A woman wrote into Carolyn Hax's Washington Post advice column recently with a question about her mother-in-law's insistence on calling her child "my baby." It annoys the mom, because clearly, it isn't her baby. It's her grandbaby. She's wondering if she is being too sensitive about the whole thing.
She explains that her MIL has been calling the baby "hers" since before it was born. Since the baby's been born it's only gotten worse -- she says it several times a day. The woman has begun avoiding her mother-in-law's calls because this behavior drives her so crazy. Her husband thinks she's being "petty." I think there are obviously deeper issues here, evidenced by the fact that her husband is "siding" with his mother.
The thing is -- the way we feel about things matters. Whether it's the best response, the most mature response, or "petty" is neither here nor there. The reason why small problems evolve into large problems is because we don't address them immediately; we let them fester to the point where cutting off contact with someone is easier than dealing with the laundry list of minor pains they have inflicted. I don't think this woman is being petty, but I do think she needs to address the underlying issues that are making her feel territorial about her child around her mother-in-law.
I can tell you from personal experience, boundary issues with grandparents don't resolve themselves, they just get worse as children get older. If there is something going on with your own parents or in-laws, you might want to either address it, or figure out how to make peace with it. Ignoring this kind of thing might drive you insane. I feel this woman's pain, because my own mother not only calls my children "hers" -- I'm pretty sure she actually believes it somehow.
I had a sense that my mom would have a hard time with boundaries when I was pregnant and she insisted on coming to the birth even though I made it very clear her presence would stress me out. I was a week late -- she got on a plane. The day my son was born ended up looking like this: my Greek mother crying and praying in the hospital halls while I nervously waited for my husband to arrive for what would end up being an emergency c-section. Her presence did, just as I knew it would, stress me out immensely. I was so worried about her high blood pressure and how she was reacting to the stress of my labor, I couldn't focus on the importance of my own relaxation.
Her boundary oversteps continued the first night home from the hospital, when my child cried endlessly. She repeatedly ignored my pleas that she let me attempt to soothe my own child. She stopped short of ripping him out of my hands, but her constant peeking in on our bedroom made a difficult night even worse.
Two kids and four years later, the boundary crossing has not stopped. She rarely listens to directives about nap time or what the kids should eat. Since she watches one of my children while I work, I'm constantly reminded that I should just feel lucky for the help. The problem is, I don't even want her to watch my daughter every day -- even though it's a huge help. But I've let these things go for so long it would be almost impossible to stop the routine we have. She often makes comments like, "I'm her mother 5 days a week." It drives me nuts. If watching a child for four hours five days a week makes someone a mother -- I don't even have a comeback for that.
So it's turned into a passive-aggressive nightmare. I get annoyed and don't say anything when she says inappropriate things about being my kids' "mother." Every directive she ignores makes the giant pit of resentment in my stomach grow a little more. We used to have a great relationship - now I can barely stand being around her when the kids are around.
Clearly, my situation is even worse than the letter writer's, so I don't have much room to offer advice. But let my life be a cautionary tale -- little things that others may see as "petty" could end up putting a huge strain on relationships -- a strain that can feel almost unsurmountable if avoiding dealing with it becomes habit.
(photo: Getty Images)