Shortly after I published my post revisiting the question of troublesome mother-in-laws my wife found a recent edition of Dear Prudence about a difficult mother-in-law. The woman writing to Prudence explains that she and her husband make a habit of bringing the in laws on vacation with the family. On the latest trip the mother-in-law rewrote a children’s book with the daughter, creating a happy ending where the girl’s parents die and the girl gets to live with her grandmother. The letter writer explains that they have confronted the mother-in-law, but this didn’t make an impact. She closes her letter with the question “What should we do?”, which is wife speak for “What should I make my husband do next?”
The book was about a girl who visits her grandmother for the summer every year; my MIL wrote an ending with my daughter that said the girl’s parents died and she got to live with her grandmother forever. It was written like a happy ending! When we confronted her (away from the children) that it was inappropriate, she blamed our 5-year-old saying it was all her idea. I am so upset I can’t even look at this woman; and now she is suggesting we get together again next month to go camping. What should we do?
Prudence understood the coded question and explained that the wife needs to make her husband (wait for it) confront the mother-in-law. This is the drama seeker’s go to response, so even though the letter writer explained this had already been tried and failed, Prudence reiterated that manipulating the husband into yet another drama filled confrontation is the only solution:
It’s time for your husband to explain to his mother that while she obviously loves the kids, and vice versa, she has to do some serious rethinking about her behavior. He needs to explain that she may not be aware of it, but she constantly undermines the two of you as parents. Now she’s gone off the rails entirely with the fantasy book ending that refers to the joys of orphanhood. I think he should tell her that an extended summer get-together is on ice this year. He can say you two are so steamed that you’re going to go away as a family without including the in-laws. He can say that he hopes this hiatus gives her a chance to think about how to be a loving grandmother without being an undermining one.
It always cracks me up when people start by explaining how entirely unreasonable someone is being, and then follow up with a solution which would only apply when dealing with someone who is generally speaking reasonable. As I explained in the previous post, this kind of dramatic confrontation is the troublesome mother-in-law equivalent of crack. There are so many ways for a trouble-making mother-in-law to parry such a clumsy response that all I can say for sure is the mother-in-law couldn’t have asked for a better outcome. It may be that the husband will decide bringing his folks along on future family vacations is a bad idea, but setting this up as a punishment only invites decades of “poor me” performances by the mother-in-law. That in doing this he isn’t acting under his own steam, but instead taking orders from a gaggle of gossiping women makes the situation all the worse. This is a major victory for the mother-in-law, and decades of high drama will undoubtedly ensue.
There is another point that the letter writer and Prudence are both missing. The most serious issue here is not the harm to the wife’s feelings, but the potential harm to the daughter herself. She is being used as a pawn by her grandmother to stir up trouble, and this has to be at least somewhat harmful. But Prudence and the letter writer are so caught up in the drama, all they see are the letter writer’s hurt feelings. For both the mother-in-law and the wife, the child is merely a pawn.