any level when we cut her off. What we did lose, however, was a person who went out of her way to make us as unhappy as she was.

    What we gained was some peace of mind.

    Of course the Captain has it right that you’ve got to give this back to your husband. As much as I would have liked my late wife to have dealt with all the unpleasantness of my mother, it was me that had to ultimately put on my big girl panties and deal with her. My daughter put it very well not that long ago when she told me that what she missed was the grandmother she didn’t get – the grandmother who would be interested in her and who would want to spend time with her, etc. She didn’t miss the grandmother she actually had. Which is really sad! But it’s not something that I can fix. That was up to my mother to fix, and my mother had no interest whatsoever in doing so. Like Veruca Salt, my mother wanted everything that she wanted immediately handed to her on her terms and without any effort or culpability on her part. And we all know what happened to Veruca Salt in the end!

  43. Chessie said:

    I’m the granddaughter of a horrifically abusive woman who made my mother’s life a living hell, right up until my mother found out that she was pregnant with me. She wisely realized that this toxic person should not be in contact with me while I was small and fragile, and she cut ties with her mom until I was old enough to meet her myself and make up my own mind about things. I met my grandmother when I was a teenager.

    She talks over people. She dismisses people’s hurt feelings. She says incredibly mean things in a casual tone and then laughs as if she was joking, while watching your reaction to relish how badly she’s hurt you and how powerless she’s made you feel. She made homophobic remarks and then when I told her I was queer she said that I was going through a rebellious phase and that I should be careful or I’d get a bad reputation. (Hi, my name is Chessie and I quite proudly identify as a queer slut, thank you v much.) She put alcohol in my drink without my consent, despite my having said I didn’t drink. And all of that was just the day I met her — I gave her several chances over the course of the next two years to show me that my mother had been wrong, that she was a good person, but she consistently showed me that she’s a toxic nightmare.

    And I am so, so, *so glad* that I did not have to grow up with her in my life, messing with my impressionable little mind, giving me complexes and making me all confused about how things like consent and respect work. Now that I’m grown I can see the effect my grandmother had on my mom, and how confusing it was for my mom to grow up under the thumb of someone who didn’t model good behaviour, and who consistently violated her boundaries and made her feel worthless and unlovable. I don’t know who I would be today if my grandmother had been allowed to spend time with me as a child, but I know the effect would not have been positive. I am so grateful to my mother for cutting ties with this woman. And I am so especially grateful because looking on as an adult myself now, I can see that my mom really misses her mom and wishes they could have a good, healthy relationship with each other. I think that if I hadn’t come along, my mom would have chosen to keep in contact with her mother, to keep visiting, to keep trying to work on the relationship. I’m the reason why she didn’t do that, why she put more distance between them: she was protecting me. And I love her so much for it, for treating me like I was worth protecting. I never once regretted not getting to know my grandmother earlier in life.

    This got a bit personal and I am perhaps not succeeding at editing it to respond perfectly with the bits that are relevant to your situation, so, sorry for that. I just want to say, your MIL sounds like a toxic, abusive nightmare too, and that is a really good reason for keeping her away from your kids. I think that they should get the chance to decide for themselves when they’re old enough to form their own impressions of her, as I did; but when that day comes, I also think that they’ll see why you chose as you did.

    Good luck, LW.

  44. GreenBottle said:

    I ultimately chose to cut off my relationship with my abusive narcissist father for a few reasons:
    1) I was not the kind of parent I need to be for my kids when I was steeling myself for and then putting myself together after my visits with him
    2) I do not ever want my children to see *anybody* treat Mommy like that (and indeed, he lost it explosively three times at me in front of my kid and lots of nasty side comments in the first 2 1/2 years of my son’s life–despite only seeing one another a few times a year)
    3) I didn’t want my kids to further bond with Grandpa knowing that I might want to cut off contact later. So after the third outburst, all my sorting out about the relationship with him happened with my kid (and then kids plural) elsewhere.

    I set boundaries. He couldn’t deal. My kids are more important than this energetic, psychic black hole, so that was that.

    I set some boundaries, there were emails and a disa

  45. here for the cookies said:

    Grandchild from a similar situation. Parents’ parents (both sides) were terrible people and my parents made the decision to cut off contact when I was little and protect us kids from the abusive grandparents. There were a few cards here and there, but they never filled me with joy or longing or a deep feeling of connectedness to history and family. And as a full grown adult, I certainly don’t feel like I missed out by not having a personal relationship with the grandparents.

    I agree with okrysmastree above about wishing I had a twin sister often (despite having other siblings already), but can’t ever remember wishing that I knew my grandparents. Honestly, as a kid, I can’t remember wanting to hang out with adults anyway. Books, yes. Old people? Not so much.

    So, LW, from one (former) child’s standpoint, I don’t think you need to worry about forcing a connection for your children’s sake. Your husband can take whatever time he needs to forge (or not) the relationship he needs to have with his mother, but you don’t need to bring the kids into it until the grandmother can reliably behave herself.

  46. helbling said:

    Hi LW! I don’t know if anyone has done this officially yet, but welcome to the ‘People With Difficult In-Laws’ group, it’s a doozy.

    Mine sounds quite similar to yours in many respects. She too has insisted on naming our son, in what was a screaming fit in a car park, followed up by a long rambling email that stopped connecting with reality about halfway through, all focused around why any male child we had ought to be given her maiden name, when the screaming fit in the car park wasn’t acquiesced to. The catch? We don’t have a son. Or a daughter. No kids at all. Even in utero. Heck, we don’t even have cats (I am now considering naming a cat her maiden name to make a point, because ain’t no way in hell a child of mine is ever getting stuck with a name that ugly).

    A lot of how you are able to handle her and how much at a distance you have to keep her will depend solely on your husband, her child. A very common issue that a lot of folk in the PWDI group have is that their partner has been raised to accept this sort of behaviour as normal, and resent their partners for calling it out as unhealthy and then protecting the kids from it, because they see US as being the problem for not just putting up with it because ‘that’s the way she is’. You don’t give a lot of detail about your husband other than he’s left this decision to you. How was he when he did that? Because other posters have already pointed out this looks a lot like him passing the emotional labour onto you, and the 0->6 of you get on a plane plan for reintroduction is incredibly drastic when no steps have been taken from her side to work things out. And I’m willing to bet that at least part of the reason he wants you involved is not just to calm him down, but also to be his shield. Because when you’re there, she directs her ire onto you as well, and it allows him to escape it for just a little bit and snatch time with the mother he thinks he’d have if she’d just drop he bad attitude.

    Needless to say, him serving your discomfort to her on a plate in order to satisfy her need for a target while also getting to spend time with her is not ok. Eventually the kids will also serve this purpose, normally about the same sort of time they mature enough to have their own opinions that don’t match hers. This – as seen above – is also not ok.

    Or, something I’ve also seen, is the line ‘well, you make the decision’ subtext: ‘because you’re the only person being difficult here’. Or it allows him to hand off responsibility for the decision to you when other family members come around asking about how poor mom has been abandoned if you say no. ‘Well, I’d love to talk to mom, but *spouse* isn’t happy with it…’ This also often leads to you eventually saying yes, it all going wrong, and then you get the blame for that too.

    I hope, I do desperately hope, that I am doing your husband a massive disservice, and actually him handing you the decision was him trying to be inclusive and not thinking things through all the way. But often children raised by this sort of person (I am desperately trying not to armchair diagnose) often have buttons and triggers installed by them that are very very hard to even recognize, never mind disarm without professional assistance, which can result in them feeling an almost crushing, overwhelming need to ‘keep the peace’, and this goes against just about everything they’ve been taught.

    If your husband isn’t like the above, if he is strong against what she’s saying and doesn’t show any of this behaviour, the Captain’s plan is a really good one (I would possibly hesitate at the notion of sending a single child to visit with just your husband for back up. That sounds bad). It might also be worth setting ground rules with your husband like ‘if she does X behaviour we will leave immediately, because we do not want the kids to normalise the idea that this is how someone who loves them should treat them’.

    If he has shown any of the above behaviours though, THERAPY!! And I would be really uncomfortable with him having any relationship with her at all, never mind you and the kids. Because she will spend her time complaining about all the wrongs – real and imagined – you are doing to her, and also FORCING him to do to her, and it’s very likely he’ll hit a point on that where he’ll at least in part, believe her.

    Good luck, and I hope things work out.

