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Heavy Meddle: Help! My In-Laws Are Pack 'N Crazy!

Dear Steve,

Back in January my in-laws were caring for our infant son in our home when they noticed the almighty pack 'n play was different than the one we had received from my sister-in-law at my baby shower. We explained that my sister, who had a newer infant, was using it, while we were using my sister’s brand new one, cheaper and with fewer features, but perfectly fine for our son.

For some reason, my in-laws were incensed by this and claimed we had no right to trade the item when it was intended for our son. Suddenly, they also felt the item was “unsafe” and even suggested --- in the heat of their tirade — that it reflected upon our inability to parent.

After a few threatening letters and several demands that the playpen be returned, my husband made it clear to them that the pens would stay where they were. All communication ceased for about three months.

While my husband has resumed some semblance of a relationship with them, I feel their behavior and accusations went beyond the bounds of forgivable actions. I wonder how to move forward as they are living in this state and do want to see their son and grandson.

What is a daughter-in-law to do?

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Please advise.
Drained by Drama

Dear Drained,

Oy.

Okay, let’s start with the basics. Unless your account is incredibly unreliable, your in-laws are, in fact, acting crazy. The purpose of giving a gift (particularly a baby gift) is to make the lives of the parents easier. Period. If you guys don’t need a fancier crib, and your sister does, it’s your right to make the trade. If you owe anyone a polite explanation, it’s your sister-in-law.

Unfortunately, the gift-and-trade is no longer the issue. The issue is how to deal with in-laws who are deeply invested in this mindless feud. And there’s a lot at stake, as you note. Because it’s no longer just about you and them. It’s about their role as grandparents. And your own mental health as a mother. After all, it’s not good for anyone (least of all your little one) to have mom and his grandparents feuding. So you need to find some way to let go of your anger.

At the same time, my advice-columnist bunion is telling me that there’s something deeper going on with you and your in-laws. Donnybrooks like this don’t just arise from barren soil. They have deeper, sometimes undetected roots. The person who’s in the best position to gauge those is probably your husband. He knows his parents better than you. And he has probably learned to accept by now that they are basically loving people who occasionally go nuts over petty crap.

My advice-columnist bunion is telling me that there’s something deeper going on with you and your in-laws. Donnybrooks like this don’t just arise from barren soil.

That’s the path you’re likely going to have to walk. And it’s probably going to require you to be a more patient, forgiving person than you should have to be. But that’s the price of doing business in a marriage. Crazy in-laws are not sold separately. They are a part of the kit.

As for specific strategies, I’d consult with your husband about which of your in-laws is most invested in this nonsense. Just as he’s been quicker to forgive, maybe one or the other might be more willing to make peace, and eventually help broker an all-inclusive pact. He’d probably have the best sense of what they need to hear in order to let go of all the hostility.

My gut is telling me that folks like this deal best with deference. So if you can find it within yourself to send them a note expressing your sadness at how far this fight has gone, and asking for it to end, that’s probably best. Don’t attempt to re-litigate the matter. The idea is to hold out an olive branch, not a talking stick.

But it may be that you’re sufficiently angry that you can’t honestly craft such an entreaty. And if that’s the case, then you might have to just be civil for a few weeks or months, avoid them as much as possible, and hope that calmer tempers prevail. Again, your husband has been fighting with his parents for decades — he’s the one who should be your guide.

Your third option (and worst in my view) is to simply let them know that their behavior is unacceptable and that you don’t feel comfortable having them in your home until they apologize. I can’t imagine that would go over well. But who knows? Maybe your in-laws are the sort of folks who really only shape up when called out.

The bottom line is that you’re in a very stressful time of your life, what with a baby in the house, and the last thing you need is a squabble over gift protocol. It’s just a huge time and energy suck. And it needs to end. If not between you and your in-laws, then at least within you.

Work on managing your own disappointment, recognizing that, while they may not be the in-laws of your dreams, they somehow managed to raise the man you love. So there’s good stuff in there.

The most important thing is for you to accept a difficult truth: your in-laws have disappointed you. They are not exactly who you thought they were. A great deal of trust and good will has been lost on both sides. You can’t snap your fingers and make that stuff go away. But you can work on managing your own disappointment, recognizing that, while they may not be the in-laws of your dreams, they somehow managed to raise the man you love. So there’s good stuff in there.

One other piece of advice, Drained: Before you even think about contacting your in-laws, you need to take a good hard look at the ways in which you and/or your husband might have contributed to this blowup. After all, you’re probably not going to be able to change how your in-laws think and behave at this stage in their lives. But you can alter your attitudes and behaviors so as to avoid conflicts down the line. You may have to recognize, for instance, that they’re irrationally fixated on gifts and gift protocol. Or that they go straight to anger when they feel they are being “defied.”

Keep your eye on the big picture here, not the little disputes. You want your son to have a good relationship with his paternal grandparents. You want to feel comfortable around them, and to have them feel comfortable in your home. Years from now, you want to be able to look at this episode as a learning experience, not an emotional divide.

Good luck,
Steve ♥

Editor's Note: Need advice? Steve "Heavy Meddle" Almond can help. Email us.

This program aired on July 17, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

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