Help! I Discovered My Mother-in-Law Breast-Feeding My Baby.

Advice on manners and morals.
July 9 2012 3:18 PM

A Breast Too Far

In a live chat, Prudie advises a woman who discovered her mother-in-law suckling her newborn son.

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photograph by Teresa Castracane.

Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of this week’s chat is below. (Sign up here to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at prudence@slate.com.)

Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon. And if I suddenly go silent it's not because a question was shocking, but because Pepco is my electricity provider. (We lost power four times yesterday.)

Q. Breast-Feeding Mother-in-Law: I had a baby two months ago. About two weeks ago, my husband had to go out of town for a few days, so his mother came to stay with the baby and me. One night I heard the baby crying, and heard my MIL go to him. I thought she was going to bring him to me to nurse so I stayed in bed for a while. When she didn't bring him, I figured she was just rocking him back to sleep and went to see if she needed anything, like a bottle from the fridge. When I entered the room I saw her holding my son to her breast, letting him suckle. I was (and am) livid. I took my son back to my room and told her she had to leave first thing in the morning. I want to call the police, but my husband thinks that would be taking things too far. We're at an impasse. Should we call the police? I'm hesitant to let her near my son again.

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A: Seeing your mother-in-law turn herself into a human pacifier must have been quite a shock. Your poor infant son also must have been wondering why mom's abundant supply was now Sahara-dry. At least you don't say that your mother-in-law gave some cockamamie excuse that she was just trying to protect your son from the bisphenol A in his baby-bottle nipple. But the fact that this letter is about your mother-in-law's nipple is enough to give anyone feelings of morning sickness. New parents get into all sorts of hassles with the grandparents over different styles of raising the kids. But this is the first time I've ever heard of a young mother having to say to her mother-in-law, "And I'd prefer you didn't put your breast in little Jason's mouth." I completely understand your need to ask her to leave. But though your complaint would be a classic on the police blotter, it is not a matter for law enforcement. Your husband needs to have a very serious talk with his mother about boundaries—emotional and physical. He needs to explain that if she can't respect and understand them, she will not have access to her grandchild. I'm also wondering if she might possibly need a mental health work-up because her behavior was just bizarre. In any case, if she keeps buttoned up, she should be allowed to have access to your son, but I understand if it's a long time before she makes it onto the baby-sitting roster.

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Q. Violent Homophobic "Jokes": My mom is pregnant by and engaged to marry "Chuck." I am in college, so until this summer I've only heard about Chuck from my mom and my younger brother. Over the Fourth of July, Chuck and his drinking buddies hung out at our house. They made numerous homophobic jokes. The worst one, made in front of me and my brother, was when my stepdad said he'd drown the baby my mom's pregnant with if he turned out to be a "[expletive]" If the baby is a girl and is a "[expletive]" then he'll let his friends "straighten her out." I was horrified by the joke and left the room. Later that evening I found my 16-year-old brother sobbing. He came out to me then and told me that Chuck frequently makes violently homophobic "jokes." Our mom brushes off his concerns because "they're just jokes." Now I am scared for my brother's sake and don't want to return to my college town in a week. I feel like I'm abandoning my brother. I need to protect him, but there aren't any grandparents or a dad I can turn to for help.

A: These aren't jokes, and I understand your brother's terror at finding himself living with this sicko. What a mess—a mother pregnant by a crude drunk and no other family members to turn to. You and your brother could try again to have a private talk with your mother about what's going on. Explain that the things Chuck and his friends are saying and doing are deeply disturbing, and you're concerned about the atmosphere in which all of you will have to live. It probably won't do any good because your mother is in too deep. But do not think about not returning to college in order to protect your brother. It is crucial you continue your education. Tell your brother as hard as his family life is going to be, he also must do as well as possible in high school so that he can make a successful escape. Then promise to stay in very close touch with your brother and monitor the situation. If it becomes too intolerable, perhaps there's an aunt or uncle who can take him in. Maybe he can live with the family of a friend. And if necessary, there is always foster care. How sad that a woman with two almost-grown children is starting over with a partner so unsuited to being a father. When the baby comes, if this unsuitability becomes ever more apparent, you should feel free to call Child Protective Services.