    • MrsLokiofAsgard said:

      I read your entire comment thinking “well, is there a group for the PWDI?” If there is, sign me up. If there isn’t, there should be.

      This particular comment resonated with me: ” But often children raised by this sort of person (I am desperately trying not to armchair diagnose) often have buttons and triggers installed by them that are very very hard to even recognize, never mind disarm without professional assistance, which can result in them feeling an almost crushing, overwhelming need to ‘keep the peace’, and this goes against just about everything they’ve been taught.”

      If I had a dollar for every time my husband said that he wished we’d all just get a long I could retire very comfortably right now. In the beginning of our relationship/marriage it was my mother (raised with a similarly toxic parent) who would remind me, when I was getting so damn angry over his not being able to stand up to his parents, that they’d programmed him with a virus and removing the virus without disrupting the core program too badly was a challenge. In the beginning it was hard. I didn’t fight his battles for him, but I definitely stood in his corner and made sure that he (and his parents) knew that I was there for the long haul. I was the first woman who didn’t run from his mother…and I was definitely the first person to meet her who made her cry real tears instead of her usual manipulative tears.

      • helbling said:

        There is! http://community.babycenter.com/groups/a4725/dwil_nation is fantastic for it. Be warned that they have been there, done it all, seen it all, and therefore their advice is very blunt – at times harsh – and they do not hesitate to call people out because they are generally there to prepare you for (and help you withstand) the worst case scenario*. There are some very ablist terms used sometimes, and armchair diagnosis, at least of narcissism, is common place (but to be fair, often by the relations themselves as they have a heartstopping moment of realisation of WHY their parent/in-law is like this) and they are very much there to give advice on what to DO, not to help you process feelings, but the support, validation and knowing you aren’t alone can, even on its own, be very very useful.

        * – examples, TRIGGER WARNING, have included attempted kidnapping, vandalism, B&E, poisoning, assault, harassment, stalking…the list goes on. Some of the stuff on there people end up going through is well and truly hair raising,

  47. zaracat said:

    My mother was very self-centred, critical and hard to please, although not as overtly abusive as many of the other commenters’ parents. Even after I was an adult though she continued to criticise my appearance while being happy to revel in the prestige she believed my job as a doctor gave her, and often sulked or threw tantrums because she took offence things I or my husband said to her, and I was too intimidated to challenge her on her behaviour.



    She lived overseas by the time my daughter was born so we did not visit very often, but when we did visit she didn’t like having to make allowances for a toddler being in the house, for example she wouldn’t put her dozens of fragile ornaments up out of reach, but ran around telling my daughter not to touch things. She spent a lot of time telling me about the sweet little boy who lived next door to her, but did not really seem that interested in spending time with her granddaughter during visits, and didn’t always remember to send a birthday card, let alone a present (one year she sent a birthday fax). I feel that in many ways we were lucky that my mother died when my daughter was only four, before she was old enough to ‘produce’ anything for her grandmother to either criticise (if bad) or ‘own’ (if good), or to be aware of her grandmother’s immature and nasty behaviour and my inability to stand up to it. It meant that I was spared having to make the decision as to whether to maintain a relationship or not.


    I would definitely say that you should put your own and your children’s welfare first, and if your MIL wants a relationship she should have to do the running, including becoming self aware enough to change her behaviour on her own account.

    • glomarization said:

      I would definitely say that you should put your own and your children’s welfare first, and if your MIL wants a relationship she should have to do the running, including becoming self aware enough to change her behaviour on her own account.

      Agreed 100%. LW has gone above and beyond what was needed for a good-faith effort to allow Mother-in-law to have a positive relationship with the kids. Now it’s Mother-in-law’s turn.

  48. Monika said:

    Long time lurker, very rare comment maker here. Hi Everyone. I’m delurking because I am a “parent who has not made efforts to make peace with a problematic grandparent for the sake of fostering a relationship with the grandchild”.

    The parent in question is my spouse’s mother and he cut her off back when we were both in high school. When she said “If you walk out that door I am never speaking to you again!” he took it as a good deal. He has not communicated with her since. He was mid teens then so he has faced a lot of pressure from his mother, other family and strangers to reconcile. I’ve even thought from time to time he should. I’ve read the long regret filled letters she sends me and felt sorry for her just like the letter writer. She has never met our daughter and she drove away spouse’s older brother eventually as well so she does not see those grandkids either. But I also read the letters about how I should leave spouse before he turns out like his father and how at 16 he was evil and the way their relationship ended was really his fault. And I read the cutsey letters and cards she sent to our infant daughter full of reproach for her mean parents who would not let her meet her grandmother.

    Spouse does not see how all the effort necessary in establishing boundaries etc would be worth anything good that might come from a reconciliation attempt. So we have only every ignored her. The nice attempts to reach out and the nasty ones. I feel guilty sometimes but spouse doesn’t want her in his life and he knows her best. He is also very adamant about not exposing our child to her. The letter writer’s husband seems much less sure but I agree he has to be the one to decide.

    For what it is worth I want to add that after years of ignoring her we hear from her hardly at all now. The last time was probably two years ago through a family member who mentioned how much difficult grandparent misses her sons. So letter writer might get to the point where the only time she thinks about this sadly difficult person is when she reads her favorite advice blog.

    • glomarization said:

      Similarly, my partner estranged himself from his family after an ultimatum from his mother (I think it was, “You’ll be the best man at your brother’s wedding, or I never want to see you again”), which he gladly took as an opportunity to slip away from the bizarreness. He accidentally met up with them again after about ten years — long story — but he continues to feel that those ten years were some of the best in his life.

  49. Tiia said:

    Wonderful advice as always, captain!

    Just wanted to leave a note that since our blog has helped me out so much, I went ahead and donated! Thank you for all the time and effort you put into running this site. Your thoughtful advice has encouraged for me to take a stand against abusive parent-child dynamics that are rampant in my family and generally keeping my ground when I really needed to.

    Here’s to many more years of Captain Awkward! *long distance hug*

  50. Husband and his mom have a ton of unresolved nonsense between each other. But instead of dealing with it on his own, he’s dragging his wife and kids into the nonsense. He’s been putting off resolving the problems. And that’s understandable, because it could very well be that the best (or least worst) resolution is something like estranging himself from his mom and never seeing her again, which is painful.

    Look, though: The past and current issues between Husband and Husband’s mom are not LW’s issues to address. Really, they aren’t. Packing up the kids for a visit, spending all this energy on trying to make the relationship work — LW has given it the old college try, and really she never actually had to. There’s a lot of emotional work going on here, but I see only LW person doing it.

    As an example, both my partner and I have a troubled relationship with our families. Partner is great about driving me and the kiddo all over creation to see my parents and my sibling and her family; and Partner’s been great about packing us back in the car and skedaddling when a visit has started going sideways. But after a visit goes sideways, Partner isn’t the one on the phone or e-mail trying to smooth things over or plan the next visit. He’ll support my decision about the next visit, so long as it doesn’t mean I’m over-using his listening ear or over-crying on his shoulder. The communications with my family and the visiting arrangements, though, are not his circus, not his monkeys.

    Likewise, when Partner’s sibling and sibling-in-law disinvited my son from a holiday meal for LGBT-phobic reasons, Partner didn’t leave it to me to try to resolve that issue. I’m perfectly happy to let Parnter visit his sibling (and their kids) whenever his schedule allows, and Partner doesn’t try to get me to reconcile with the sibling. That business is my circus, my monkeys, and Partner respects that I have no interest in trying to get his sibling to be OK with the gays.

    In addition to LW doing most of the emotional work here, what I’m also seeing is that Mother-in-law is cranky and abusive to LW and the kids — never mind how she treats her own son — but they keep banging their heads against the door of trying to get Mother-in-law to be nicer. I hope LW and Husband can both figure out how to treat Mother-in-law as she deserves. In other words, how would they treat any other adult who is cranky and abusive to them and their kids? Any other adult who doesn’t also just happen to be Mother-in-law? At some point you can let go the “but she’s faaaaaaamily” thing and say, well, she doesn’t treat us nicely, so we’re not visiting, and I don’t feel like putting much more energy into trying to make her treat us better.

    • glomarization said:

      Gah, clarity. Re the fourth paragraph: “Likewise, when Partner’s sibling and sibling-in-law disiinvited my son from a holiday meal for LGBT-phobic reasons, Partner didn’t leave it to me to try resolve that issue.”

