Living Near Your In-Laws

Dear Sharon,

My mother-in-law is driving me crazy. Our son is 6 months old and since she lives down the block from us, my husband and I originally thought her proximity would be very helpful. However it hasn’t turned out that way. She seems to feel I do nothing right and she constantly criticizes me as well as my husband. She is making both of us feel really uptight. How can we handle this? I’m considering moving away, but selling our house right now is not such a practical idea. Can you suggest anything?

Dear Parents,

I am sorry to hear that you are faced with this rather common difficulty. Criticism is usually the last thing any Mom or Dad needs to hear as they sort through the complications of raising a little one today. The appearance of critical tones in a home can put a big strain on family life as a parent’s “uptightness” can lead to anger, self-doubt and frustration. These are usually not the emotions you want around a young child.

It is always sad for me to hear about emotional distance between generations when they have such precious gifts to offer each other. It is understandable considering the many changes that have happened in family life over the last 20 or 30 years. The old ideas of children “being seen and not heard” and “you do what I say and think because if you don’t……” are changing. Today children of all ages are expecting their parents to have fuller and more communicative relationships with them. This often affects our interactions with our children and our parents and can be challenging for many of us to think through.

Here are some perspectives and suggestions to keep in mind as you decide what to do. I am sorry to say that if your parents are not open to discussion then many of these suggestions might be hard to put in place quickly or easily.

Judgments and harsh comparisons can surface more frequently between generations when grandparents live close by and/or spend a lot of time in their children’s homes. It is also often a big stumbling block when the older generation has not been able to develop a full and rewarding life for themselves separate from their immediate families.

Some parents I know have thought of many ways to help their parents or in-laws develop a busy independent life. Some have even tried to thoughtfully explain that grandma or grandpa might be happier doing lots of different things rather than having all their activities be centered around their family.

When the older generations’ daily routines can’t be changed or outside activities are already in place and tensions are rising some parents have also set distinct limits on the frequency, times of day and length of visits that are appropriate for in-person and/or phone contact. They have also discouraged interactions that are spontaneous, such as “stopping by” without asking if it is OK first.

Some parents have also found it useful to visit in the grandparents’ home more while playing the role of host less. This can help reduce criticism about such things as the food eaten, the TV watched, the way a home is organized, etc. It also lets parents determine the time and duration of each visit.

When grandparents do come over, I suggest that parents get prepared rather than surprised and disappointed by the inevitable critiques. They might have food and activities available that grandparents enjoy and that help keep the mood light and respectful. This could also mean going for a walk, having company over (people are sometimes distracted and/or on their best behavior when company is around), doing an activity everyone enjoys, or being strict about keeping the discussion to noncontroversial topics.

Even though grandparents can think differently about childrearing, they often have some form of unconditional love and attention that is invaluable to children. In view of this it can also be helpful for Mom or Dad to make sure that grandparents have an independent relationship with their little ones. If grandparents feel less like observers and more directly involved it sometimes helps them remember how complicated young children can be and increases their respect and appreciation. Of course parents get to decide how often, where and if to leave their children alone with grandparents after thinking about their different strengths and weaknesses.

If the judgments are frequent and serious and parents are thinking about increasing the distance between family members then I usually suggest explaining the situation clearly to see if that can make a difference or if compromises become easier to arrange.

Conversations or actions that put these ideas in place are often not simple. They can require multiple discussions and usually involve a great deal of time and energy (two things that parents of young children do not have to spare). However difficult if may be, the child of the grandparent usually has the best chance of talking things through with their Mom or Dad. It is not necessarily easier for them to do but the primary relationship in an extended family is not with in-laws. Conversations with daughters-in-laws or son-in-laws although helpful should usually not be the primary ones to resolve these difficulties.

Unfortunately if grandparents are very set in their ways or unable to understand their child’s point of view then some of these ideas are difficult or nearly impossible to put into place, then of course radical steps like a move may have to happen.

Grandparents are one of the most wonderful parts of many children’s lives. I know plenty of grandparents who have worked through the challenges of this role with difficulty but success. Best of luck as you and your husband keep trying .