I had a kid about two years ago, and as a result have developed a much closer relationship to my mother-in-law. (I’ve been married to her son for eleven years now.) In many ways, this is great! She is a smart, serious, get-shit-done kind of person who was the first woman to do some cool civic stuff in her home city, and I have a lot of respect for her along multiple vectors. But. She is so goddamn judgmental. This has lately been directed at “Relena,” my soon-to-be-sister-in-law, who has some health issues and isn’t super skinny, as my MIL and I both are.
While staying in my home for the past week, MIL has suggested that maybe Relena’s constellation of health issues are because of her weight, that she can’t adequately manage her own diet (by which I mean what food she feeds herself, not a weight-loss plan), that exercise would fix her pain, and, most egregiously, that maybe she has made up her issues for attention because she resents the time her parents spend caring for her younger sister, who has Down syndrome. (I was so sincerely shocked by that one that it took me a moment to pull my thoughts together, and by the time I did my husband was already shooting it down with extreme prejudice.)(Captain Awkward note: WHAT. THE. HELL.)
My husband and I dispute these things point by point, as they happen, and often, in the moment, she’ll listen. When we say sentences like, “well, she’s had surgery for complications due to her rheumatoid arthritis, I think walking for long periods definitely hurts her” or “I think she naps so much because severe fatigue is one of her symptoms, not because she’s lazy” she seems to really hear what we’re saying–it’s like a lightbulb goes off, and you can kind of see her going “oh, of course.” But then Relena will do one thing my MIL doesn’t like (say, eat chicken nuggets instead of salad for lunch, or decline to go on an outing with us that involves lots of physical activity) and she’s got it backwards again: maybe Relena’s in pain because she doesn’t exercise? Maybe her health issues are caused by [trendy current thing that’s almost certainly already been explored by her and her doctor]? Some-long-sentence-that’s-basically-the-equivalent-of-but-is-Relena-trying-though? As if she could “try” her way out of an autoimmune condition she’s been battling since her mid-20s. MIL never says these things to Relena’s face, though I’m sure Relena’s aware of her disapproval. I think all of this is exacerbated by the fact that she doesn’t like it when her son “neglects” to exercise, or eats a diet that’s more frozen pizza than greens and salmon, or would rather play video games than take a nature walk, and she still kind of hoped that he would someday marry a woman who would inspire him to suddenly be the person she always wanted him to. But weirdly, instead he’s choosing to marry someone who likes him how he is and shares his interests???
Is there a better way we can shut this shit down? My MIL already knows that my husband and I don’t agree with her, and she’s taken to preceding her remarks with “not to be negative, but” or, after we’ve offered (a relatively gentle!!!) correction, “I wish people wouldn’t think I was that way, I don’t mean to be.” [With “that way” usually meaning judgmental or mean-spirited, WHICH WHAT SHE’S SAYING IS.] I’m very intimidated by my MIL, and our closer and more positive relationship is a relatively new and fragile thing, but the idea of building it on the blocks of criticizing Relena grosses me the fuck out. My husband usually handles her pretty well when he’s present, but when it’s just me I tend to disagree once and then ignore her until she stops. When it’s just she and I especially, there’s some weird forced teaming with the subtext of us as thin/active/socially acceptable, and Relena as not. I feel like I’m being too passive in Relena’s defense. I’d love it if anybody could rec some books on invisible and/or chronic illnesses written specifically at people like my MIL. I’d also like a script for “please stop talking to me about Relena’s body and health, the way you fixate on her choices and her physical appearance is unkind and what you say is usually untrue*, and BTW you make me trust you less with my son every time this happens, because someday he will also make choices and possibly own a body that you ain’t gonna like.”
(he/him, but my MIL definitely thinks I’m her increasingly butch daughter-in-law and that’s unlikely to change lol)
*once she suggested to Relena that she start a food diary and somehow that had never come up with her doctor and it turned out to be helpful and now anytime MIL has a concern trolly suggestion it’s back to, “well you never know, after all it’s a good thing I gave her the idea of a food diary.”
