Grandma is driving this dad to the brink

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  October 19, 2011 06:00 AM

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About three years ago, my wife and I invited my mother to be our live-in nanny. She is truly exceptional with small children and, in fact, cared for children for a living (early childhood development). We were hard-working professionals who wanted our children to be with someone who loved them.

It didn't work out. After about 3 months, everyone was miserable. My wife felt my mother was trying to dominate the children's lives. My mother thought my wife tried to partition her away from the rest of the family when she was home. I felt caught in the middle; both expected my loyalty; and I tried to avoid taking sides, which pleased nobody. My mother thought that meant I was "against" her. She said truly hateful things, especially when I asked her to cooperate with family rules--she was more permissive with grandchildren then with children or clients--perhaps I asked too much. This situation persisted for two years before my wife finally accepted a less lucrative, more family-friendly position in another state. My job let me transfer. We let it be known that we could no longer afford a full-time care provider (we paid her) and that the children would go to daycare.

My mother followed us to our new state and, in fact, lives about 3 miles away. She does not respect boundaries--at all. At first, she begged for what almost amounted to visitation rights to the children. I refused at first, thinking this absurd: but finally relented thinking it would buy peace. Wrong. She just kept asking for more. The situation grew even worse when my wife and I had a 3rd child. My mother was outraged and gave very unwelcome advice.

My family is mostly on my mother's side. I am close to them, but most family members think my wife is a cold woman who drove my mother away. My mother is a very good, generous person in many respects, and I don't want to try to "win." But, recently, she's been making it a competition. I agreed to let her take the children to the zoo; a cousin of mine and I started planning a long bike ride. My mother learned and promptly invited the cousin to the zoo. At family functions, my mother immediately takes the children away and makes my wife feel unwelcome.

It seems the most rational plan at this point would just be to discontinue contact. That would hurt, and I would regret it, but the situation is again untenable. Yet, I feel that the rest of my family, except a sister, would exclude me and my children. As I said, my mother inspires fierce loyalty and has made this a competition. She's also economically vulnerable, while we are affluent, so they feel us better able to cope.

I don't know what to do. I don't want to lose my family. I want to have peace. But is there any way to achieve it? Sorry for the long question, but I've despaired of resolving this.

From: The WagnerAlternative, Coppell, Texas


Dear Wagner Alternative,

This sounds like an awful situation! Of course you don't want to have to take sides -- and good for you for realizing that. On the one hand, it sounds like your mom has over-stepped her boundaries and she's backed you into a corner. On the other hand, how can someone who has been an early childcare professional not recognize her mis-steps? Can grandchildren make us this blind?!

Have you considered going to a professional? I'm thinking about a mediator, or family therapy, that would allow all of you to have your say and also force you to really hear each other. It's to your credit that you want your mom in your children's lives, and that you know you'd regret shutting her out. It seems to me that seeking outside help is your last, and only, resort. I'd lay it on the table with mom in a way that she has no choice but to do this for you: this is what I want us to do; otherwise, I can't tolerate the stress and I'll have to shut down contact, for my own sanity.

Readers, what do you suggest?

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11 comments so far...
  1. You really should have taken sides and put your foot down in the beginning.

    I think therapy is a good idea now. Good luck getting your mom on board.

    Posted by noudon October 19, 11 09:01 AM
  1. It sounds like the LW already knows what he has to do, he just needs extra support and confirmation. Follow Barbara's advice! Now!

    Posted by geocool October 19, 11 09:40 AM
  1. Barbara's mailbox has had letters like this before. When a grandmother takes care of the kids in babyhood, grandmother bonds with the kids just like a parent does. No way will she let go of them without a fight. It's biblical.

    By letting your mother move in as a care-giver you and your wife capitulated to the path of least resistance, her credentials notwithstanding. (Smokescreen logic and magical thinking.)
    Moreover, you and your wife, despite your awareness of boundaries, failed to establish them early on, failed to enforce them -- and it sounds like the pattern continues to this day.

    I think you and your wife should get couple's counseling. (No mother required.) Not because you don't love each other, you obviously do, but you need to get a grip on your family's dynamic paradigm. You'll gain insight into why your mother is so dominating and how you and your wife can change your behaviors. If you change yours, she will change hers.

    If you are affluent consider sending your mother monthly checks to help her out. Consider limiting "play dates" and the ordinary kids' with grandma doings to, say, two chiseled-in-stone dates a month. In exchange, let her have the kids at family events. Above all, be consistent!

    Here's some free counseling advice:
    You side with your wife.
    End of session.

    Posted by JeanneDark October 19, 11 10:54 AM
  1. Your wife tried to get away from your mother by moving out of state and taking a pay cut. What part of THAT message wasn't clear?

    I think a counselor with special expertise in this area is now your only hope. You need an impartial third party to determine what is healthy and appropriate for your children.

    Best of luck!

