Q I have two children aged nine and five. My husband and I manage really well as a team – we both work full time. Life is hectic but we cope well. There is one issue that really gets me down – my mother-in-law. She constantly puts my mothering skills down when we are alone and shows me up in front of other family members. She picks holes in the way I do things and it’s really starting to affect my confidence and I doubt my own mothering skills. I have ended up snapping at her and then she gets upset. I can’t win! My husband is aware of the situation but doesn’t seem to acknowledge just how much of an effect his mother’s words have on me. How can I make my mother-in-law aware of how much she is upsetting me without causing a family rift?
Thanks for sending in your question. This is a situation many women will relate to. Psychodynamics look at how our past relationships impact our relationships now. Why we behave in a certain way, respond either positively or negatively to a situation, and our core belief system is deeply embedded in years of unconscious learning from our family of origin.
So here’s a weird question following your question. What is your relationship like with your mother? What type of mother was/is she to you? Look at this historically from your parent-child, parent-adolescent and parent-adult perspective?
In your mind, if I said the word ‘mother’ what word, images or thoughts come to mind. Write ‘mother’ in the centre of a blank page and start writing the first words that come to you. Don’t judge them, just let it flow out. The reason I ask you to do this is because we are looking at one of the most important roles in your life, that of being a mother. As a mother you are bringing up your children, and for some reason, people, in this particular case, your mother in law, feels like she can add her tuppence to the pot. How your mother-in-law brought up her family and how you raise yours will never match because you have different children, in a different time and with different values. Different is the word you must lean into. Different does not mean better or worse. You need to accept that your mothering, because you didn’t say parenting, isn’t up for open discussion. So why are you letting your mother-in-law’s opinion overrule your own?
Work out why it upsets you
What does she say that really upsets you? I can hear from your words that it really does bother you; my question is why? What core emotion is it bringing up? Is it anger, sadness and/or guilt? Again, write out the sentences or words that have really stuck with you and draw out the sting of why these words, actions or gestures have hurt. Listen to your body’s response; your emotions never lie, they will tell you exactly why it has hurt you. Does it affect you more or less when she criticises you in public or private?
Talk to your husband
Once you have established why you feel so upset by your mother-in-law you need to now speak with your husband again. Keep it non-confrontational; if you don’t, your husband will become defensive and protect his mother. Set aside some time, and tell your husband that you want to speak to him about something that has really upset you. Pick one instance where you felt hurt and relate that. For example, you could say ‘When your mother (fill in the blank) it made me feel very upset.” Explain why that hurt and how it made you feel.
You are not asking your husband to pick between you and his mother. But you can say to him that you are not accepting her behaviour anymore because it is having an impact upon your confidence. You can add a positive point by reiterating to him that you feel that you do work as a team with everything else so you are asking him to be supportive with this situation. It’s important for him to hear and really understand why it is upsetting you. You are not asking him to fix it. Avoid triangulation ; don’t have your husband be the go-between. You can create new healthy boundaries together as a couple and then relay this back in a constructive way to your mother-in-law.
Try to empathise
From the list compiled of the hurtful comments and actions, ask yourself what was your mother-in-law’s intention? Did she think she was being helpful? Does she feel that her purpose and role as a mother has gone? This is her issue though, not yours. But this can help you perhaps understand why she is acting the way she is. This is not to say that you have to accept this blindly, but it can perhaps help to cultivate empathy for her.
Support is out there
If there are certain issues that have arisen from the CBT and psychodynamic questions above it can be helpful to get support. These are deep-rooted responses – you sound like you feel attacked, criticised, judged? This is why I asked you at the offset about your own mother-daughter relationship. Did/does your mother criticise you? Do you feel the need to be perfect?
The reason I ask this is because so many women try to be the perfect mother, wife and career woman. Perfection is the root of a lot of burnout. You mentioned that you both work full-time, you have two children so it’s fair to say that you have a busy household. You also say that you cope well. Is that a good quality of life though? I know parenthood is a serious juggling act, the ones I see falling between the cracks though are exhausted mothers. Are your needs being met?
