Dear Carolyn: My oldest son has informed me he is finished with family gatherings “like a circus” and wants to visit only my husband and me. The “circus” consists of his two brothers, their wives and one granddaughter. The excuse is that he and his wife have traveled 200 miles to see us and are too tired to participate in family gettogethers, such as at Christmas.
He refused a Father's Day invitation, issued to everyone.
I suspect the real reason for this is my granddaughter and now a coming baby. My oldest son's wife learned she cannot have children and was devastated.
We are never invited to their home, the excuse being the apartment is too small.
She was an only child and is selfish at times, and self-centered, making many nonmedical dietary demands and acting as she pleases when here. I accommodate every wish, but to cut my son off from his brothers and their children is too much. I realize he's also responsible, but what should we as parents do? How can we keep our family gatherings together?
At a Loss
Dear At a Loss: This is obviously a painful and regrettable development in an already challenging family history.
In this case, my guess is this isn't “too much” for you, really, because you'll deal with it; what choice do you have? It's just a particularly tough development because it's a shot to the heart of what matters to you.
I also think it's an excellent opportunity to look at it as the latest point in a sequence of tensions.
From where I sit, I don't just see a brokenhearted family matriarch; I also see judgy language in your letter, both overt and subtle. There's “only child and is selfish at times” – have you ever said that one to an only's face? They're all suspect in your eyes?
And there's your reference to “many nonmedical dietary demands,” which could describe ... let's see, kosher; vegetarian/veganism; thinking X is so gross that it gives you dry heaves when you try to swallow it; and having the genetic quirk that makes cilantro taste like soap. Among others, right? Things we tend to be gracious about with people we like, and eyerolly with people we don't like?
And, you've used “excuse” to describe their reasoning, “explanation” zero times, and “reason” once in blowing past a “devastating” experience with infertility. Wow.
You don't like her. I get it. Maybe she has earned every bit of your loathing. But if your opinion of her works its way into every line here, how much of it do you think you're keeping from her?
So that's where you get to work: Patch this up. Go back to all of the negative judgments you've made of your daughter-in-law where there was room for doubt, and think of ways to give her the benefit of the doubt. Think of it as a forced recalibration toward sympathy.
Then, adopt that new view. Be sympathetic to an only child who maybe needed time to adapt to big-family noise, or still needs breaks from it. Be sympathetic to someone who is sensitive to some foods and isn't sure how to say that without being a jerk.
Be sympathetic to a woman who right now is dying inside around small children, and just wants some room to recover without having her request received like it's the end of someone else's world.
Maybe some of this sympathy won't feel warranted. But you're not going to get your big happy “circus” back by demanding it in anger. If you're going to get it back, it will be through compassion, patience, flexibility and love. Dig as deeply for these as you must.