      My meaning is that Partner has not imposed any emotional work on me about the issue. He was OK with my decision to not go over to sibling’s house again, and to keep my son from having to go to there as well. He’s been great about relaying the decision to this sibling. But also, he hasn’t laid any extra emotional work on me, either, like asking me to do anything to reconcile with sibling. We’re both perfectly OK with having me and my son never see the sibling and his family again, since all evidence points to that being the situation that makes sibling happier anyway. It’s not our job to lead the sibling out of LGBT-phobia and into the 21st century.

  51. Nanani said:

    Like many commenters, it jumped out at me that the husband wants LW to do the reconciling for him, in essence.
    LW says: ” 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.”

    That.. is not Husband doing the emotional work of reconciliation, that’s him being present while LW does all the work – and I would bet there’s a side serving of LW being the excuse/taking the blame!
    Husband may need to level up at emotional work before he can even think of doing this sort of major project. It is not OK to push it on to the LW.

  52. CommanderBanana said:

    A million Jedi hugs to the LW, and I just want to point out that behaving abusively towards someone is a choice. The grandmother has made the choice to be abusive and continues to choose to be abusive.

    Choices have consequences. You are not obligated to maintain a relationship with anyone who has chosen, repeatedly, to be abusive.

  53. LW, this reminds me so much of my own mom dealing with her my dad’ mom. I remember clearly how stressed she would get going over there and didn’t understand until I was older why. I’m pretty much in accord with the Captain on letting your husband do the emotional lifting here. One perspective I will offer is that I had a better relationship with my dad’s extended family after I became a young adult. My grandma by this time had passed away, but my dad’s family was still a nest of grudges and ugly toxic sludge for my dad and mom. As a young adult I could declare myself free of all the sludge and independently have a relationship with the relatives I chose. I didn’t have to engage in the drama or the grudges and could leave them to the background. It worked for me. And I got to know my codependent grandfather on a level that leaves me with good memories. It may not happen that way, of course but it’s always possible.

  54. Catherine from Canada said:

    RE: “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.”

    I haven’t read all the comments, but I’m jumping in to answer this.

    I’ll try to keep a long story short.

    My father was physically abusive, my mother was (still is) emotionally abusive and neglectful. Not the least was standing by and letting my dad beat me up.
    My husband’s mother was emotionally abusive to the extent that my husband is the only one of four who managed to “escape.” The others, now in their fifties and sixties are still so emotionally stunted that they really don’t function well. My F-i-L (a sweet but spineless man) went along with it (which really, when you think about it, is a kind of abuse of your children, by not protecting them from abuse).

    On the other hand, my mother hated her mother, who hated her mother. My father had no contact with his siblings. My M-I-L fought (passive aggressively) with her entire family. The family history, on both sides, were tales of discord and bitterness going back generations.

    We wanted something better. We wanted something different. We wanted to break the cycle. But we recognized that, just as children need a stable home with happy, productive adults, they also need a community, optimally an extended family, to love and nurture them, to give them other life-stories, other examples of how to live, other view points. So we decided not to cut our families off (though god knows it was tempting!) (We also didn’t want to give them the example of cutting off family – we were pretty sure that would just pass down the pattern…)

    We had family dinners together, Christmases, Easters, Thanksgiving, summer weeks at the in-laws house in the country, all that normal stuff. We let in-laws babysit, let the kids go there to visit for weekends. BUT

    1. We never discussed problems with our families in front of the kids, even when our requests were explicitly and deliberately ignored. If things were especially egregious – like the time M-I-L’s rooster stalked and attacked my 3 year old and she refused to get rid of it – we gathered the kids up and went home. (The next weekend, she’d killed the rooster and we ate it.) All the presents labelled “From Santa Claus”, when we’d told them we were celebrating St. Nicholas on December 6th and Christmas only on the 25th? We removed all the labels before the kids saw them.

    2. We never left our children alone with my mother (Dad died when I was 27 – the kids were still little). Once, when our oldest was 12, we let her stay with my mom while attending a summer camp in the city. We had a standing “if you find yourself in a bad situation, call us day or night and we will come get you” rule. Our daughter invoked the rule and my husband went to get her. (I was too angry.) We didn’t allow her to be alone with any of the others until they were in their late teens.

    3. In essence, we did everything we could to give – yes, I mean give, not make, or allow, or let – our children an unclouded, happy relationship with their grandparents. As they got into their teens, and started to notice things were a little … off… then we’d start to tell them what things were really like. For instance, in their mid-teens, my boys all went through a stage of wanting to yell, stamp and punch things when they were upset. Pretty normal, except I had to tell them, “I understand that you want to express your frustration physically. However, when I was growing up, my dad used to beat me up, so when there is yelling in the house, it makes me feel like someone is going to get hit and hurt. It makes me feel unsafe in my own home. I think I should feel safe in my own home (at this point, the boy was looking shocked, nodding vigorously, or crying) so if you want to yell or punch something, please do it outside. And, of course, as you get older, you’re going to have to come up with other ways of being upset because you can’t punch things at the office.”

    There’s a lot, lot more, of course, but I’m happy to say that, on the whole, it worked.
    My children (six in all, now aged 37 to 25) have turned out to be far kinder, understanding, patient and loving that either my husband or I.
    I am in awe actually of what great people they are.

    They know and accept their relatives; both their strengths and their flaws, their good and bad.

    They are friends with each other, something we never really managed with our siblings.

    They are kind and patient and loving with us, also something we never managed.

    It was hard. It cost us emotionally. I – in particular – am still dealing with the after-effects, and now that the kids are grown and know the whole story, am struggling with whether or not to maintain a relationship with my mother.

    But I’d do it all again. No regrets.

    Wow, sorry for the novel, but I hope this helps.

    (and yeah, this is not your problem to solve, it’s his. that’s another lesson I learned, self-appointed fixers don’t actually fix anything, they just exhaust themselves and eventually piss everyone else off.)

    • Catherine from Canada said:

      Okay, now I’ve read all the comments, and yeah, I’m gonna get slammed for my opinions. Oh well.

      • Mary said:

        Hey, I don’t think you’re going to get slammed. I think what you’ve described here sounds like *incredibly* hard work, and if Younger-You had taken a different course and decided not to facilitate contact between your kids and their grandparents, I definitely wouldn’t blame you. But it sounds like the work you did here was around setting, maintaining and modelling good boundaries for your kids; making sure they knew that you were 100% on their side and that they could call any time and you’d drop everything to come and get them; telling them as they got older about your experiences in a way that made it clear that bad behaviour and violence have an impact both in the immediate moment and longer term. I am not surprised your kids grew up pretty well-adjusted: that sounds like an awesome set of values to me and I hope I teach my daughter similar things.

      • Monika said:

        I don’t know about anyone else but I would not slam you. I think it sounds like you did an amazing job. I think your kids would likely still be amazing even if they had not known their extended family, because of you and your partner, but that doesn’t mean your choice was bad or wrong just a lot of work. I think your comment highlights for the letter writer it can be done but that it will likely be just as much work as she thinks it will be.

      • chocolatetort said:

        I think CA really was searching for people with varied experiences in this situation, and you provided an excellent perspective. No reason anyone should slam you for your experience. Others made different choices. It sounds like both you and the other commenters in this thread have made some difficult choices in order to best protect themselves and their families.

      • JenniferP said:

        I’m really glad you posted and there’s nothing to slam!

      • Lou said:

        I don’t think there’s anything to slam in what you said, it’s a perfectly valid approach and one that appears to have worked! I, personally, disagree with your decision not to discuss any of your family problems in front of the kids as I think it could have been a really good teaching moment as well as an explanation of how you can love people but dislike what they do/how they treat you. Plus, as many people above said, kids are perceptive and they notice that kind of stuff and wonder about it, and explanations can help them process what they saw or heard. But still, nothing to slam.

      • Catherine from Canada said:

        Thanks to everyone for your positive comments.
        I realize that my story could sound like “but faaaaaaammmmmiiiilllly!” and to a certain extent it was and is, but on our terms.

        Mary, yes, respect and dignity were the two main values in our home. We only had one rule: “Thou shalt not do anything to cause physical, emotional, psychological or spiritual harm to yourself or anyone else. Everything else is fair game.” Which was hard on the furniture but good for the kids.