Update: Many readers have made the good suggestion that this brother and sister contact the Trevor Project, a crisis intervention organization for gay youth, and PFLAG, another support network. Both these groups have hotlines, and people there might be able to direct the 16-year-old to a safe, supportive place. 

Q. Newly Found Heritage: I have just discovered, through Ancestry.com, that my father's mother and her family were black. This was proven through census records, etc. I and my children are ecstatic about this newfound information. However, my sisters are in shock and do not wish to discuss it. I'm 61 years old and am hurt that no one told me or my sisters about our bloodline. All of my aunts, uncles, and our father are all dead. I am completely positive that no one on my mother’s side of the family knew anything about this, because we are from the deep South and unfortunately there are quite a few bigoted members. How can I get my three sisters to accept their family roots or at least come to terms with it. Myself? I embrace it.

A: What you and your children should do is embrace this fascinating discovery and find out more if you're so inclined. You may be able to contact a side of the family no one knew about. But you do not have to drag along your sisters. They're not interested. Yes, it may be out of racism, it may be that this news is upending their understanding of their roots and they don't wish to dig further. But their reaction, disappointing as it is, shouldn't affect your pleasure in pursuing your ancestry.

Q. Mentally Ill Mother: A few months ago I saved two lives at personal risk (though that wasn't on my mind at the time). The media covered the incident, and the governor kindly invited me to a state function where citizens receive commendations. The problem is my mentally ill mother, from whom I have been estranged for years. She was a terrible parent with some unholy combination of paranoia, delusional thinking, rage problems, and narcissism, and she refuses to seek help. She's always had fantasies about being around important people, and has been contacting me through various channels demanding that I bring her to meet the governor. Aside from my personal feelings, her behavior at public functions is so inappropriate that she would either be thrown out or jailed as a safety hazard. I've been trying to ignore her, but her latest tactic is to threaten that she will "tell the press what a horrible daughter you are." So now I'm entering the realm of lawyers, R.O.s, cease-and-desist orders, and the like. I'm wondering if I should just skip the ceremony—this is getting incredibly stressful, and I'm worried she'll crash it and ruin the day for others. Any suggestions?

A: Congratulations at being recognized for your heroic acts. How wonderful to think that two people will get to live out their lives because of you. You should also get a pat on the back for overcoming a horrific childhood. Do not let your mother ruin your day. You are taking what is unfortunately necessary legal action to keep your mother out of this event and your life, so let the authorities handle this. Also warn the people coordinating the dinner that sadly your mother is mentally ill and might try to crash the event. That way security will be on the alert and should be able keep her from getting in the door. If she wants to rave to the press about you, it will be immediately apparent to any reporter that they are dealing with a delusional person and nothing will come of it. Please go to the dinner and enjoy the honor you so much deserve.

Q. Re: Brother Needs Mentoring: Prudie, that poor 16-year-old needs a safe place to talk to someone—before the sister goes home, she and the brother should head for his high school—guidance offices are often open during the summer and counselors are sometimes available—and he needs to get help as soon as possible. I doubt if mom will be either sympathetic or helpful.

A: Good idea. The authorities at the school should be alerted to this awful situation and should be ready to help extract the boy from his home. Sadly, I agree with you about mom.

Q. Overreacting: Forgive and Forget?: Last week I visited my sister and met her boyfriend for the first time. One night we went to a party, and my sister's boyfriend drank too much. He saw my sister and I talking with one of their male friends, and he decided that my sister and the male friend were flirting. His response was to pour his full cup of beer on my sister's head. Then he stormed off, so my sister and I had to find a ride home. My sister forgave her boyfriend quickly and has forbidden me of speaking about the "beer pour" to anyone we know. Her boyfriend isn't remorseful, but she still seems to think this was an "out of character" reaction. I am uncomfortable because they're both coming to visit my family in August. I don't know if I should tell my parents what happened, because my sister would get in trouble for taking me to a party where alcohol was being served; I'm underage. Should I just drop this?

