An­nal­isa Bar­bieri

My in-laws have the space, time and money to babysit our boys, but don’t. How do I raise this?

The Guardian - Family - - Family | Family life - @An­nal­isaB

I would like some ad­vice on how best to ini­ti­ate a con­ver­sa­tion with my in-laws about their ap­proach to be­ing grand­par­ents. They re­cently re­tired, are in good health and fi­nan­cially com­fort­able. They live not far from us in a large house with a gar­den, and have the space to look af­ter the grand­chil­dren (we have two young chil­dren) for an evening if they wish to. Ex­cept that does not ap­pear to be an op­tion.

We have reg­u­lar (day) child­care, but thought it would be help­ful if they could take the boys for an evening ev­ery few weeks so my wife and I could go out, which we do rarely. But each time we have tried to set this up, my in-laws have changed their mind at the last minute.

As it seems they are not ready for this, we have stopped try­ing to set up time with them alone with the boys. Our boys love them very much, and the in-laws do love spend­ing time with all four of us – al­though I think of them as a bit cat-like; the love al­ways has to be on their terms.

When we got mar­ried my fa­ther-in­law threat­ened to cut off his daugh­ter, and not at­tend the wed­ding un­less she com­plied with one of his re­quests. These threats to cut off are not made idly. My fa­ther-in-law has form – he no longer talks to his sis­ter and has only re­cently re­paired things with one of his adult chil­dren.

I re­gard him as a con­trol­ling in­di­vid­ual. I have no idea what my mother-in-law’s in­flu­ence is; they op­er­ate very much as a unit, and I have never spent time with one with­out the other. Apart from the con­trol, they also ap­pear to be mo­ti­vated by ma­te­rial things and their home is im­mac­u­late. I strongly sus­pect, al­though they deny it, that this is be­hind their re­luc­tance to take the boys into their home.

My wife does not want to force the is­sue with them. She is con­cerned that, if pushed, they will with­draw and this will dam­age their re­la­tion­ship with the boys. She loves her par­ents, de­spite be­ing ex­as­per­ated by them. I want to be able to talk to my in-laws about my con­cerns like an adult, but my experience of their fam­ily dy­namic over the 10 years I have known them makes me feel it is un­likely to go well. It is a bru­tal mo­ment when you learn you can’t choose your in-laws, you can’t change them and you re­ally don’t like them very much. And while, al­most ev­ery week, I ad­vo­cate com­mu­ni­ca­tion – this week, the word ac­cep­tance keeps com­ing to mind, lit like a neon sign in my head. You are never go­ing to change your in-laws and so I think you have to rad­i­cally change your ex­pec­ta­tions of them.

I also couldn’t quite get over your ex­pec­ta­tion that they should babysit. And I won­der if they sense this and re­sent it and are try­ing to keep you in your place with­out say­ing any­thing.

Your fa­ther-in-law may be a con­trol freak – you may be, too, by the way, and it may be a case of you butting antlers here. He may be scared of get­ting it wrong with your chil­dren or with you. He may be try­ing to be

“re­spect­ful” in a way that seems odd to you. He may not ever have been shown how to “do” emo­tions. What sort of fa­ther was he? There was no men­tion of that in your longer let­ter. There was also ab­so­lutely no men­tion, at all, of

your fam­ily, which I found strange. One could pon­der for hours on the whys and where­fores, and in­deed I have – but you started your let­ter with a ques­tion and to help me an­swer it, I con­sulted the psy­chother­a­pist Mar­cus West (bpc.org.uk). He won­ders if you and your wife might “be able to work through your ex­pec­ta­tions and dis­ap­point­ment? You may then be able to ad­dress the mat­ter in a sim­ple, straight­for­ward man­ner, ask­ing, for ex­am­ple, whether there is any­thing you can do to fa­cil­i­tate your in-laws hav­ing the boys, and whether it would be eas­ier if they came over to your house to do so (and per­haps for a short time on the first oc­ca­sion)? This might hope­fully fa­cil­i­tate a good, open dis­cus­sion and out­come, es­pe­cially if you are pre­pared to ac­cept, ‘We’re sorry but we can’t man­age it’ for an an­swer.”

Sim­ple though this is, I think this is the way for­ward.

What should be a straight­for­ward ques­tion has be­come so locked and loaded that I could feel the ten­sion from your let­ter.

West says: “Do not start with ‘I want to talk about your grand­par­ent­ing style’ and, in­stead, sim­ply try to ask ‘Would you be able to babysit next week?’ Could you do that with­out an edge?”

Could you? I also think you need to lis­ten to your wife here. She knows her par­ents best.

You say your fa­ther-in-law has form with cut­ting peo­ple out of his life, so I would take that pos­si­bil­ity se­ri­ously, but your in-laws are happy to spend time with all of you. I would go with that. Things may shift as your chil­dren get older – in the mean­time, ask some­one else to babysit.

I won­dered if you ex­am­ined – be­yond the babysit­ting, be­yond your fa­ther-in-law’s ob­ses­sive house­keep­ing, and his ex­pec­ta­tions when you got en­gaged – what it is that so an­noys you about him? I won­der, in short, if he re­minds you of some­one else.

Your prob­lems solved Con­tact An­nal­isa Bar­bieri, The Guardian, Kings Place, 90 York Way, Lon­don N1 9GU or email an­nal­isa. bar­bieri@mac.com. An­nal­isa re­grets she can­not en­ter into per­sonal cor­re­spon­dence

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