        Lou, part of the reason we didn’t discuss family problems in front of the kids (especially when they were young) was because I knew I couldn’t do it calmly, that the kids would get the hurt and the negativity without the teaching moment. That part is still hard.

      • Temporary Null said:

        Wow, you have mad emotional regulation skills. To be able to sit down and explain why you need your kids to not trigger you while not making them feel like they need to constantly monitor how you’re feeling is really incredible.

        It’s not a fair comparison, but I really wish my mom had built up the same emotional regulation skills that you did.

        • Catherine from Canada said:

          Thanks for this.
          I had to read your comment a few times to figure out that it was a compliment (I had the same trouble when one of my kids told me something was “sick”)
          But I just did what I thought was the right thing to do, not necessarily the easiest thing for me, but what was right for my kids.
          And in one of those ironic twist things, growing up in an emotionally abusive home did teach me to control (hide) my emotions. Which is crappy, but can come in handy sometimes.

      • Brisvegan said:

        I won’t slam you! In fact, when I get time, I am going to write a similar-ish story. In fact, the first bit you mentioned (angry abusive dad, neglectful mum, difficult MIL with 4 kids) sounds just like me! (My FIL could also be an abusive ass, though, so we differ there.)

        I also put boundaries in place and my kids enjoyed their time with otherwise difficult people who loved the kids. They have good memories of grandparents. I have good memories of the last few years with my dad, especially of visiting with kids, and had some good times with my difficult MIL when she was playing board games etc with my kids. (Fortunately, after a lot of boundary work, she knew that she had to be decent around the kids or the visits were over.)

    • Elle said:

      So, I don’t have any kids, and I’m curious: would it be wrong to explain to the kids that they don’t see Grandma because sometimes Grandma says hurtful things that make Daddy sad?

      • Mary said:

        I don’t think there’s a right or wrong answer to this, but personally I am all about explaining emotions to children. My daughter is only 15 months, but she’s just starting understand things and she’s just starting to get overwhelmed by her emotions, so we do a lot of, “I know sweetie, you are cross because you want to play with the tap. But it isn’t playing time, it’s bed time” or whatever. I think if you can explain what’s going on emotionally to a child and help them name their own and recognise other people’s emotions, that’s a very good thing.

        But when it works, it partly works because it forces the adults to name and describe their own emotions, and being able to step away from them at least a little. If you actually mis-name or mis-attribute the emotions (Mummy says through gritted teeth, after Daddy has just snapped at her, “No, Daddy is just sad because Grandma said something hurtful”), that’s pretty confusing to a child, and it’s also giving the message that snapping at other people is a good way to deal with being hurt. So, like Catherine from Canada says, you’ve got to be able to a reasonably good (not perfect, but reasonably good) job of being able to calmly and accurate identify and name your own emotions, which is a super difficult thing to do when you’re talking about relationships with emotionally abusive parents.

  55. RSVP said:

    I grew up without grandparents. My maternal grandparents died long before I was born, and I only ever met my paternal grandparents once, when I was 7. Our whole family took this very long road trip to the other side of the country to visit them. They didn’t seem terribly interested in us. I think they sent my older brother a pair of skates once, but I never got any sort of gift from them at all and they clearly weren’t interested in forming a relationship with me.
    My parents tried to press an elderly friend into being a grandmother of sorts to us, but she didn’t seem overly interested in us, either. She did give me a set of beads and an old Riley’s Toffee box once, which is more than I ever got from my real grandparents.
    The point being, kids don’t absolutely need to have grandparents, and they are certainly better off without toxic abusive grandparents. If they have nice grandparents, that’s an icing-on-the-cake thing, but they can live without any at all.

  56. Jenny Islander said:

    One thing jumped out at me immediately, LW: Your MIL is miserably lonely, and also makes people miserable when they are around her–and apparently doesn’t perceive the connection between the two. I’m not saying that I can magically Internet-diagnose people, but I am saying that this sure sounds a lot like something that rhymes with Mersonalitee Blizzorder. That kind of thing is above your pay grade–way, way above your pay grade. Sure, if could be something that rhymes with Bun-fly-and-hosed Mefession instead, but bracing for a screaming fight over a baby name that’s a done deal sounds a lot more like the other thing.

    I don’t like to sound cold. I have, however, had to deal with something like this. A person with this kind of disconnect between effect and affect is like a water tank with a crack in the bottom that leads to a giant cave. You can pour all the water in the world into that tank and it will never fill up. It will just trickle away and be lost. It sounds as though a lot of people have figured this out already, and now it’s your and your husband’s turn. And possibly your children’s turn, if the two of you let that happen. But there is no such thing as a love that can make it all better. No, not even the love of a child. The crack will still be there regardless.

    It’s quite common for somebody who just cannot help crapping on people to love children–up to a certain age. Does she love all of your children? How old is the oldest child? How old was your husband when things really got bad?

    Somebody told me once that there are mothers, and then there are moms. Not having a mom is completely unfair. It hurts. It takes a long, long time to stop hurting. The need for a mom is so strong that people walk back into the orbits of their abusive mothers repeatedly for years, hoping that this time something will change. But some people get moms, and some just get mothers, who are best loved from a distance.

    • Funny you should say that. My mother is always trying to get me to call her “mum.” I just…can’t. She’s never been “mum” to me. I call her “mother.”

  57. AMM said:

    I’m perhaps fortunate in that my parents showed no real interest in interacting with my kids. My parents only visited once the entire time I lived here (just north of NYC), although they went to or passed through NYC several times a year. I always wondered if was because they were just indifferent or I had somehow done something unforgivable or it was because they preferred girls to boys (my brothers all had daughters and no sons, I have sons and no daughters.) By contrast, their mother’s parents (who lived 1000 miles away vs. my parents’ 380 miles) would stop in several times a year.

    Anyway, the event which crystalized my determination to never leave my kids alone with my parents:

    Both grandparents came from a (USA) culture where it was just expected that the grandparents would come for a week or so after a grandchild’s birth to help out (but that’s another story :-s ) Anyway, when my mother came for my second son’s birth, my oldest was almost 3. He was walking through the dining room and when he walked past my mother, she just, unprovoked, whacked him. I stood there in shock, but she acted like nothing had happened and continued to look like the Good Mother / Good Granny.

    For some reason, my experiences — and my brothers’ experiences — growing up suddenly made a lot of sense.

    I made a point of bringing them to see their grandparents, so they’d know they had grandparents on my side, but never stayed at their house after that and never went to any effort to get them to have a relationship. Especially since even when they were in the same room with my parents, my parents never made more than the most minimal effort to relate to them.

    • Katie said:

      Good god. That is horrible.

  58. Another grandchild of a child abuser here. Just wanted to remind you that all the good advice I hope you’ve heard elsewhere about the fact that:
    -children are people
    -children are allowed to have boundaries
    -children do not have to accept unwanted touching or spend time around people who make them uncomfortable
    -children are allowed to enforce their boundaries even if they don’t have the emotional and social skills that would be expected of adults
    goes double, or quadruple, in this situation.

    Your children don’t need a relationship with their abusive grandmother. I have found my church community to be an excellent source of Kindly Old Ladies Who Are Not My Abusive Grandparents, if you or your children feel that’s a role that needs filling. (If you don’t, that’s fine too.)

    Best of luck whatever you decide.

  59. DameB said:

    I have a difficult (narcissistic?) mom and I’ve spent ten years negotiating this dance.

    In particular, my mom’s complete inability to recognize boundaries got much much worse once I had a child. She kept calling herself “mom” when talking to my daughter, she would call my daughter by my name and call me by her sister’s name, she tried *nursing my kid once.* It was deeply creepy, borderline horror film in places. Therefore much of my experience will be about boundaries.

    As the Cap suggests, I’ve set up a lot of temporal boundaries. Once-a-week calls, rarer holiday visits. Cards and calls instead of visits for birthdays, that sort of thing. Right now, it’s working for me and I don’t feel the need to up that contact amount at all. That said, for a variety of reasons, I haven’t cut off contact.

    What I’ve done with my kid is two-pronged. One, I always respect *and enforce* her boundaries. This is important because my mother doesn’t seem to think they exist at all. If she says “Stop touching my hair,” and my mom doesn’t, I physically stop her from touching my kid’s hair. After my mother chose to just not buckle her car seat into place even though the four year old wanted to be buckled in, Mom lost kid-visiting-without-an-adult rights for a few years. After that, kid went down with a cell phone and explicit instructions that “if Grammy doesn’t listen to you, you call me right away.”