PS: My husband and I are already trying to change the culture of group hang-outs away from “long walk and a picnic in the arboretum” and more to “let’s see a movie” so it’s not just always Relena having to opt out.
Hi there, Zechs,
Rheumatoid arthritis is no joke! Does your Mother-In-Law just not get what a debilitating illness that can be? I mean, clearly not. But…no joke! Ow!
I think you and your spouse have done all the point-by-point refuting of your MIL’s concern-trolling about Relena’s body and health that you ever need to do and it’s time now to switch to a) pointing out how weird it is that she keep talking about Relena’s body at all b) mantras & platitudes that acknowledge what she said but don’t give it more attention or traction.
Like, “Isn’t it weird that we always end up talking about Relena and her body? I don’t know about you, but I feel creepy doing that. Let’s change the subject!”
Or your script: “Please stop talking to me about Relena’s body and health, the way you fixate on her choices and her physical appearance is unkind and what you say is usually untrue.”
The script that will simultaneously address her gross behavior AND the grandkid trust thing:
- “We’re trying to teach [small child] that we only say kind things about people’s bodies, so I’m having to rethink a lot of what I say. It’s hard to break old habits, but let’s practice!”
- :Shrug: “Relena is the boss of Relena, so, I don’t have any comment about that.” + a subject change
- “I’m sure Relena knows what’s best for Relena, it’s not really my business.” + a subject change
- “You know, when I was new to the family I worried about ever fitting in, but look at us know, gossiping away! You and Relena will figure it out.”
- “When you and Relena get together do you talk about me like this? Awkward! Let’s not!”
- “I’m not Relena or her doctor, so, who cares what I think?” + a subject change
- “I don’t want to fix Relena, I just want to get to know her. I’m sure if she wants more help from us she can ask for it.”
- “Relena’s the expert on Relena.”
- “I’m happy to adjust plans so that Relena can join us more easily! I’ll still go for walks with you when we visit.”
- “We’ve gotten this weird habit of discussing Relena and her body when she’s not around- can we not do that? It makes me so uncomfortable. Let’s change the subject!”
- “MIL, why are you so obsessed with Relena and her body? It’s so weird that we keep talking about this!”
- “If you want a good relationship with Relena, I think you’re gonna just have to let this go.”
- “MIL! What will it take to get you to let this go?”
- Best done in coordination with your spouse, try both saying “Nope!” and then physically cover your ears and walk away when she starts talking about it, especially the “Not to be negative, but…” stuff. “La la la you’re being weird about Relena again I’m not listening”
- In answer to “I wish people didn’t think of me that way, I don’t want to be that way” try “Then stop being that way! Let’s talk about anything else!”
Like, shut it all down muuuuuuuuuch quicker now. I think you and your spouse did good work by trying to educate her and refute her misconceptions on the merits, but that also meant that the family as a whole indulged Relena’s Body as a topic of conversation for too long. Remove this indulgence right quick, and when your MIL huffily says “I’m ONLY trying to HELP!” say “Sure! But it makes me uncomfortable to talk about people’s bodies like that. It makes me feel like I’m back in junior high, when I’d much rather know what cool stuff you’re working on or catch up on what books you’re reading. From what I’ve seen of Relena I think she’s just wonderful, and I really don’t like talking about her when she’s not around.”
Be ready with your Three Safe Topics For Engaging Difficult People You See A Lot. You’ve got golden ones – the grandkid & how the grandkid differs or compares to what your spouse was like at that age can keep everybody going for a while – and make those subject changes stick. If she won’t take the sweet gift of the subject change from you, cut the conversation short and be elsewhere: Time for a nap, a milk run, a wee, + whatever survival and avoidance strategies you used for the first 11 years of hanging with this woman. Maybe even time to lose your temper, selectively, if she won’t let it drop, like, “MIL! What is your obsession with this topic? It’s gross!” (Maybe she should be intimidated by you for a change?)