    Posted by cosmogirl October 19, 11 12:58 PM
  1. The LW should have put his foot down earlier, it sounds like the Grandmother/Nanny was undermining the parent's wishes. Remember the couple PAID the Grandmother/Nanny. My interpretation is that the Mother of the children wanted some alone time as a family unit sans Granny/Nanny that seems pretty reasonable to me but if the Granny/Nanny was a bit unhinged it could be interpreted as exclusion. And if Granny/Nanny said hateful things then why didn't the LW put his foot down then and there? Granny/Nanny was PAID she should have followed the rules.

    Therapy is in order now, because the Son didn't stand up for his family and wife's boundaries, which let the Granny/Nanny influence the rest of the family. I do doubt that Granny/Nanny would actually agree to therapy but it does sound like she needs it.

    Posted by WES October 19, 11 01:04 PM
  1. Even if Mom won't go to the family therapist, I think the letter writer should start going anyway. I don't want to be the one to diagnose without a license but there has to be a reason why Mom is so possessive about the grandchildren and it may take someone very knowledgeable about both family dynamics and about mental illness. Maybe your pediatrician could give you some referrals. You and your wife have tried everything you know how to do, now please bring in an adviser. There may be explainations and alternatives you haven't thought of.

    Posted by Favorite Auntie October 19, 11 04:17 PM
  1. Sounds like the parents of the three kids need a CONTRACT.

    "here are the family rules that can only be broken if you have to call 9-1-1 for police or ambulance"

    "here are the rules for grandma's visits"

    "here are the hours during which ALL: other family members are welcome to plan visits with the kids"

    "here are the NUCLEAR FAMILY hours" again not to be broken except when 9-1-1 has been called

    And maybe the grandmother needs to be paid to stay away...rather than to be paid to be present.

    Posted by Irene October 19, 11 09:14 PM
  1. Um, Dad, you should have sided with your wife. The end. You married her and she is the mother of the children. Not sure if you are religious, but this is standard scripture in marriage ceremonies ("a man shall cleave to his wife"). The fact that you didn't put your foot down when your mother FOLLOWED YOU to another state is astonishing.

    Your mother was a paid employee and was not capable of following simple instructions. I understand the situation more if she was doing care grattis and you were somehow indebted to her for saving you money, but I could not believe that you tolerated this while paying her.

    I too have an sometimes forceful mother AND mother-in-law, but my hubby and I always know that we have each others' backs. Marriages break up over the kind of situation you describe and to your mother, that's probably the outcome she's hoping for. There's not taking sides and then there's not standing up for yourself/your family.

    Posted by Issybelle October 20, 11 10:28 PM
  1. I appreciate the comments and suggestions. It seems the prevailing recommendations are for: (a) therapy and (b) hard rules. I've tried the hard rules route before, but my mother essentially takes the approach of agreeing to reasonable restrictions and then ignoring them as she sees convenient.

    As for counseling, my wife and I suggested that at one point, but my mother was only offended.

    Couples counseling is actually a thought I hadn't had before. To be honest, absent my mother, my spouse and I have never had any problems. I recognize that I have the habit of taking the path of least resistence--as a couple of commenters noted.

    Still, at this point, it seems my practical options are: (a) a divorce from my mother and (b) accepting some limited play dates with the knowledge that I can't really salvage my relationship with my mother.

    I guess I was hoping someone would propose some magical solution that would solve everything. I guess that's naive. At least it's reassuring that I don't seem to be overlooking any obvious solutions.

    Posted by TheWagnerAlternative October 24, 11 01:08 PM
  1. "I've tried the hard rules route before, but my mother essentially takes the approach of agreeing to reasonable restrictions and then ignoring them as she sees convenient."

    That's when you say "I'm sorry mom, but you broke our rules and overstepped your boundaries. We cannot have you looking after the children anymore."

    It doesn't matter what your family thinks of the situation. Your wife is your wife and mother of your children, and if you want her to continue being your wife set boundaries and stick to them.

    Does any of your other siblings have kids? How does she act with them, and how do they deal with it?

    Posted by m October 24, 11 03:08 PM
  1. You could always move to Australia if you can't think of a better way to stand up to your mother. They don't accept immigrants over the age of 45 there...

    Posted by Irene October 24, 11 09:59 PM
 
11 comments so far...
  1. You really should have taken sides and put your foot down in the beginning.

    I think therapy is a good idea now. Good luck getting your mom on board.

    Posted by noudon October 19, 11 09:01 AM
  1. It sounds like the LW already knows what he has to do, he just needs extra support and confirmation. Follow Barbara's advice! Now!

    Posted by geocool October 19, 11 09:40 AM
  1. Barbara's mailbox has had letters like this before. When a grandmother takes care of the kids in babyhood, grandmother bonds with the kids just like a parent does. No way will she let go of them without a fight. It's biblical.

    By letting your mother move in as a care-giver you and your wife capitulated to the path of least resistance, her credentials notwithstanding. (Smokescreen logic and magical thinking.)
    Moreover, you and your wife, despite your awareness of boundaries, failed to establish them early on, failed to enforce them -- and it sounds like the pattern continues to this day.

