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Heavy Meddle: Help! My Mother-In-Law Acts Like A Teenager!

She’s great with her grandkids, but kind of a mess. How do we deal with her? (Luisa Rusche/ Unsplash)MoreCloseclosemore
She’s great with her grandkids, but kind of a mess. How do we deal with her? (Luisa Rusche/ Unsplash)

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Dear Steve,

My mother-in-law is a really wonderful woman, but she often acts like a teenager. She will call us in tears one day saying she needs to stay with us because she is breaking up with her boyfriend. Then three days later everything is fine, and she and the boyfriend decide to make a huge financial commitment together.

She is often very impulsive and does not think through the consequences of her actions. She is wonderful with our children, but it can difficult to rely on her for childcare, as she tends to mix up dates or change her plans to better suit her needs.

I love her and want her to be a large presence in the kids' lives, but I don't know how to make that happen without going crazy myself.

The issue is that she wants to be very enmeshed in our lives. She loves her grandchildren and us very much and would ideally come visit us whenever she pleases. However, because she is somewhat erratic, her visits and her needs can be very disruptive. I love her and want her to be a large presence in the kids' lives, but I don't know how to make that happen without going crazy myself.

How should I handle my teenage mother-in-law?

Frazzled Daughter-in-Law

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Dear Frazzled,

So there’s lots of good news here. First and foremost, that you’re mother-in-law (MIL) loves you and your kids, and is “wonderful” with them. Second, that she wants to be involved with the family. Third, that you want her to be a large presence in your children's lives.

But there’s a challenge embedded in this good news: how to welcome your MIL’s involvement without inviting her chaos. The secret here is the same one you surely apply to your children: love and limits. Limits can be hard to establish, especially with people who are manic and somewhat self-involved. They have a way of reeling people into their drama, of setting the agenda based on their urgent whims.

You can’t let that happen. Because you’ve got your own chaos to manage, in the form of your children. So you have to set up clear boundaries: around visits, around babysitting and around how much you’re willing to get sucked into her dramas. None of this needs to be unfriendly. In fact, it’s really just business.

If she wants to visit, you need advance warning, and a firm sense of how long she plans to stay. How much advance warning? This is something for you and your husband to decide on together. This effort to enforce boundaries has to be a united front. Otherwise, your mother-in-law may wind up causing tensions in your marriage.

So you have to set up clear boundaries: around visits, around babysitting and around how much you’re willing to get sucked into her dramas.

The same approach has to prevail when it comes to babysitting. You welcome her looking after the kids, but she has to be firm in her commitment. No switching dates or times to suit her needs. Period.

Your MIL — who again, you identify as behaving a lot like a teenager — may try to test these boundaries. This is the hard part. You may have to say no to her: no to an open-ended visit, no to a babysitting offer in which she changes plans, no to her drama. She needs to be made to understand that playing a role in the lives of her grandchildren comes with certain basic responsibilities, not just to the kids, but also to you, the parents.

In the end, you’re not trying to keep your MIL out of your life. You’re just trying to keep her drama --her self-involvement, her unpredictability — out of your life. I’d sit down and discuss all this with your husband, so you two are on the same page. Also, he knows his mother better than anyone. He might have good ideas as to how to set up these boundaries while also conveying your love and respect.

Good luck!

Steve

Author's note: The tough thing about this letter is that there may have to be some bad outcomes before the MIL gets the message. That’s been the toughest aspect of parenting for me: the realization that you can do the right thing and wind up with a furious and/or bereft child. Here’s to hoping this MIL is more reasonable than my children. And what about your MILs? Or maybe you are a MIL? Post your feedback, and/or counsel, in the comments section below. Send along a letter to Heavy Meddle, if you haven’t. You can use this form, or send your questions via email. — S.A.

Heavy Meddle with Steve Almond is Cognoscenti's advice column. Read more here.

Steve Almond Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Steve Almond is the author of 11 books of fiction and nonfiction. He writes Cog's advice column, #HeavyMeddle, and is the co-host of Dear Sugar Radio.

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