Perfection does not exist
If your mother-in-law questions you or criticises you it may feel very threatening to you. The problem with perfection is that it does not exist. I am going to repeat that for you and for every woman out there. Stop trying to be perfect, stop feeling guilt and shame. The stress on women today is phenomenal. Your mother-in-law, may be making cutting remarks, but it is affecting you. The question is why? I am not saying your mother-in-law is right, far from it. But you can’t and won’t change her.
Be kind to yourself
You can establish healthy boundaries about what is acceptable and what is not. But when someone makes remarks that really hurt they can resonate with something we may feel ourselves. Any form of criticism can lead to a major dent in the illusion of perfection and this is why it can be so overwhelming. You say it is affecting your confidence, so you need to be more accepting, compassionate and kind to yourself, your self-esteem and your self-worth. You don’t need her approval, yours is enough. Perfection is an affliction upon the female psyche, maybe do a life audit of how perhaps you could go from coping well to enjoying your life more.
Enough is a powerful word
You can be surprised by how small changes can really make a big difference. You need to believe in yourself, and that you are enough. Enough is a new buzzword in Positive Psychology that would serve us all well in this modern world. Look at your life and when you feel yourself seething, irritated and full of passive aggression, you need to reflect on what you can do to rectify this. Place and maintain your new healthy boundaries.
It is very likely that manipulation tools such as being told you are upsetting your mother-in-law, or tears on her part may come into immediate effect. This needs to happen and you can very compassionately say ‘I’m sorry, I did not mean to hurt you, but I am not comfortable with what you said to me and I hope we can work together to have a nicer relationship.’
Explain why it upset you
Explain honestly and with sincere integrity that what she said hurt you because it made you feel insecure and/or inadequate as a mother. If she immediately becomes defensive, you can say: ‘You may not have meant it like that but I was hurt’. Many unresolved disputes end at the point with someone yelling back they ‘didn’t mean it like that’. At the end of the day if it hurt you, it hurt you. Express this sentiment and then take a deep breath and have some space, literally.
You can’t go through this without some degree of conflict and change. Conflict, like anger, can be a healthy response whereby your body and brain is saying, ‘no’. Listen to your response; this is how you feel, then you need to relay this back to your mother-in-law in whatever way you feel most comfortable. But you need to make it clear to her when she steps over the emotional boundary, which is less visceral than physical boundaries.
Words are your way to get the message across. If she responds with tears, or an angry outburst you can say that you are not trying to hurt her and you hope that she is not trying to hurt you.
Don’t be afraid of conflict. You can talk this through. Become aware of all the emotions that you feel about this so you can communicate your boundaries loud and clear. You may even be surprised as a potentially healthy equal adult relationship could develop. Best of luck with this, but like all difficult conversations they are the ones that need to be had the most.
Q. My father-in-law is causing huge problems in our family. He doesn’t respect any decisions we make as parents and occasionally has been heard to say to our children, “Ah, don’t mind what Mammy says…” or “Sure, Daddy won’t know…” when it comes to feeding them sweets or buying them toys. My husband says he’ll talk to him, but I think he’d afraid to upset him too much as my husband tends to rely on his Dad a lot and they are very close. I think my father-in-law spoils our children by way of compensating for the tough childhood my husband had. I don’t want to cause any family feuds but I feel it’s up to me to try to sort this out with my father-in-law. What’s the best way to go about it?
This is a really difficult issue. Why do you feel it is up to you to sort out? The main relationship that needs to be addressed here is that of your husband and his dad. From what you have said there seems to be a dependency on your husband with his dad. This is not healthy. When he says: “Sure, Daddy won’t know” he is really undermining him. You say that he had a tough childhood it sounds like it is still going on. Important aspects of a healthy adult son to father relationship are respect, boundaries and a faith that your husband can be a competent father and man. Without this it will affect your husband’s confidence and belief in his ability to be a strong male figure and role model, which really affects self-esteem and is likely to incur much self-doubt. Ergo, why your husband will revert back to asking his dad for more advice and continue the vicious cycle of co-dependency.