A: The issue is not your being around where alcohol was served, it's where that alcohol went. Your sister couldn't prevent her creep of a boyfriend from dousing her with beer; neither can she prevent you from telling your parents this alarming story. Your sister is involved with someone with an anger, jealousy, and impulse-control problem. That is important news and your parents should be made aware of this. If your sister is a young adult, there may be nothing they can do, but they can have a sympathetic talk expressing their concern and emphasizing that being abused is never OK. In the short term this might only drive her further into her boyfriend's arms, but it's possible another part of her will hear this important message.

Q. I Married My High-School Teacher: I'm a 34-year-old woman who recently married a wonderful 43-year-old man. The age difference doesn't raise so many eyebrows as does the circumstance of how we met. When I was in high school, my husband was my teacher. I had a little crush on him, but he was just my teacher, I dated boys my age, and moved away for college. When I came back to our small town, we continued to run into each other every now and then. He also moved away briefly for work before returning two years ago to be near his elderly parents. That's when we began a romantic relationship and ended up married. We're obviously very happy, but a lot of people have made inappropriate remarks or jokes about a former teacher and student now married to each other. My husband was never attracted to me as a student. He didn't even see me as a potential romantic partner until just before we got together. But in light of some media events involving teacher-student illicit relationships, we feel like we have to defend our relationship to others. One of his friends even said "I didn't know you were a pedophile." It was meant to be a joke, but I think it's appalling. What can we say to these people?

A: If a man in his 40s marries a woman in her 30s, calling him a pedophile is obviously is meant as a joke. You may think it's a poor one, or in bad taste, but the best way to brush off the unwanted commentary on your union is to laugh off these observations. Given the drumbeat of news about teachers being prosecuted for sexual relationships with students, it's inevitable that you two are going to get some curiosity and some attempts at comedy. But your story is lovely and charming, so laughing away the remarks is the best route to ending them. If you get huffy and defensive you will only get people wondering if your husband was doing some inappropriate tutoring long ago when you were his student.

Q. Re: Violent Homophobic Jokes: I am absolutely surprised at your answer to this young woman. Her brother came out to her because he is in fear for his life. After all, how do you know pack mentality won't set in on one of their drinking binges and they’ll do something to hurt this young boy? She needs to immediately get CPS involved before something does happen to her brother. He made threats about his OWN child of drowning him or raping her if that child was gay. What makes you think he would not do something to this other child. Very disappointed in your answer!

A: Thanks for this clarification! I mistakenly read over the word "out" in the sentence, "He came out to me then and told me ..." I just read it as the brother coming to her and crying about the awful situation. Lesson: Every word counts. And this word makes this situation much more drastic and alarming. I agree big sister needs to call CPS and say her brother is gay and has a new stepfather who has threatened violence against gay people. There needs to be a shake-up in this living situation right now. And this entire family needs to be monitored. What a shameful excuse of a mother.

Q. Re: Marrying Your Teacher: I'm the same age as the original poster and my parents (who are now approaching their 40th anniversary) are professor/student. Yes, times are different but your kids and others will eventually find the story endearing.

A: Thanks for this note. I agree that it's only for the good that there are rules to prevent teachers sexually taking advantage of students. But I hope that doesn't prevent college love stories such as your parents'.

Q. Sexual Molestation: Dear Prudie, I have been married for five years. A year into our marriage, it was discovered that my FIL had recently admitted to molesting my SIL when she was a preteen. My husband also recalls finding a pornographic picture of a young girl about the same time (when he was in high school) on his father’s computer. My SIL and the rest of the family has decided to "forgive and forget" the whole situation and requested the rest of the family do the same. For the last four years I have tried my hardest to maintain a pleasant and respectful relationship with all of my in-laws despite my disgust. Now my husband and I are expecting our first child, a boy. I tried my hardest to move past my FIL's "indiscretions," as the family calls them, since he has been such a great father otherwise, but I just cannot forget this situation! I have told my husband I do not have any interest in having my child around an admitted child predator. My husband thinks I am being highly unreasonable. There are no other children in all of the extended family so we are the first to have to deal with this. Am I being unreasonable?

