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Heavy Meddle: Help! My Nightmare Parents Are My Only Daycare Option

A divorced woman needs a babysitter for her two girls. Her parents are available, but they act like children themselves. (flickr)
A divorced woman needs a babysitter for her two girls. Her parents are available, but they act like children themselves. (flickr)
This article is more than 5 years old.

Welcome Meddleheads, to the column where your crazy meets my crazy! Please send your questions to email. Right now. Not only will you immediately feel much better, you’ll also get some advice.

Hugs,
Steve

Dear Steve,

I’m a divorced mother of two girls. I get no help (physically or financially) from my daughters’ father. I work 60-hour weeks and rely heavily on my parents for caregiving. My parents watch my daughters without question, and refuse payment. They love my girls very much.

The problem is that when I make parenting decisions, or have a parenting style, or make rules or discipline that they don't agree with, they typically ignore my directions or rules, even when I am present. Also, they have been known to berate me in front of my children, telling me why I am raising the girls incorrectly.

Having an adult conversation about this with them is impossible. My mother throws child-like temper tantrums when confronted with something that upsets her (going as far as throwing herself to the floor and actually thrashing), and then my father is so busy being mad at me for upsetting her that he can't seem to listen to reason. I can’t afford outside daycare currently. And even if I could, the last time I tried that, my mother routinely stopped at my house and picked the girls up from the sitter.

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I don't want to alienate my parents. I want my girls and myself to be able to continue to have a loving relationship with them, but it is getting to the point that I am afraid that I am going to blow up and things will not be repairable. Any advice you could give would be wonderful.

Signed,
Fed Up Daughter

Dear Fed Up,

It’s tough any time we’re dependent on people who are inconsiderate to us. But in this case, the stakes couldn’t be higher. You’re trying to make sure your kids are cared for. Turning to your folks isn’t just a matter of convenience or family obligation, it's a financial necessity.

The first thing to realize, though, is that receiving “free babysitting” doesn’t mean you give up your rights as a parent. It’s a beautiful thing that your parents love their granddaughters and want to look after them. But it is profoundly damaging to you, and to your daughters, for those children to see your parents berating you. It not only undermines your authority (and thus confuses the kids), but it creates an atmosphere of emotional chaos and humiliation that is only going to hurt them — both in the short run and the long.

What’s more, those daughters belong to you. Your parents do not enjoy joint custody. You get to decide how to raise them. So a big part of what you need to do is to set limits with your parents, and to enforce consequences — just as you would with a child. I can’t tell you exactly what those consequences should be. But it seems pretty clear that your parents have picked up on your dependence and are using it to bully you at this point, whether consciously or unconsciously. That’s got to stop.

a big part of what you need to do is to set limits with your parents, and to enforce consequences -- just as you would with a child.

Do not attempt to talk to your mother or father in the midst of a dispute. Wait until you’re all in a calm place. Be as loving and generous as you can be. Make sure they know how grateful you are for all that they do, and that you love them. But also make it clear that looking after their grandchildren does not grant them the right to browbeat you, or to throw tantrums. Period.

They are, of course, free to raise issues about your parenting as they see fit. (And you should be open to what they have to say, if you think it’s coming from a place of love and support.) But not in front of the kids.

I realize that you may not feel you’re in a position to set down any ultimatums. But here’s the thing, Fed Up: this babysitting isn’t truly free. You’re being made to pay a terrible price for it — psychologically and emotionally. In certain respects, it sounds like you’re having to parent your parents as well as your kids. I can’t imagine how exhausted and overwhelmed you must be.

One thing that might help, before you talk to your parents, is to consider what other resources you have available. Along those lines, it’s worth asking why your ex is doing nothing here. His total absence as a parent is a big part of the problem here. It may be that he’s incarcerated, or was abusive, or something along those lines. Otherwise, he needs to help out, if not for your sake then for the sake of his daughters. But even beyond him, are there other friends or relatives who might be able to lend a hand? Is there any kind of babysitting coop you can plug into, or a church community that would provide support?

I stress these options because (again) I sense that the root of your problem is this feeling of dependence on your parents. It may be that they truly are your only option. But you owe it to yourself, and your kids, to consider other forms of support, even if this means having to ask for help, which can be excruciating.

I realize all of this is easier said than done. But the status quo is clearly untenable — and deeply painful to all involved.

You deserve love and respect, especially as a single mom struggling to make ends meet. If your parents can’t grant you that respect, you need to reconsider what role they deserve play in your life, and in the life of your daughters.

Do what you can and forgive yourself the rest,
Steve

Author's note: I find myself talking to other parents about this issue all the time: the ways in which we wind up paying for the “free” help we get with our kids. In this woman’s case, the dilemma is much deeper and more intractable. She needs to find a way to get her parents to treat her with more respect. But what if they can’t? What do you think about this, parents? And grandparents? And fellow humans? Let me know in the comments section.

And please do send your own questions along, the more detailed the better. Even if I don’t have a helpful response, chances are someone in the comments section will. Send your queries via email.


Steve Almond is the author of the book "Against Football." He is the co-host, with Cheryl Strayed, of the WBUR podcast, Dear Sugar.

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