    When Kid decides to visit Grammy, I never make her decide on the spot. I say “Grammy would like you to visit this summer. Would you like to do it and if so, for how long? Think about it for a few days and get back to me.” My kid is the queen of Needs Time to Process and I always give her as much space as I can for that.

    The few times I’ve failed to do this have always resulted in misery. (And I have totally failed to do this, btw. I have totally failed many times.)

    The second prong is straightforwardness about the problems between me and my mom. She knows I see a therapist and that it’s because Grammy and I have a difficult relationship, among other reasons. When she visits without me, I tell her that “Grammy and Grampy sometimes don’t listen to other people. If you don’t want to do something, they may ignore you. What you want to do with yourself is more important than what they want you to do. Call me if they don’t listen to you.” I specifically outline tactics they use — “Grammy probably bought you pretty shoes with heels to wear to the theater. If you say no, she may say ‘But they are so cute! I bought them just for you!’ Your hurting feet matter more than her hurt feelings.”

    I’ve also talked about drinking and how drinking affects different people’s brains.

    I’ve also told her, “I’m sorry I’m crabby. Grammy is coming to visit and I don’t get along well with her so I’m anxious and that makes me grumpy. I will go in the other room until I have myself under control.”

    My mom is difficult. My mother’s mother was non-reality based, at best, and vicious at worst. *Her* mother was legendarily “eccentric.” I think of myself as drawing the line on the family tree. The crazy stops HERE. I will not let that shit swamp over my child and drown her. Any time I start thinking “But Mom is so sad and lonely and miserable, I could just…” I look at my kid and I stop myself from that thought process. My job is raising my child to the best of my ability. That includes not sacrificing her to my depressed, narcissistic mom. That also includes keeping myself sane enough to be a good mom, not spending my energy trying to endlessly fix someone who can’t be fixed.

  60. My dad’s parents were abusive toward him growing up (openly favored his sister) and neglected us when we came along (openly favoring my aunt’s sons), and blowing off every holiday invite (father’s day, birthdays, 4th of July, thanksgiving, and anything longer than hi and bye on Xmas when we were pre-teens…you name it, they didn’t want to do it with US), often claiming it was my dad’s (milquetoast) father’s “bowling night.” In part I think this is because my paternal grandmother was (and mother is) a malignant narcissist and they got into a narc-off and both lost, but in part I think they were just difficult people. Thankfully, my mother’s parents were very loving with us, we saw them often, and when my father died before I was 12, they were parent #2 and parent #3 to my brother and me.

    Q: What works with narcissists and similar mean people?
    A: Not much. Keeping your distance is about it. I think CA folks have seen the acronym JADE: don’t justify, argue, defend yourself or explain, simply deflect as best you can and ease on down, ease on down the road. Try phrases like “I’ll think about that,” “you may be right (and you may not be)” or “that is an interesting way to put it.” You know, non-committal without agreeing or disagreeing. Kill ’em with kindness when you can. Then make yourself scarce.

    I am currently working on securing more distance from my narcissist mother, and my sister-in-law is on Team Me now, as she keeps getting a big heaping dose of N-Mom whenever I am not present to serve as a meatshield. My golden child brother isn’t completely down with the program, but it behooves him not to be, and to play the good guy or peace out or ignore everything, so I don’t except too much to change unless his wife gets more upset. Maybe not even then. Anyway, I am a lot happier when my shields are up and I can be present, thus staving off an annoying phone conversation about my absence, but also not engage on any deeper level than mannerly greetings and goodbyes.

  61. R. said:

    Another grandchild of an abusive person chiming in: my parents’ marriage only survived because they moved us far away from my grandmother and I only saw her once a year between the ages of 4 and 15. It was unpleasant every time. A decade later I honestly wish my parents had never re-bridged that relationship. Even if she had never crossed a singe boundary with me, as a small child I could tell that she had treated both of my parents badly and I wanted nothing to do with her. Being forced to interact with her was bad. At age 7 I felt like I constantly had to defend my parents, my actual family, from this woman who kept insulting my mother and shoving candy at me. Sure, there was candy, but it was never worth it. And in the end I had to pretend to be grateful and happy and give kisses and let her touch me, even though I felt awful from listening to horrible things about my family, my house, the town where I grew up. It was like I was endorsing everything she’d said by accepting the food she gave me and performing displays of affection, despite never having a choice. It made me feel sick and guilty every time.
    These days I know how to respond and remove myself from the conversation when she starts screaming, but I do wish she wasn’t a part of my life at all. Being around her stil gives me that icky feeling of supporting an abuser, nevermind that she can not hold a conversation without needling and chipping away at my boundaries and being rude about something.

    If you want to try introducing your MIL to your children you have to make sure to give them the agency to walk away from her, and to always let them know that whatever she did when she was out of line was not okay, even if it wasn’t directed at the child. And if your kid ever wonders why all of you keep going back to this horrible person, you should have an answer for them and it should include them not having to go back if they don’t want to.

  62. delphica said:

    I’m here to share a positive outcome on both ends of this issue.

    First, because it’s more immediate to the LW’s situation, my MIL has a very poor track record with parenting. Her sons grew up in a very uncertain, unpleasant, and all sorts of other un-s, situation as a result. But, we have decided to cautiously allow her to have a relationship with my daughter. In large part, this is due to my SIL doing a metric crap ton of work — her kids are older, she lives closer to my MIL, she set the boundaries for appropriate behavior and language with the grandchildren, and she enforced them like a Navy Seal on a mission. I had the benefit of riding her coattails.

    Someone asked my SIL once why she put all that energy into it, and her response was that she, personally, didn’t want the hassle of having our MIL drop dead when her grandchildren were teenagers, and then have them turn around and be angry at their parents about not knowing their own grandmother and now it’s tooooooo laaaaate. It was a flippant answer, but there was some truth there.

    The basic framework is similar to many of the things already proposed, the most key being that my SIL (and now, I) is prepared to get up and end the visit at the first problematic behavior. This is not three strikes, it is not two strikes, it is ONE STRIKE and then people are standing up and coats are put on and the kids depart. A specific example would be MIL saying negative, provocative, mean, or untrue (or all of them, yay!) things about another family member. Or weird food policing.

    The biggest difference in our situation from the suggestions outlined by CA is about the role of the spouse. Overall, I think it’s solid advice to let the spouse who is the Actual Adult Child of the Problem Grandparent do more of the work, but in our specific family case, that wasn’t really working so well on the ground. This sounds like a terrible thing to say about an adult woman, but it seemed like it was too much emotional work for my MIL to behave with the Actual Adult Child and the grandchildren at the same time. I mean, it was like you could see she was genuinely, sincerely trying, but failing (miserably) to control her own behavior, sort of like how you can watch a three year old trying to keep it together at the end of a long day, but ultimately failing because they do not have the internal emotional resources to get through it. You don’t take it that personally with a three year old kid, it’s harder to work around with an adult, but that’s the situation. Having the daughter-in-law(s) present as a buffer seemed, again — for our family specifically — to reduce the stress on my MIL to enable her to focus on successful interactions with the grandchildren. So who did this suck for? Us, the daughers-in-law! (and really, my SIL put her time in long before I did, so I have to give her heaps of credit) It *is* work for us, but it was the answer to the question “how much work am I, myself, personally willing to do to achieve my stated goal of having my kid have a relationship with my MIL?” It would have been great if we could have had the Actual Adult Children take this on, or even take 90% of this on, but it simply would not have worked in a way that included the grandchildren. Absolutely agree though, that the Actual Adult Child must manage his/her own relationship with the Problem Grandparent.

    Second, I grew up with a doting grandmother who, it turns out, was a pretty terrible parent to my mom and her siblings. In hindsight, I can noodle around with a lot of reasons — my Nana was a young widow, four kids, no money, and I suspect she had some serious and legitimate mental health issues for which she simply did not have any access to care, given her education, and social and economic situation. I’m not really sure if she mellowed out with age, or perhaps interacting with grandchildren was less stressful to her than being a parent, but my childhood memories are GREAT, literally the stuff of storybooks — baking cookies, learning to sew, exploring the garden. Only as a young adult did I come to realize my mom was making an enormous effort to safeguard this relationship, not to mention the fact that my mom pretty much sat there and ate it every time I got a school assignment to write about “A Special Family Member” and I was always all “Nana, of course, she’s the best!” I really do consider this a gift that my mom gave me, and I thank her for it a lot.

