Dear Dr. Gramma Karen,
Ever since the birth of our daughter Hannah two years ago, my mother-in-law has been rather critical and disrespectful.
Recently, I have overheard her saying nasty things about me not only in front of my daughter, but sometimes directly to her. For example, I am English and she continually makes fun of my accent by telling Hannah, “Your mum says things wrong.”
Other examples: “Oh, Hannah, I bet you’ve never seen this before. Let me teach you about neatness and cleanliness, and then you can teach your mummy how to do it.” After she said this, she turned to her partner and said, “Wouldn’t you be embarrassed by this dirt? Yes, just one word for this: pig.”
My husband is aware of his mother’s rudeness towards me. After he spoke to her about it – I fear he was a bit vague and didn’t use specific examples – I spoke to her about the specific things I overheard her saying to Hannah. At first she was nasty and denied it, then she deflected and mentioned things that we had done that hurt her feelings, and then she criticized my mum. She then said that our daughter doesn’t understand what she is saying anyway.
She also insinuated that our house was bad for Hannah because of germs. Our house looks lived in, but it is not disgusting. I don’t feel I should be condemned because she was able to keep her house clean when she had two kids at home. I work 20 hours a week and am home with Hannah. My husband works 60 plus hours.
Though I know that my child may not understand everything being said, I do believe that this behavior can be psychologically damaging. My MIL refuses to see the problem with her behavior. Do you have any advice?
Dr. Gramma Karen’s Response
I agree with you that your MIL’s behavior has the potential to be psychologically damaging to your daughter. Although Hannah may not yet understand the words being said, she is certainly old enough to pick up on the stress and tension in the air.
In fact, as published by Medical Daily, “A 2005 study found that infants’ brains devote more attention to angry voices than happy or neutral tones, and a 2010 study suggested that babies are attuned to a voice’s emotional state by seven months.” You and your husband are wise to want to address this situation now, rather than wait until Hannah is older.
An important point in the situation you describe is that even though both you and your husband have pointed out to your MIL that certain behaviors of hers are hurtful, the behaviors continue. I don’t think we can give your MIL the benefit of the doubt: her behavior is not innocent or unintentional. It seems she is using Hannah as a prop, and that you are meant to hear what she is saying to Hannah. If this were not so, the offensive behaviors would cease. With this in mind, I have two options I can suggest.
Option #1: New Ground Rules for Your MIL’s Access to Your Daughter
My first suggestion is that you and your husband sit down with your MIL, and your husband, not you, informs his mother that the two of you have made a decision. He explains along these lines: “Kindness is very important to us and it is something we want to teach Hannah. Because there are times when you behave in ways that we consider unkind, we have decided that one of us will be present whenever you are with Hannah. In this way, if we think you are being unkind, we will bring a close to your visit.” (I think it best if your husband takes the lead in this communication; it will be harder for her to refute or ignore the message coming from her own son.)
I think you can anticipate that your MIL will be very upset with your decision, so you will have to be ready for some push back – perhaps even some harsh words – but you need to remain firm: “As we said, this is about kindness, and to make sure all your interactions are kind, one of us will always be present. If you can be kind, you are welcome to spend time with Hannah. If you are not able to be kind, we will remove Hannah.” If your MIL is visiting you, you can ask your MIL to leave. If you are visiting in your MIL’s home, you simply excuse yourselves and leave.
Your MIL needs to understand that you and your husband are 100 percent aligned, and this is the way it’s going to be: kindness is the focal point. (You may find it helpful to read another column I wrote in which I suggested niceness and kindness be focal points.)
Option #2: Deny Your MIL Access to Your Daughter
If it does not work out that your MIL is kind to all of you in your presence, you always have the option to deny your MIL access to your daughter. I am not necessarily advocating this, as I would much rather see things work out so that your MIL can have a presence in Hannah’s life — as long as her presence meets your requirements.
However, as Hannah’s parents, you have the total and final say whether your MIL gets to spend any time at all with your daughter. Your MIL does not get to claim that it’s her right to see her granddaughter: your MIL sees Hannah when and if you grant her permission to do so.
It is my hope that your MIL will see her way clear to honor your need for her to be kind whenever she is interacting with you, your husband, and your daughter. I also hope it turns out to be an easy choice for her to make!
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