Your relationship with your MIL got closer when you had a child. This happens a lot in families, and it must feel good to be able to relax there a little bit. But let’s not forget: a) There’s a reason y’all didn’t bond before, and I don’t think the problem was you b) You have something she wants now (access to the grandkid) that you didn’t have before. Get ready for a temporarily chill in your relationship with your MIL if you set boundaries or won’t indulge her fixation on Relena & her body. It’s okay. You survived “chilly” before, and this is not about you auditioning for her approval or acceptance into the family. She has choices about how she treats people, and if she has anxieties about her son’s upcoming marriage she can also tell a friend, her pastor, her therapist, her diary, her subReddit, etc. It doesn’t have to be you. If there are consequences to her weird behavior, like you wanting to be around her less, that might mean that her grandkid will be around less. She’ll figure that out and thaw accordingly.
Interestingly, the relationship also got closer when there was an “outsider” to pick on. Like if MIL plays her cards right she can complain to you about Relena’s body and simultaneously complain to Relena about your unwillingness to model traditional femininity and play the two of you off each other for decades! Remember that by policing Relena’s body, she’s also policing you by reminding you of what her disapproval looks like. You do not have to play this game. In your shoes I’d be making friends with Relena and making sure that this divide-and-conquer strategy can never, ever work on the two of you.
I don’t have book recommendationss of exactly what you’re looking for but this short guide for families of people with invisible illnesses covers a lot of bases. I know one thing that comes up a lot in discussions is that people in the disabled or chronically ill person’s life have to get used to the idea that Now is the New Normal, as in:
- Yes, I will probably always have to take some kind of medication..
- Yes, this is as fast as I can comfortably walk now…
- Yes, I can sometimes do x activity but I will pay for it later with y so sometimes I don’t want to even if I technically can and sometimes I will push myself even though it’s a bad idea (and I am the only boss of when that is)…
- Thanks for planning all these cool activities for us. I can probably do about 30% of them, so, which are the ones that are most important & meaningful to you so I can make sure to do those?
- Yes, this was actually a pretty good day for someone with my condition…
- Yes, sometimes I have bad days, it’s just a bad day, not the end of the world…
- Yes there is a whole buncha motivational literature out there about “pushing past one’s limits!” but I do better when I respect my limits…
- Yes they are doing new studies all the time but that does’t mean that I want my relatives to keep Googling Random Shit For A Cure, there is no actual prize for compiling the most Reader’s Digest clippings…
- Yes I need help sometimes but I’d rather be the boss of that and be the one to ask…
- Hey did you know that thin people also get diagnosed with XYZ condition and eat “junk” food sometimes…
- Hey not every meal I eat has to be optimized for MAXIMUM HEALTH (or whatever we’ve decided that looks like this month) sometimes I just need some calories in me so I don’t collapse…
- Also I don’t give a shit about your random health problems why are you telling me this can’t we just talk about TV and books…
- Also please don’t tell your Facebook friends about my diagnoses, that’s my info to disclose or not…
- Also, that’s why I have doctors, so I don’t have to get my medical care from your Facebook friend’s cousin’s coworker who saw Ferris at 31 Flavors last night…
- I’m just sick, why do I gotta be inspiring, too?
- Can we talk about literally anything else.
- Yoga: I’ve heard of it, thanks.
- Only tall bar-stool chairs or narrow booths mean I probably can’t go there, so, scout for low, comfortable chairs, preferably without arms, please?
- You know what would be cool? If I could count on health care being available and affordable for me, so instead of sending me 10,000 juice fasts and yoga positions please work on that? Thanks!
- Hey my life is just gonna be LIKE this for the forseeable future and I’m not doing it AT you or ABOUT YOU and it isn’t a PUNISHMENT for not living perfectly up until now and yes the same thing could happen to you and that’s scary but that’s also not my problem so please go work out your feelings somewhere else and come back when you’re ready to just hang out with me…
You know, stuff like that. Translated for your MIL, “Relena is the boss of Relena, she already has a mom and friends and doctors and I’m sure she’ll let you know if she wants help. If you want a good relationship with her you’re really, really gonna have to just cool it with the body talk and let her take the lead.”
Readers, any good books or sites for family of people with chronic illness you’d recommend?