Advice on manners and morals.

Advice on manners and morals.

Advice on manners and morals.

Advice on manners and morals.
May 10 2007 7:25 AM

Back-Seat Mommy

My husband and his mother won't let me participate in raising my own children.

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Dear Prudence,
My husband and I have two daughters, ages 2 and 5. My husband is a professor of elementary education, and his mother is a child psychologist. I feel like I haven't been given the opportunity to test out my maternal instincts or skills since our first child was born. My husband constantly corrects me on how I interact with our children and how I discipline them. When a situation arises (like when one of the girls started screaming for no reason), he will confer with his mother about what would be the best way to alter the behavior. He and his mother are not overly close; they are more like colleagues consulting with each other. I just feel like I'm being left out of raising my own children. I know they may be experts when it comes to childhood issues, but shouldn't I be given the opportunity to flex my maternal muscles (so to speak), even if I do mess up?

—The Back-Seat Mother 

Dear Back,
Your mother-in-law may be great with other people's children, but in the case of her son, she has neglected to tell him that she has limited office hours and that for any standard child-rearing issues that arise, he and his wife should try to figure things out themselves. But since everyone agrees on the value of professional counseling, you and your husband need some to help you sort through these issues. Start flexing your muscles by telling him you feel constantly undercut by his criticism (save the discussion of his mother for the marriage counselor's office), and that the two of you need help in order to find better ways to communicate and draw boundaries. Surely, both your husband and his mother know that children suffer when their mother is unhappy.

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—Prudie

Dear Prudie,
I am a very fortunate twentysomething who has found the love of her life, but I have a large dark cloud hanging over my head. My boyfriend comes from a wealthy background, whereas my family is considerably less well-off. My boyfriend's mother is a wonderful woman; we have a great start to our relationship and get along quite well, but this has sparked some drama in my long-distance relationship with my mother. She is jealous that I have this new family to spend time with and gets upset with me whenever my boyfriend's family is mentioned. Yet she's also upset if I keep back details of my relationship with his family because she doesn't like being "overprotected" (a residual reaction to her physical disabilities). To make things worse, when my parents visited the home I share with my boyfriend, his behavior was less than stellar. While he and I have discussed this, and he has promised to be more aware of this aloof upper-class behavior that becomes borderline offensive during these intense visits with my family (intense because I am lucky to see them once a year), it seems to have put my mother off him for good. How do I get my mother to see that she is still my mother and best friend, no matter who enters my life 1,200 miles away? And how do I foster a better relationship from this bad start between the two most important people in my life?

—Stuck in the Middle

Dear Stuck,
I don't understand why, if you have such a close relationship with your mother, you're barely able to see her once a year. Los Angeles and Dallas are 1,200 miles apart, for example, and a round-trip flight costs a few hundred dollars. Forgetting your boyfriend and his family for a moment, wouldn't it be better for you and your mother if you made a few short visits with each other over the year, rather than trying to squeeze in one intense, and tense, one? If your mother is jealous and insecure because you have a nice relationship with your boyfriend's mother, your mother just sounds like a jealous and insecure person, and you have to do your best to deflect that. If you tell your mother you had dinner with your boyfriend and his parents, and she acts put out, don't get defensive and try to reassure her; just say matter-of-factly, "Yes, I'm lucky they've been so welcoming of me." Now, for the love of your life: You ascribe his offensive behavior toward your mother as a product of his being upper-class. Why? It's perfectly possible to be from any social class and act rudely to a potential mother-in-law—that just makes you a jerk. But if you've observed that he treats this way only people he views as social inferiors, then he's a snob and a jerk. You say he was able to acknowledge this character deficiency and promised to change, so invite your parents for a weekend visit and give him that chance.

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—Prudie

Dear Prudence,
I'm in my early 50s, and this is my first real relationship in about four years. Good men have been hard to find. I have been dating a wonderful man for a few months and enjoy his company very much. We have talked about spending our futures together. He is kind, funny, supportive, complimentary, and attractive. However, there are a couple of problems. He makes just a bit more money than I do, yet he is always broke and struggles to pay his bills and make house payments. He has terrible spending habits. For instance, he bought the entire clearance inventory of diamond rings at a low-cost store with the intention of reselling them on eBay, but he never got around to listing them. He buys junk at second-hand stores with the same intention and result. He has spent his employer's retirement contribution every year and has nothing saved for retirement. He is also a packrat and a horrible procrastinator. His home is in dire need of repairs. He also has a small, old dog that uses his house as a toilet. I am careful about spending, and it makes me very nervous to live on the edge like this. Although otherwise I could see myself growing old with him.

—Worried Girlfriend

Dear Worried,
It sounds as if you may need that vast selection of discount diamond rings as a nest egg if you stay with this guy. Since you've known him for only a few months, stop talking about your future together and look at the present. On the plus side, he makes you feel great. On the minus side, he's a broke spendthrift whose urine-soaked house is falling down around him. I know a good man is hard to find (and vice versa, as Mae West observed), so why not enjoy his company—at your place!—and leave it at that. Marry him, and you two likely won't grow old together, but you will grow old with your debt consolidation company. Keep in mind this warning: The first time he suggests you loan him some money, even for the highly desirable purpose of steam cleaning his carpets, let that be a signal that it's time to start looking for another man.

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—Prudie

Dear Prudie,
My boyfriend and I have been living together for almost a year. I moved into his place. When I was cleaning our room recently, I came across pictures of an ex-girlfriend. To me, it seemed more like a shrine. There were pictures of when they were dating (many of him and her being intimate), and some that were taken after they'd been broken up for some time. I approached him about this, asking him to throw the pictures away. He argued with me and refused to do so. He told me he would always like to see her when she's in town and that one day, he would like to be able to look at the pictures he has, so for the time being he would put them in the attic where I would not have to see them. A month has passed, and the pictures are still there. I brought it up again about two weeks ago, and he told me if I didn't like them, I could leave. Am I making a big deal out of nothing, or am I correct in saying that this whole ordeal is extremely disrespectful to me, especially with the intimate pictures he wants to keep?

—Toss the Photos

Dear Toss,
This must be quite a secret shrine if you've been living together for a year and only just stumbled upon it. I'll assume these photos are in a drawer or closet or otherwise hidden away. If they aren't, then it is reasonable to ask they not be on display. However, he is entitled to have personal effects from a previous relationship in a private place, and you are not entitled to demand he toss them (I assume that's what you mean when you say you "approached him" and "asked him"). Now things have escalated to the point that he has suggested he would rather toss you than the pictures. Yes, I think this started off with you making a big deal about nothing (of course, if he ends up getting back together with her, how wrong I was), then going on to make unreasonable demands. But this seems like a pretty fragile relationship if his next suggestion is ending it. First of all, de-escalate. Tell him you were out of line about his memorabilia. But then tell him you two need to figure out how better to work out your disagreements without putting the entire relationship in jeopardy.

—Prudie