  63. Lindsay said:

    My mom’s parents divorced when she was a toddler and I never met my biological grandfather. (Neither did my dad, for that matter.) He was neglectful of all three of his children (my mom and her brothers), barely paid child support (this was the late 60s/early 70s when child support laws were less strict so my mom grew up in relative poverty), and basically, according to my mom, never should have had children. He died when I was eleven, and I remember watching my mom making arrangements to attend the funeral with her brothers but I felt nothing for this man I had never known who caused my mom so much pain growing up.

    My point is, your children will not suffer from not knowing a grandparent, abusive or not. Admittedly, my grandmother remarried when my mom was a teenager and her second husband was the man I knew as a grandfather until he passed away as well, and as far as I know my mom never had to set boundaries with her father because he was neglectful and not so much abusive. He never cared to meet any of his children’s spouses or his grandchildren. Every once in a while I get curious about who my biological grandfather was, especially lately since I’ve been doing family genealogy stuff, but it’s a passing curiosity. If you decide not to allow your MIL to have any contact with your kids, they will be okay.

  64. MellifluousDissent said:

    One more thought I just realized I want to add for both LW and your husband – never forget that MIL’s behavior is *a choice that she is making.* Are there explanations for her behavior? Possibly very good/sympathetic ones that are not, at root, her “fault” (i.e. MIL was also abused as a child/adult, MIL has untreated health issues, etc.)? Yes, of course. And those explanations can make boundary-setting really cloudy, especially when there’s this seemingly-obligatory bond, which also adds weight to the side of the scale labeled “just give her a chance!” But you know what? No matter how many explanations there are for MIL’s behavior, and no matter how “valid” those explanations are, there is simply no explanation out there that requires you to have a relationship with someone who is *choosing* to abuse you/your spouse.

    I have a verbally abusive father who I have mostly cut contact with, and my sibling continues to maintain more regular contact with him because his abusive behavior can be explained by *reasons-that-seem-sympathetic* and my sibling is very invested in the narrative of “but he’s our dad and he’s trying and this is the best he can do, so we should make it okay.” You know what? My sibling is absolutely right that my father is, to the best of his abilities with the extremely limited emotional resources that he has, trying to be better. But “better” is still emotionally manipulative and verbally abusive, and the fact that my abuser is “trying really hard” not to abuse me does NOT mean I have to stick around for further (but less bad than before!) abuse. My father could choose to seek therapy to work on his abusive behaviors. He could choose not to let terrible things fly out of his mouth. He could choose to figure out how to regulate his emotions without hurting other people. Those would be difficult choices for him because *reasons*, but they are choices that are available to him that he is not taking, because crying about how hard he’s trying and how much he misses me, and then snapping right back into abusive patterns when I give him a chance is easier for him.

    By way of an analogy – My friend’s three year old son really, really wants to fly the airplane when they travel. He’s of course in no way qualified, because, well, he’s three, but if we use my sibling’s logic for excusing my father’s abuse (“he’s trying really, really hard, and he really, really wants a relationship with us!”) we should let my friend’s three year old fly airplanes, because he really, really wants to and he’s willing to try really, really hard and do his absolute best to pilot. Would you get on that aircraft? Would you blame anyone else for refusing to get on that three-year-old-piloted aircraft? It is 100% okay to tell the three year old they can’t fly the plane. Even if they really, really want to fly the plane. Even if flying the plane would make them really, really happy. Even if it’s theoretically possible for the three-year-old to fly the plane with lots and lots and lots of work on your part (and an inherent, not-small risk that no matter how much work you put in, the plane will still go down in flames). Even if they’re going to be really, really sad and alone and will tantrum and lash out at you if you don’t let them fly the plane. What I’m saying is, never lose sight of the fact that you don’t need to let the three-year-old fly the plane, and you’re not bad people or bad family members if you don’t.

    • caryatid said:

      +1 for the plane analogy!!

  65. emdashing said:

    Hi LW, there are a lot of people posting a lot of great things (and the Captain’s advice is golden) and I haven’t had a chance to read them all, but I wanted to chime in as another grandchild of a difficult grandparent with an emphasis on the fact that navigating these waters won’t stop until the grandparent in question dies and/or you cut off contact. You know that, I’m sure, but I just want to really really draw a line under that.

    Story time: My mother’s widowed father remarried a woman who was the only “grandmother” I got to know. Until I was about 10, I adored her and my grandfather. Around the time I hit puberty two things happened at once: 1) I became more aware of other people, as one does: I started to noticed that no one else in my family spent much time with them, that my grandmother never gave presents to my older male cousins (I’m an only child) for any occasion and often talked about them being “bad.” I also started to pick up on my parents’ dislike of her, which they’d done a truly admirable job shielding me from. 2) She started being mean to me too.

    It’s #2 that I want you to be on the look out for. Adult me understands that this woman liked small (girl) children and enjoyed the feeling of “being a grandma” and treating me like a dress up doll. As I aged out of being cute, and aged into having opinions, it was amazing how quickly she started to treat me the same horrible way she treated everyone else.

    My parents didn’t really anticipate this, or take heed of some things that I now realize were warning signs. I understand why they didn’t, especially my Mom, who adored her father and to this day pretends stuff with his wife happened in a vacuum that had no implications on him. She was genuinely thrilled I got to have a relationship with him and I mostly am too, though the ramifications of this “preference” my grandparents had is something my cousins and I are still navigating as adults (built up a lot of resentment). But, when I was 12, I went on a solo-trip over Spring Break to visit the grandparents in Florida. Like so many of the stories here, the trip ended badly.

    At dinner half way through the trip, they asked about school. I was excited because I was the only student in my grade who was tapped to work on the school’s literary magazine. Grandma asked a bunch of questions about this and at first I thought it was the usual grandma-attentiveness. I explained that people submitted poems and stories and the committee of faculty-nominated students voted on what should be included. She became INCENSED at the idea that “art was being judged” and began yelling at me. It gets a little blurry, but I’m pretty sure she called me a fascist at one point for having the audacity to suggest that some poems might be better than other poems. I started to cry, she kept yelling, and then I hid in the bathroom.

    My grandfather sat there in silence while she berated me and made no attempt to talk to me after I ran away.

    Eventually, “Grandma” called my mother and told her I wouldn’t come out of the bathroom. I don’t really remember the rest of the trip, but I refused from that day on to ever be alone with the two of them again. My parents respected that and in general I think they handled this the best way they could while still keeping me in touch with my grandfather. Even supervised, there are still half a dozen or so other stories I could tell about horrible things she did, and–I want to repeat–she liked me BEST. She was worse to my cousins.

    My Grandfather has been dead for over 10 years now and after a painful tapering, I no longer have any relationship with this woman at all. (I finally cut it off entirely by ending a semi-annual card exchange after my cousin had what should have been “Grandma’s” first great grandchild and she refused to acknowledge his birth on account of my 35-year-old cousin still being “bad” in some unfathomable fashion.)

    TL;DR: If the Captain’s advice works, and you are able to help your MIL establish a relationship with your children that seems healthy, I just want to emphasize: she is still an abuser. Be careful and aware, always, no matter how reformed she may seem, check in with your kids about her behavior and their feelings about her, especially if you do decide to leave them alone with her even for short periods of time (would not recommend).

  66. notcryingonsundays said:

    I am wondering about how to navigate this with both sets of grandparents when my wife and I have kids.

    My parents: Middle-class, educated people who care a lot about social status, reputation, and kids doing outwardly well. Good establishment liberals who are outwardly good parents, but there’s a lot of silence and judgment even now. Some racism (e.g. believing that Garner deserved to be shot because he maybe did an illegal thing/stole a thing). Emotional abuse of me as well as maybe some minor physical (shoving during one or two arguments, plus mom forcing me to go to the gym and work out no matter how tired I was and giving enough food to keep me functioning, but not full, because I was fat). Lots of yelling and out-of-proportion punishment for even a B or B+ grade. However, really great with little kids. My cousin’s oldest is in preschool and mom babysits. Just loves teaching him and reading to him, is very kind (she was a teacher herself). She was good to me up until about 8 or 9 when the school started giving letter grades, too. It’s only when the kids get to when grades/weight/appearance matter that my parents really start sucking. But I can’t exactly allow a relationship when young but not later, right?