Talk it out
If they have a close relationship then they need to be able to have difficult conversations. These conversations are uncomfortable because they question the way things have been done. This can lead people to become defensive and sometimes dismissive with possible comments such as “you are being too sensitive”, “I didn’t mean it like that”, “it was only a joke”. The problem here is if, the conversation gets cut prematurely the issues build and ferment upon each other. Sometimes, a small incident may result in what seems like a huge over reaction, but it is the underlying emotions that haven’t been addressed that can be the catalyst for strong anger or emotional outbursts, or a passively aggressive response of silence or not articulating clearly how he really feels about the situation.
Have a conversation with your husband about how you feel. Explain to your husband that when your father-in-law says: “Ah, don’t mind what Mammy says…” it makes you feel … and you fill in the blanks. Then ask him to identify specifically how he feels when his father says, “Sure, Daddy won’t know…”. Ask your husband how his father showed his emotions when he was growing up? Ask him how his father reacted if your husband stood up to him. I am looking for where the dynamics of their relationship have led them to. The past is still being reflected in this situation by your father-in-law not respecting the way you want to rear your children, as if he is still the main male authoritative figure.
You decide your children’s boundaries
Even if your father-in-law is compensating with food and toys, it is disrespectful to you and your husband in terms of you deciding healthy boundaries in terms of your children. You can spoil children with things and by not putting limits in place for treats; you can’t spoil them by giving lots of love, attentive focus and time.
It is not a good idea to give children everything they want; you literally take the wonder out of childhood. It is certainly negative to always associate certain foods as treats, and can possibly set up a lifetime of bad eating habits that could have a long term impact on their life. Obesity is a serious issue in our society and we set many of our eating frameworks in childhood so it is imperative to set boundaries for children. Overloading children with gifts also takes the joy out of play as there is no special aspect of it being for an occasion or earned for good behaviour. It creates a marketing manager’s dream; creating a ‘want’ or a ‘need’ in the child who can then be pulled into being a little consumer before their time.
This is an opportunity for growth – difficult childhoods can be recovered from. Your father-in-law sounds like he is over-compensating in a hedonistic way not in line with your parental values. He may think he is trying to do the right thing. Give him the chance to know that he can contribute and be part of the family in a way that would benefit all. Much deeper meaning and depth could be established within all the relationships, that would ultimately be fulfilling as opposed to temporarily winning children over with ‘treats.’
I wish you all luck with creating new healthy and hopefully joyful boundaries that could heal some of the hurts from the past. Words, actions and heartfelt acknowledgement of mistakes from the past can lead to a powerful sense of being able to enjoy the present in a very new way.
Q I am married to a wonderful man who suffers from depression. I want to be supportive but I feel under incredible pressure as I’m expected to be the one who keeps it together all of the time and I don’t know how much longer I can. I spend my days shielding our children from his mood swings and making excuses for his behaviour. While I understand this is an illness, sometimes I feel that he uses his depression as an excuse to get him off the hook. Some days he takes to the bed as soon as I say something he doesn’t want to hear, which can be something as simple as asking him to put his dirty laundry in the laundry hamper. How do I stay supportive when some days I just want to get into the bed and not deal with life either?
Being the wife to a husband who suffers from depression suffers herself. Suffer is an interesting but apt word and when someone experiences chronic depression, it can become the third unwanted guest in your relationship.
Like an unwanted guest, depression can seem to just turn up, unannounced, uninvited and always at the worst possible times. When you need to have that conversation; when you want to just get on with getting things done; when you want to be a normal happy functioning family. There it is, sucking up the life, the air and the quality of your lives, your relationship and all the relationships that you both love.
