Dear Carolyn: My mother-in-law is currently battling cancer, and has lately been making passive-aggressive comments to my husband about how she’s so disappointed she’ll never see our kids, and talking about birth details of all of her kids …
I don’t want kids! Even if I did, the endometriosis and ovarian cysts have rendered me about as fecund as the lunar surface.
I hate trying to dance around this topic when she’s not feeling well, but it leaves a bad taste in my mouth that she’d use her current frailty to try to guilt us into something we’ve already said we’re not interested in.
Is there a tasteful (or at least less hostile) way to tell her to mind her own uterus?
– Happily Barren
A: You could give her the benefit of the doubt, and take her comments not as passive aggression or guilt-tripping, but instead as honest expressions of grief at not having grandchildren.
Maybe there is no doubt for you to work with and you know from history that she’s working the guilt levers hard – but that still leaves you with some options besides pushing back.
The most appealing of them, from where I sit, is to give her what you’re so annoyed about not getting from her: respect for her position.
Some disclaiming is in order. First, the only one with any standing to talk about your uterus is you, so I do not regard her position as equal to yours on the matter of grandchildren. Not even close. Second, it’s best for all involved to let this matter rest – or at least for your mother-in-law to express her grief to her friend/clergy/shrink, instead of the two people who’ll take it as a slap in the face.
However, while she’s obviously not entitled to a grandchild, she is entitled to her feelings. And, the absence in her life also happens to be real: I hope I will have the maturity, flexibility and forbearance not to pester them like an untrained puppy, but I do so want to be a gramma when my kids are grown. It’s not a fringe sentiment.
For a woman wrestling with her own mortality who lets that sentiment fly, I think the best response isn’t “Get out of my uterus,” it’s “I know you’re disappointed, and I’m sorry about that.” You can validate her feelings while not budging an inch.
If she persists, then – with warmth and patience – there’s this: “I hear you, and sympathize, as I’ve said. But since we’re not changing our plans, revisiting the subject only has me feeling frustrated/defensive/angry/sad/(your feelings here).” It’s an invitation for her to validate you; if she declines, it’s a boundary. Once set, you can enforce it by not engaging. No “dancing around” required.