    I think you and your wife should get couple's counseling. (No mother required.) Not because you don't love each other, you obviously do, but you need to get a grip on your family's dynamic paradigm. You'll gain insight into why your mother is so dominating and how you and your wife can change your behaviors. If you change yours, she will change hers.

    If you are affluent consider sending your mother monthly checks to help her out. Consider limiting "play dates" and the ordinary kids' with grandma doings to, say, two chiseled-in-stone dates a month. In exchange, let her have the kids at family events. Above all, be consistent!

    Here's some free counseling advice:
    You side with your wife.
    End of session.

    Posted by JeanneDark October 19, 11 10:54 AM
  1. Your wife tried to get away from your mother by moving out of state and taking a pay cut. What part of THAT message wasn't clear?

    I think a counselor with special expertise in this area is now your only hope. You need an impartial third party to determine what is healthy and appropriate for your children.

    Best of luck!

    Posted by cosmogirl October 19, 11 12:58 PM
  1. The LW should have put his foot down earlier, it sounds like the Grandmother/Nanny was undermining the parent's wishes. Remember the couple PAID the Grandmother/Nanny. My interpretation is that the Mother of the children wanted some alone time as a family unit sans Granny/Nanny that seems pretty reasonable to me but if the Granny/Nanny was a bit unhinged it could be interpreted as exclusion. And if Granny/Nanny said hateful things then why didn't the LW put his foot down then and there? Granny/Nanny was PAID she should have followed the rules.

    Therapy is in order now, because the Son didn't stand up for his family and wife's boundaries, which let the Granny/Nanny influence the rest of the family. I do doubt that Granny/Nanny would actually agree to therapy but it does sound like she needs it.

    Posted by WES October 19, 11 01:04 PM
  1. Even if Mom won't go to the family therapist, I think the letter writer should start going anyway. I don't want to be the one to diagnose without a license but there has to be a reason why Mom is so possessive about the grandchildren and it may take someone very knowledgeable about both family dynamics and about mental illness. Maybe your pediatrician could give you some referrals. You and your wife have tried everything you know how to do, now please bring in an adviser. There may be explainations and alternatives you haven't thought of.

    Posted by Favorite Auntie October 19, 11 04:17 PM
  1. Sounds like the parents of the three kids need a CONTRACT.

    "here are the family rules that can only be broken if you have to call 9-1-1 for police or ambulance"

    "here are the rules for grandma's visits"

    "here are the hours during which ALL: other family members are welcome to plan visits with the kids"

    "here are the NUCLEAR FAMILY hours" again not to be broken except when 9-1-1 has been called

    And maybe the grandmother needs to be paid to stay away...rather than to be paid to be present.

    Posted by Irene October 19, 11 09:14 PM
  1. Um, Dad, you should have sided with your wife. The end. You married her and she is the mother of the children. Not sure if you are religious, but this is standard scripture in marriage ceremonies ("a man shall cleave to his wife"). The fact that you didn't put your foot down when your mother FOLLOWED YOU to another state is astonishing.

    Your mother was a paid employee and was not capable of following simple instructions. I understand the situation more if she was doing care grattis and you were somehow indebted to her for saving you money, but I could not believe that you tolerated this while paying her.

    I too have an sometimes forceful mother AND mother-in-law, but my hubby and I always know that we have each others' backs. Marriages break up over the kind of situation you describe and to your mother, that's probably the outcome she's hoping for. There's not taking sides and then there's not standing up for yourself/your family.

    Posted by Issybelle October 20, 11 10:28 PM
  1. I appreciate the comments and suggestions. It seems the prevailing recommendations are for: (a) therapy and (b) hard rules. I've tried the hard rules route before, but my mother essentially takes the approach of agreeing to reasonable restrictions and then ignoring them as she sees convenient.

    As for counseling, my wife and I suggested that at one point, but my mother was only offended.

    Couples counseling is actually a thought I hadn't had before. To be honest, absent my mother, my spouse and I have never had any problems. I recognize that I have the habit of taking the path of least resistence--as a couple of commenters noted.

    Still, at this point, it seems my practical options are: (a) a divorce from my mother and (b) accepting some limited play dates with the knowledge that I can't really salvage my relationship with my mother.

    I guess I was hoping someone would propose some magical solution that would solve everything. I guess that's naive. At least it's reassuring that I don't seem to be overlooking any obvious solutions.

    Posted by TheWagnerAlternative October 24, 11 01:08 PM
  1. "I've tried the hard rules route before, but my mother essentially takes the approach of agreeing to reasonable restrictions and then ignoring them as she sees convenient."

    That's when you say "I'm sorry mom, but you broke our rules and overstepped your boundaries. We cannot have you looking after the children anymore."

    It doesn't matter what your family thinks of the situation. Your wife is your wife and mother of your children, and if you want her to continue being your wife set boundaries and stick to them.

    Does any of your other siblings have kids? How does she act with them, and how do they deal with it?

    Posted by m October 24, 11 03:08 PM
  1. You could always move to Australia if you can't think of a better way to stand up to your mother. They don't accept immigrants over the age of 45 there...

    Posted by Irene October 24, 11 09:59 PM
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About the author

Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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