It erases the positive
Depression eats up the hope and the optimism – and erodes compassion due to how chronic the problem is. What would be likely to change the dynamic that is operating at the moment? Have you ever just taken to the bed? I’m sure you get tired as well. Physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted as the burden of being the carer, the wife and the mother takes its inevitable toll.
As the wife of a man dealing with depression you seem to feel you have to take up the mantle. The danger to your relationship ultimately will be the insidious build up of feelings of unresolved and unspoken anger; this dangerous combination can often lead to resentment. These feelings are corrosive to your relationship. This is when communication within your marriage must open the door to explore how you are feeling as well. Would your husband be willing to go to couples counselling? Is he receiving therapeutic care? Are you? I know this can seem a lot, but I would recommend that he gets therapy and that you also get personal therapy and couples therapy.
Couples therapy will help explore the avoidance of having to take responsibility for his part within the family. To understand the dynamic of the very unpleasant threesome going on for you at the moment; you, him and the depression, and what that means to you both. To really hear how it is for him, and for you to be able to hear this with fresh ears as we call in mindfulness to see with beginner’s eyes. For you to be heard, to have your emotions heard, acknowledged and validated. It will help you to work together to turn the marriage towards each other and away from the unwanted guest.
You need to create boundaries for yourself as well and to engage with yourself in an emotionally healthy manner. To do this you must start with yourself. You need to create time for yourself, whether that is a walk, or a class or just going out with friends. Create a strong support system around you, family and friends are an extremely effective stress antidote and buffer.
Share your concerns and feelings with close friends and family. This is not your full responsibility. Recognise what drains you; is it his moods or do you find shielding the children very upsetting? Write a list of the aspects of his depression in terms of how it is for you. On a separate list take note of all the positive aspects of your marriage and why it is so important to you. It is important to remember the good, especially to buffer against the bad days.
Be good to yourself
What nourishes you? What energises you? Make another list answering these two questions and prioritise this as a fundamental aspect of your own emotional welfare. Then schedule in this self-care for yourself. This is for you but it is also for the whole family and for you to stay strong and supportive you have to look after your own needs as well. It is also very important for the children to see you take care of your emotional needs as this is what teaches them about creating healthy emotional boundaries for themselves as well.
Soften Soothe Allow is a wonderful CBT technique to help bring awareness to how you feel in a compassionate and kind way:
• Sit down, and get comfortable. Close your eyes. Take in three relaxing breaths.
• Place your hand on your heart and bring a sense of compassion and kindness to yourself.
• Recall a difficult situation or emotion for you right now. Visualise it, what happened, who was there, what was said, what was the feeling?
• Now, name the strongest emotion you felt with the situation – anger, sadness, fear? Repeat the name of the emotion to yourself in a kind understanding voice as if you were validating for a friend what they were feeling.
• Bring your awareness to your body as a whole.
• Scan your body, where do you feel it the most? Is it heavy, tired or achy like heartache?
• Go to where you feel it the most in your body.
• Soften – the location in your body. You can say the words ‘soften…soften…soften’. Like applying heat to a sore muscle. The goal is not to make the feeling go away but to be with it in loving awareness.
• Soothe – yourself for feeling like this, the struggle, the pain, the hurt. You may acknowledge how it has felt with kind words – ‘this is very hard’.
• It can help sometimes to imagine your body as a beloved child that you want to soothe the pain for.
• Allow – the discomfort to be there. Let go of trying to not feel it, or make it go away. You can repeat the word ‘allow…allow…allow.’
• The three words ‘soften soothe allow’ can be said like a mantra, reminding you to incline with tenderness toward your suffering.
• If it becomes too much just stay with your breath until you feel better.
• Slowly open your eyes when you feel ready.
Fight against it
Depression plays a dangerous role in the division of a relationship. This is about the two working together. To work on issues within the marriage that you want him to be part of you need to express how it has been for you. Your intention is not to hurt him or to make him feel worse than he already does but it is to show him that as he falls into the internal spiral of negativity that feeds depression it leaves you alone, isolated and feeling the burden of being in so many roles as his wife, their mother and as a carer.