    Wife’s parents: Working-class, less educated people (a few did go to some college but my wife is the only one to finish). Politically conservative to a huge degree with the only exception being gayness because “well, my daughter/sister is marrying another woman, I guess it’s different when it’s her.” Gun owners, use a combo safe but also sometimes carry. Their house is rather dirty (not Hoarders level, but no one really vacuums or dusts, and it’s cluttered- triggers my allergies and could hurt a kid with such problems). But, generally really kind and loving. Will give their relative the last of the food/what have you over themselves, often say “I love you,” and are really patient with small kids. However, also spank, which we disagree with on the ground that it’s strongly correlated with negative outcomes for children.

    I don’t really want no contact with my wife’s family because I have felt so much love from them, and my parents’ behavior is improving as well (no direct criticism of either of us, no overt fatshaming other than to ask when I see them “Are you still going to the gym?). It’s tough to know.

    • oregonbird said:

      Racism and put-downs can be explained to children, and you can protect them by being within earshot; I’m not sure how I could explain to my remaining children that yes, I knew grandpa’s guns were easy to access, but the spanking wasn’t that bad. Love doesn’t stop bullets, and when it doesn’t stop a blow, it isn’t love, it’s just being nice until nice doesn’t offer enough control.

    • Philia said:

      As a grandchild who had a difficult grandmother, here are my two cents:

      Your parents: Lay down boundaries for how your parents are allowed to interact with your kids, and enforce those boundaries. “No, mom, you can’t tell Jane she’s fat. If you say such things we’re not bringing her to visit anymore.”

      Wife’s parents: the guns are my main concern, because of the physical danger they pose. Wife should talk to them before you bring the kids for a visit. Tell them that you are both concerned for your kids’ safety and want all the guns locked away while the kids are there, and you don’t feel comfortable having the kids over there if anyone is carrying. Again, lay down boundaries and enforce, enforce, enforce. Same deal with hygiene and allergens and spanking.

      You may find that it’s necessary to supervise grandparent visits. It’s your kids, and the grandparents should be allowed alone with the kids only if they have earned your trust that the kids will be safe and well-treated in their care.

      Generally, be honest with your kids about how their grandparents will behave. Warning them about potential bad grandparent behaviour before it happens will help prepare them for when it happens. The important thing is for the kids to realise that it’s not their fault if grandma starts going beserk about letter grades or body weight etc. Or that just because grandpa has an opinion about something doesn’t mean it’s right. Teach them what to say and how to respond if they see grandparent weirdness happening during a visit.

      All of this is very general and may not apply to you. In family matters, YMMV. And you won’t really know what the dynamic will look like until you do have kids.

    • Mary said:

      Hey, they are *your* kids. (I mean, obviously they aren’t, because they don’t exist yet, but if you have kids, they will be your kids!) You don’t have to accept either your parents’ or your in-laws’ ideas of discipline.

      Firstly, yes you *can* have your parents have a relationship with your kids when they are small, and end that relationship when the kids are older if you think it’s a bad thing. That is totally a thing you can do! I think it’s quite unlikely that you’ll have to, though. If your parents build a relationship with your kids when they are small, then it’s reasonably likely that by the time they get to what you see as the “danger age”, you’ll have established a basis of respect and modelled warm, non-judgmental parenting and they’ll never start the academic-shaming, fat-shaming and other stuff that was damaging for you. But if they do, if you are aware of it now, I think it is *overwhelmingly* likely that by then you’ll have the confidence and ability to say, “Hey, we don’t shame the kids for their school grades. Cut it out.” Similarly, you get to say to your in-laws, “Baby-sitting? Aw, thanks, that would be amazing! One thing though: we don’t spank the kids, and we’re not happy with you spanking them. That OK?” And if it’s not, “Oh well, thank you so much for the offer, but never mind!”

      Two things make a big difference: firstly, your kids will always be more influenced by your values and what you model than by their grandparents. Grandparents just don’t get into our psyche the way parents do. Even if your parents do do the academic/fat-shaming thing, you can counter it and even quite young children can learn, “Yes, Grandma thinks that grades are more important than whether someone is a kind, helpful person and a great friend and a fast runner and tries hard. Isn’t Grandma a silly-billy!” Secondly, most non-abusive grandparents do quite quickly get used to the idea that they are “looking after” their grandchildren, not parenting them, and that they fall in line with the children’s parents’ ideas about discipline. Obviously that’s not 100% foolproof, and it’s probably a harder one to negotiate with more nebulous things you don’t like rather than clear-cut ones like “no hitting”. But it doesn’t follow that just because your p-i-l believe in spanking, they will spank your kids too.

      Both my parents and my parents-in-law used corporal punishment with my partner and me, but we are quite happy to say to them that if they ever spank or hit our daughter in any way, they won’t see her again unsupervised. To be honest, though, I doubt we’ll ever have to: I think they’ll see from the type of parenting they see us do that physical discipline is not required, and also, they will just never reach the levels of frustration that led them to think that smacking was OK. They’ll give the grandchildren back long before they get to the stage of needing to hit them, which is absolutely fine with us!

  67. Charybdea said:

    Just want to, unrelatedly, give everyone a thank you. Given some of the stuff that’s gone down in my family, I long ago decided I didn’t want to foster a relationship between my parents and any future children; Spouse’s parents are…yeah. I didn’t think people could be that bad. I wasn’t sure it was physically possible.

    I spent a lot of time with both sets of grandparents when I was young — my maternal grandmother was like a third parent to me, but one who always loved me for me no matter what — and I’ve really deeply grieved knowing that our own kids will never get to have those relationships. And all this has made it easier for me, in this corner of the world, to remember: We’re making the right call.

    So yeah. Thanks.

  68. Philia said:

    Another grandchild perspective to share here. I won’t go into details about my grandma’s psychopathic behaviour, but suffice to say that contact with her was rare, brief, superficial and ALWAYS closely monitored by my mom. My mom was also completely upfront with me about grandma’s abusiveness, so I was never made to feel like I HAD to love her.

    Here’s my advice to LW:

    ** A healthy, loving relationship with grandma would be wonderful for your kids – but it’s also optional. What is NOT optional, is protecting them from abuse. Think long and hard about exposing your children to your MIL.

    ** Your husband must work on his relationship with his mother, and his own emotional issues surrounding that, first without you and the kids. I’m not keen on your husband visiting with the kids, but without you.

    Yes, MIL seems nicer to the kids. But that itself can be problematic.

    The process of rebuilding relationships should happen between the adults before the kids come into the picture again, otherwise there is the risk of (subconsciously) placing on them the burden of becoming the emotional buffer between their dad and their grandma – especially if YOU are not around. This is especially true if your kids have ever in the past seen you acting as an emotional buffer between them, or as emotional support for your husband after a run-in with her. With your absence, your kids may try to model your past behaviour, thinking they have step into the breach because “mom is not here to do it”. These things can happen very subtly.

    Do not let this happen.

    ** If your husband and kid(s) are going anywhere near MIL, your husband MUST commit to protect your kid(s) from MIL. Unfortunately in my family, my dad (grandma’s son) and his siblings enabled my grandma’s emotional abuse. Dad did not back my mom up when grandma went batshit. He did not try to keep us away from her. He should have. When my dad died, my mom drastically reduced contact with her in-laws, so I was saved from too much exposure to them.

    If your husband is going for a visit with the kid(s), without you, first establish some ground rules: no leaving the kid(s) alone with her; taking a firm stand and speaking up if she says something unacceptable in front of / to the kid(s); keeping their interactions with her minimal.

    This part is absolutely crucial. If your husband is not emotionally up to the task, the kid(s) stay home.

    ** If you’re going to expose your kids to your MIL, please be upfront with them about her behaviour BEFORE the visit. As long as you don’t 100% trust her, neither should they. Do not let them near grandma without the tools to recognise and respond to her episodes. There is a huge difference between shielding your kids from danger, and hiding that danger from them.

    My mom gave me the low-down on grandma before I was exposed to her, so when I saw it, I was well-prepared and unfazed. I was young (grade school age) and always received treats and presents from my grandma. Even so, I still understood that she had it in her to be crazy-evil. I accepted her gifts and was always polite to her but I was taught never to trust her, so I didn’t. That is the way it had to be, and it protected me.

