I Think My Husband’s Stepmother Is Illiterate

My wonderful mother-in-law passed away three years ago. Last year my father-in-law, Edward, a successful and now-retired cardiologist, married Sally, a widow with grown children and two grandchildren. From the bits and pieces I’ve put together, Sally grew up in a very poor, rural family in a southern state. Apparently her first husband was a good provider, working for a utility company; their kids always speak well of him and Sally. Edward met Sally at a grief counseling group.

Although Sally is always pleasant to be around, she is not what you’d expect for a doctor’s wife. In fact, I think Sally is illiterate. I say this because whenever anything requires reading, I’ve noticed that Edward does it for her, e.g., a menu, shopping list, what movies are playing, texts. Also, they are always telling us about the books on tape they listen to together. Sally does not drive, never has.

This is the situation: I am pregnant with our first child, and because I think Sally is illiterate, I do not want her babysitting, something she and Edward have said repeatedly they are looking forward to doing for us. Something could happen to the baby if a situation required Sally to read and she is not able to. I want to say something to them, but my husband disagrees. What do you think?

You say your deceased mother-in-law was wonderful (and I truly am sorry for your loss). Sally, however, seems to be a long way from wonderful in your estimation. In fact, she seems to be a disappointment to you. Blending new members into a family is often difficult, and based on your description of your situation, I think it is accurate to say you are less than enthusiastic of Edward’s choice of Sally. You say “…she is not what you’d expect for a doctor’s wife,” and although you do not elaborate, it seems she falls short of some expectations you have for what constitutes an acceptable “doctor’s wife.” So, through no fault of Sally’s, the chances of the two of you building a good relationship are minimized from the get go, unless you are willing to make some changes.

Let’s start with your suspicion that Sally is illiterate. Statistically, Sally has an almost 50-50 chance of being a non-reader or someone who faces reading challenges. According to the U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, one in seven American adults lack sufficient reading skills. Specifically:

21 to 23% “ (40 to 44 million) are totally or functionally illiterate
26% of adult population (50 million) are marginally illiterate
52% of adult population is fully literate.
Sadly, for all our many national strengths, 14 countries rank higher than US on reading abilities.

So, yes, reading and computational skills for Sally may be minimal or non-existent; you’re not sure. But what you can be sure about is the fact that she has proven herself a capable wife, mother, and grandmother. Sally and Edward are two people who met and bonded while trying to deal with the loss of their respective spouses. They decided to build a life together. It appears they spend a lot of time together, and are doing so by choice. It could very well be that Edward enjoys taking the lead in the activities they do together, including reading and going over lists. Sally, having raised two kids and all that involves, may thoroughly enjoy being fussed over by Edward.

The point is that you don’t have any deep insight into the dynamics, details and nuances of their relationship. A related point is that they determine what they wish to share with you about themselves as individuals and as a couple. So, for you to suggest to Sally that she is illiterate would be incredibly inappropriate, intrusive, and certain to cause humiliation and embarrassment, perhaps even anger and estrangement. And to do so under the pretext that your baby’s safety may be at risk feels to me a bit of a stretch. My advice is that you work on feeling grateful that you have in-laws who are excited about being your baby’s grandparents and are already letting you know they want to be involved to help you and your son after the baby arrives.

The truth of the matter is that anyone who is going to be a caretaker for your baby has to earn your trust, and as first-time parents, you and your husband will be understandably extra cautious and anxious about leaving your baby with someone else. This includes your parents, siblings, close friends, nannies, and baby sitters, as well as Edward and Sally. They all will need you and your husband to be clear with them about their responsibilities in taking care of your baby. They will be left in charge of your baby with increasing frequency and duration as they gain your trust.

I’ll close by suggesting that I am not sure the primary issue is about Sally’s literacy, or lack thereof. Rather, what may be troubling you may have more to do with the death of your mother-in-law, how much you miss her, and the difficulty you may be having in accepting how Edward has been able to live his life apparently so happily with someone else. If you focus more on trying to be happy that Edward and Sally have each other, you may find that your heart lightens and you get great comfort in knowing your baby will have loving and available grandparents.

If you work now on being a loving and supportive daughter-in-law, if in the future you and your husband feel you need to discuss any caretaking concerns you have with Edward and Sally, you will raise your concerns within the context of strong and caring relationships.

Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every other Thursday through Labor Day.
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