When people have described depression to me I visualise this awful negativity spiral that disconnects you from everyone else. The person experiencing depression feels utterly alone, but I can see that also leaves you left behind to deal with the everyday routine that needs to get done. The aim is to find that connection to help him and you fight against the blackness and to build upon the marriage and relationship that you love and have.
Q My sister-in-law and I both work three-day weeks and we help each other out with child minding on our working days, which up until recently has worked out really well. Between us, our kids are aged between five and nine years – the problem is that it’s now become quite apparent that we have very different parenting styles. I prefer my two daughters (seven and nine) to have a structured day. For example, in my house, we have allocated times for television and iPads, etc. My sister-in-law, however, lets the kids run loose after school – homework is ignored and my kids end up wired after eating sugary treats all afternoon. I am considering looking at after-school childcare for the kids, but I’m worried that this is going to cause a family argument. Is there a diplomatic way that I can ask my sister-in-law to introduce some discipline into her child-minding days? It certainly doesn’t do her two kids any harm when I am minding them in my own house!
In a word, no, there is no diplomatic way to do this as it may very likely seem like your saying that your parenting style is better than hers. As L’Óreal says, ‘now here comes the science bit.’ Dr. Kaylene Henderson, a child psychiatrist, wrote a very interesting blog about ‘the science behind the Mummy Wars’. She explains that before she had children of her own she hadn’t been aware of how parents have a very specific sense of the right parenting style. She also found that parents could be very definite in defending their chosen parenting style. Dr. Henderson, who describes herself as a curious, scientific, open-minded person, was surprised at how defensive parents could be and, at times, of their judgemental attitude towards each other. She explained the neurology of the Mummy Wars; okay, I’ll need you to bear with me for a second. Warning; I’m about to use some neuro-techie language.
Why do we judge each other?
As we have all had different experiences, this means that we all have very different memories stored in our brains. Most of our memories are ‘explicit’ memories – these are ones that we can recall easily such as important dates that mean something to us; important birthdays, special events or stories of and about our lives.
There is another type of memory called ‘implicit’ memory that plays a key role in our parenting. This type of memory is the stuff that you do on autopilot. Psychologists call these heuristics or rules of thumb – such as tying your shoelace, or driving your car (once you have learnt to do both first!). Otherwise we’d really waste a huge amount of time pondering over tasks that we have readily available to us. This seems to be where the science bit of our parenting style kicks in. This implicit memory goes all the way back to when you were an infant being parented by your parents. This is when you started the process of storing up how they did it into your memories.
Unless you make a conscious choice and effort to parent differently, what you saw and unconsciously learnt will be your automatic go-to parenting style.
We learn habits
This can really kick into gear when we feel our parenting style is being mirrored or highlighted by disapproval from another parent. I know the cold sweat you feel when your child decides to make their outstanding bad behaviour performance at, of course, the most public and worst time. The implicit autopilot of how your parents dealt with these outbursts will flow unconsciously from you if you haven’t worked super hard to be aware and consciously change the old habits. What’s happening for the on-looking parent is that they see you doing something they are used to doing, but you are doing it all wrong. Simply, because that is not how they know how to do it.
Find a way that works
You both have different parenting styles – who is to say which type is correct? You just need to know what works best for your family and that’s the bottom line. The irksome feelings won’t go away. You can talk to your sister-in-law, but I’m adding a caveat that it would be hard not to hurt her feelings. What we’re possibly looking at is that you prefer a more structured form of parenting, whereas your sister-in-law has a more permissive style. I’m not sure the two styles can mix, the mixture is a bit like oil and water.
If a collaborative shared form of parenting style can be agreed upon, then that is great, but our learnt hardwiring may prove difficult to change despite the intent to do so.
Perhaps, your own instinct of changing childcare might work best for you. In terms of making childcare work; the fit is ultimately the most important aspect as you want a cohesive congruent feeling of the other caregiver to just ‘getting it’, like in any good partnership. Best of luck with this and I wish you both well.