    ** Tell your kids explicitly that you will back them up if she says / does anything hurtful. They need to know that their well-being – not grandma, not dad’s feelings, not social courtesy – is the number 1 priority. I always knew my mom had my back because she said she would and she always followed through.

    Personally, I think there’s nothing wrong with having rare, brief, superficial and supervised interactions with one’s grandparents. I did have other loving relationships with other grandparents, so I understand the appeal. But the first priority should be protecting the kids from abusive behaviour. Everything else comes second.

  69. Nope Octopus said:

    Yet another grandchild here and I am definitely not unbiased but…I would say no.

    Despite the fact that the two of us were extremely close when I was growing up and she was outwardly a loving, caring, pretty damn good grandparent I am still finding neuroses and self-doubts, inadequacies and feelings of being a terrible person who deserves terrible things from life that are there because of her, and her influence.

    I would say that, “I’m sorry, but I just can’t deal with your mom, and further, I do not want to deal with your mom. If you want to reconcile, you have to do it on your own.”

    And because he is a grownup, he will either choose to reconcile without you or to let her fade from your life.

  70. Andraste said:

    Hi LW! I can’t speak as a parent because I am one yet, but I am the grandchild of an abusive parent. My mom’s father was emotionally and verbally abusive growing up–he was distant, only did the bare minimum as a parent, reinforced to her frequently how she wasn’t good enough, and treated her mother (who he divorced when my mom was young) very badly. My mom has maintained a relationship with him throughout her life. While she’s been great at boundaries and establishing the relationship on her terms, my grandfather never “got better.” He would still say hurtful things, still not be supportive when we experienced a family crisis (house fire). Sometimes we would make plans to meet him, and he wouldn’t show up. As soon as I was old enough to know what’s going on (about 12/13), I resented him for how he treated her. I don’t respect him and I don’t love him–there’s no connection there. Any time I visit him, I’m there as mutual support for my mom. He’s old now and in poor health, so when we see him these days he’s not all there, to put it gently. He’s passed the age that he would truly be able to apologize. It’s very sad.

    My support and love in this situation goes to my mom, not my grandfather. Your kids will likely be the same–they will want to support you and your husband, and can take your lead. My mom has so much compassion towards her father even after all this bullshit, and it’s remarkable. I respect it, even if I don’t feel it. And I love her, so I try on her terms. I go see him with her even though it makes me very anxious and the feelings it brings up are negative. I genuinely feel my grandfather has added nothing good to my life. He hasn’t fucked me up but he hasn’t added anything–it’s a net nothing, not positive or negative really. If my mom had not chosen to continue the relationship with him, I wouldn’t be missing anything. I guess the best advice I can give is to not expect MIL to change her abusive ways, and for you and your husband not to be able to hide the history of abuse. It might take your kids awhile to pick up on it, but they will eventually, and they will have their own opinions about it. If you go in with wide eyes not expecting sunshine and rainbows a relationship might be possible, but grandkids won’t fix it. The abusive tendencies will still exist.

  71. Sara Hendricks said:

    Original letter writer here. Thank you so much to CA and the people who commented. I’ve been sneaking time here and there all day to read all the comments. I can’t express my appreciation enough for everyone sharing advice and personal stories. Thank you so much. I’ll keep reading!

  72. Isotope said:

    I think I really needed this post. I cut off contact with my mother several years ago, including not inviting her to my wedding, because of her shitty and abusive behavior. I got comments from lots of people, including my dad, who thought I should invite her because “she’s your mother.” I’ve wondered for the last couple years how to handle that relationship once we had kids.

    So, it’s really good to hear comments from people who were the grandkids in that situation. Thank you all for that perspective and the emotional strength to feel like I’m still making the right decision to not pursue that relationship.

  73. Wish I Had A Tardis said:

    My mom is like your husband’s mom, only mine sees a therapist — and tells the therapist lies about how awful we treat her. For the last 25 years, I am the only child of all her children who will have anything to do with her. She has 11 (eleven!) siblings and only 1 is in her life and another keeps in touch via distance only (brief letters to her that don’t really give her details of his life while he ignores the rants in her 12-page long letters).

    My aunt and I remain in my mom’s life out of a sense of duty. And I have let my children into her life carefully for short, monitored visits. I even did the things listed above — ending phone calls as soon as she got belligerent (which was usually within seconds), staying at a hotel for visits and NOT TELLING HER WHICH HOTEL, not seeing her for longer and longer periods (even 2 years) if she didn’t back off on the abuse. But I still regret having kept contact.

    I thought I was showing my kids that family takes care of one another and even guiding them to take care of my spouse and I one day if we become hard to deal with in our old age. But my spouse dropped out of helping 10 years ago and won’t even visit her with me, which is completely understandable. My mom has had brief periods of getting better, then as soon as we let our guard down it gets so much worse. It’s to the point I can’t do it anymore.

    Here’s the problem: The kids already have a relationship with her. She’s much nicer to them and I’ve shielded them from so much of the background story. If we cut off all contact forever, I’m afraid we’d be showing them that’s what you do when you’re sick of your parents. They never experienced the extreme abuse I did, and I’ve shielded them from her phone rants and have kept many of her bizarre and nasty letters from getting into their hands. My siblings told their own kids that grandma died a long time ago. She’s never been in their lives and doesn’t have any contact info for them. She’s never met their spouses. I wish I had done the same thing.

    I’ve spent so much time, energy and money looking after her, and in return I’ve been used, mistreated and badmouthed to everyone under the sun. She even sent pictures of my kids and me to a bunch of ministers with false accusations of mistreatment and had them mention us to their congregations in order to “pray” for us to find God and blah blah blah. Mom didn’t do that to my siblings. Her abuse is directed at the only people who are still in her life. I now think she deserves to be alone.

    • caraway said:

      I don’t have experience with this. But can you stop shielding your kids, or reduce it? How old are they now? I don’t think it’s unfair at all to start to be more open with them as they get older.

      I think it’s only fair to your kids, actually. As they get older they’re going to see things, unless your mother has unusual control of her impulses. Maybe not directed at them, maybe at other people. They deserve to have enough context so that they are able to trust their sight. Not start a process of making excuses and looking past. You don’t have to tell them the details of what happened in the past, but they ought to know the outlines of what they happen on the future, I’d think.

    • I’m so sorry that your mom has put you and your kids in this situation.

      “If we cut off all contact forever, I’m afraid we’d be showing them that’s what you do when you’re sick of your parents.”

      If the words of an internet stranger matter, I don’t think this should worry you at all. What you’ve been modeling for your kids for years, it seems, is how to manage boundaries and protect the most vulnerable (children). I think this is a very loving lesson, and your kids will grow up into compassionate adults, whatever you ultimately decide about contact with your mom.

      • I totally agree. Kids tend to have strong attachments with their parents. They don’t estrange themselves unless they have a good reason to do so, typically. Yes, your kids will get pissed off at you. We’ve all heard little kids threatening to run away from home and teenagers threatening to move out. Actually cutting them off, though, tends to take extreme provocation. I’ve wished for years that I didn’t have to have my toxic mother in my life but I’ve never had the courage to cut her out.

    • Temperance said:

      My mom has a personality disorder, and acts like yours in so many ways. Right down to manipulating therapists and having no relationships that last with other people.My extended family rallies behind her because well, they aren’t her targets, so it’s fine for them. I love seeing that they’re getting her shitty treatment now that I’ve backed down. You don’t need to be anyone’s punching bag.

      Being “nicer” than abusive isn’t exactly a high standard, you know. The pattern that you’re setting up now is not one of filial duty, but one where you let elders treat the younger generation however they darn well please, because age. Hopefully you will not treat people as your mother treated you when you are older.

  74. WherearemyKrakens said:

    “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.”

    I was the adoring grandchild of a violent alcoholic. BUT this was because I did not know he was an alcoholic. My mother gave the ultimatum that her father would not see me until he stopped drinking for good. It took him several years. I think I was four when I was first allowed to meet him. I don’t think my siblings, cousins, or myself were allowed alone with him for many years after (I was in my early teens).

    My mom can’t really forgive him for all of his abuse in the past. However, he finally, finally made a change when she put her foot down. To me, he was always the fun grandpa who would take his grandchildren out for ice-creams on a whim. (He sent birthday cards with money! He took us for drives in his convertible! He let us drive his boat!) It is really unfair. But it is so much better than the alternative. My paternal grandmother spits poison, but my father never stood up to her (on his own account, or for his wife, or for his children).

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