She’s so angry, she wants to confront her. Should I let her?
My wife and I have three children under eight. We both work and it’s a constant struggle to keep things afloat. My own mother has been a lifesaver.
She collects the kids from crèche/school a couple of times a week and she’s always around when we need her.
My wife’s mother, on the other hand, does nothing to help us and has made it very clear that she doesn’t want to. She has raised her own children, she told us, and after the death of her husband a few years ago, she wants to prioritise herself.
In some ways I respect her decision. The issue is that my mother is furious with her and has basically given an ultimatum: either I say it to her or she does.
I don’t know how to approach this. My wife doesn’t know how angry my mother is and I’m not sure I want to tell her. What should I do?
It sounds like you’re caught in the middle of some very strong opinions.
Your mother is clearly of the belief that grandparents should provide unpaid childcare for their adult children. Your mother-in-law, on the other hand, views it as a personal preference.
Meanwhile, there is often a societal expectation for grandparents to help out with their grandkids when, really, childcare is a favour and not an entitlement.
To put it more bluntly, your mother-in-law doesn’t owe you childcare.
Or as parenting expert Laura Erskine put it when I shared your dilemma with her: “You and your wife made a decision to have a family and grow it together, so while it is understandable that you both have to work, they are your responsibility and yours alone.”
Erskine says it is “very generous” of your mother to lend a hand. “You are lucky to have an able-bodied mother who has the physical and mental capacity to help out with three small children,” she says.
“But your mother-in-law has made her position very clear, likely she did that each time you added to your family.
"It is her prerogative to enjoy her golden years, to spend time doing all of the things that she put on hold when bringing up her own children and she doesn’t have to explain or justify that decision to anyone.”
I also shared your dilemma with Dublin-based psychologist Dr Finian Fallon, who recognises that having three children under eight is a “huge responsibility”.
He understands it can “feel overwhelming” at times, but he wonders if there is more to this dilemma than meets the eye.
“I was interested to see that you wrote ‘in some ways’,” he says. “From this, I wonder do you also resent your mother-in-law for not doing her share?
"It seems you might not fully accept her decision to not get involved in childcare to the same extent that your mother is involved.”
He’s also curious about your relationship with your own mother. “How did you experience her as a parent?” he asks. “Were there any aspects of her parenting that were difficult for you growing up? How do you experience her way of interacting with your children? Do you like how she deals with them?
“It is concerning that your mother feels that it’s appropriate to give ultimatums about how your mother-in-law should take care of your children. This feels like a step over a line, in terms of a boundary between your parent and your wife’s parent.
“I’d be interested in finding out more about why your mother thinks it’s OK to make this kind of threat. Are there other dynamics at play, such as money or other family issues, that makes it OK for your mother to intervene in this way?
"It seems that your mother holds a lot of power in the family you have created: I would be interested in understanding this more.
“Also, are you aware of how your wife experiences your mother? It may be that your mother has, or might be trying, to be in control of issues that aren’t directly her responsibility. Is this a wider issue in the family?”
Fallon acknowledges that these can be difficult questions to explore. At the same time, they are important questions because they will ultimately help you get to the crux of your dilemma.
In the meantime, psychotherapist Stella O’Malley wonders if showing your mother some extra appreciation might ease some of the frustration she’s feeling.
“The fact that the helpful grandmother feels such intense anger provides insight into how overworked and underappreciated she feels,” she says.
“It is likely that the helping grandmother is feeling taken for granted and needs a good deal more thanks than she is currently receiving.
"Perhaps the couple could show their appreciation more explicitly to the helping grandmother so that her help is acknowledged?”
O’Malley also thinks you should discuss this matter with your wife before you bring it up with anyone else.
“With some care and consideration, this could be an opportunity for the couple to bond over the difficulty of having such pressure in their lives that they need to lean on others.
"The writer could begin by saying he wants to make it clear that the couple are in it together; that he is happy with his mother’s help, but he also respects her mother’s position.”
As for speaking to your mother-in-law on your mother’s behalf, she wonders if you have considered the best-case scenario should you do this.
“I’m not sure there is anything to be gained in saying to the unhelpful grandmother that the other grandmother is unhappy with her,” O’Malley says. “Arguably the helpful grandmother needs to say this to her herself.”
If you have a dilemma, email firstname.lastname@example.org.