Dear Carolyn: My mother-in-law asked me for Christmas gift ideas for my 4-month-old son. I said I thought he was too young for electronic toys and asked for something simple, like blocks or a teddy bear.
She bought him a “baby laptop” that lights up and plays music, saying, “Well, I didn’t have time to travel back to the 1950s to buy him blocks.” I am very upset that she not only completely disregarded our wishes but also insulted our choices. My husband agrees with me and does not understand why his mother did this.
We firmly believe in the importance of creative play. Both my husband and I have had this discussion with her several times. Our choice may seem a bit strange, but I feel like she should respect our wishes regardless. I do not want to hurt her feelings, but I am considering returning the gift. I also feel this situation is symbolic of a much larger problem. She questions every decision we make as parents and is constantly making snide comments about our choices. Any advice?
– Tired Mom
A: Yeah. Duck.
Kidding, or thereabouts. You’re right about a larger problem, but it’s larger than the snide-comment problem. She could so easily just accept your child-rearing approach at face value. I mean, you’re asking for blocks, not explosives. Instead, she’s reacting to your choices.
On top of that, she’s handling her reaction poorly. She isn’t attempting a reasoned argument, maybe, “I know you want to make good choices for Baby, but I’m concerned it’s going too far – I’d like some leeway to have a little fun.” That’s something you can work with, even if you strongly disagree. Instead she’s sniping and undermining. You can’t work with that.
Such lashing out reveals that she’s in shaky emotional health.
Your new family unit is what threatens her, of course. She’s feeling obsolete, maybe; or beneath your (perceived) high-brow standards; or like the loser in a (perceived) competition for her son’s attention. Or all three.
You can neutralize this. It takes time, though, plus patience, compassion, careful battle-choosing and full spousal cooperation. That’s because you need to:
• Understand that people who lash out usually feel wounded themselves.
• Gently draw a baseline. “These are exciting times for us. We’ll mess up – but praising successes would help me so much more right now.”
• Decide what lines are uncrossable.
• Include his mother, however you can abide, unless/until she crosses uncrossable lines. Ask for her help or opinion sometimes, on nontouchy subjects. Warmth is best at softening resistance.
• Ignore minor affronts so you can …
• Save your strength and accrued good will for enforcing those lines she can’t cross. You’ll need it, whether you return gifts, call out her sniping, or, worst case, limit visits.
You and your husband are in charge.