A: Hey, what's a little molestation of your own child when you did such a good job of cheering her from the sidelines at her soccer games? Disgust is the right emotion in reaction to this criminal cover-up. Your poor sister-in-law, who for the sake of family peace is being emotionally manipulated to keep quiet. You know your father-in-law is a child molester, and even if he is only interested in little girls you should never let your son be alone with him. But sadly, if you insist on completely cutting him out of your child's life, that will mean cutting your husband off from his entire enabling family. I think you two should talk this out with a counselor who can help you sort through how to proceed so that you feel your child is safe and that your husband, at the least, recognizes the risks of children being around his father. If your sister-in-law refuses to report her father, there's not much anyone can do. But if he was willing to molest his own daughter, isn't it likely there are other victims?

Q. Re: Newfound Heritage: That's wonderful that you embrace your newfound heritage. Having said that, you go overboard with the fact you embrace it. You mention it twice in one short paragraph. Point made: You are not bigoted. If you are even half as enthused when talking to your sisters, I can see why they would stop wanting to take your calls. Yes, it's a difference. It is not something that need be earth-shattering. Being so exuberant about a subject (any subject) can get very off-putting very quickly. (I also wonder if the letter writer has been lecturing them on the Importance of this find, and how they all need to Discuss it and come to Terms with it. No one likes to be preached to about how they should react to something.)

A: Good points, thanks. Also some people are simply not that interested in their roots, whatever they are.

Q. Married a Mental Child: Last year I met a wonderful woman who was smart, funny, attractive, and we both shared a lot of interests. One of the things she occasionally talked about was that she liked cartoons. I always figured she meant she liked them as a kid, but after we married and moved in together I found out that this wasn't the case—she has a shelf FULL of DVDs for cartoons—a lot of them are the Japanese anime type, but there're some American cartoons in there as well. I was hoping this was just a collection, but she still watches them. I don't understand—why would a woman in her 20s still watch cartoons meant for kids? I love her a lot, but I never signed up to marry someone who shares the same interests as a 5-year-old. I told her that she should really think about getting rid of these little-kid shows, but she gets angry at me whenever I bring it up. Should I just shut up about this, or just try and ignore cartoon ponies on my TV whenever I can?

A: I'm not necessarily a big advocate of living together before marriage. It can be the right thing, but it can also leave two people stuck together who haven't figured out what they really want out of the relationship. But it sounds as if you married someone whose apartment you never even visited, let alone spent time in. Your wife gave you a heads up that she likes cartoons, so you sound like the immature dope for not understanding that she likes cartoons. If after a long, stressful day, she wants to watch a little anime instead of pouring a martini, that shouldn't bother you. If she won't come to bed because she wants to see little ponies all night, that's one thing. But if it's just an eccentric hobby, stop being a big meanie.

Q. Unwelcome Self-Invitation: My husband's ex-wife has custody of their daughter, but she comes to us during school vacations. Because of the limited time we have together, her father and I put a lot of effort into making it a fun trip for her. We're planning a skiing trip to Europe around Christmas and I've been emailing the ex-wife back and forth about the arrangement. In her last email, she dropped a bombshell by asking if my husband and I would also take her younger daughter—my stepdaughter's half sister. The half sister's father doesn't exactly earn a lot of money. Apparently the younger daughter has been asking why her older sister gets to go to Disneyland and frequent overseas trips, and comes back with a bag full of new toys and clothes. There's no way my husband's ex can contribute to the skiing trip, so the implication was that we should pay for all the expenses for her younger daughter because my husband and I earn more than she does. My husband is balking at the idea. We don't want the additional responsibility of caring for another child we barely know. I know she's a significant person to our daughter but she's barely a relative to us. Although we make more money, it's not like we're Tom Cruise, so the airfare and extra food/accommodation/everything else is still a lot of money. We're happy to make the expense for my stepdaughter, but not her half sister. I'm amazed that their mother even had the audacity to ask. How can I tell her no politely as to avoid damaging our delicate relationship, yet still convey how inappropriate her request is and that she isn't to ask us something like this again?

A: A little while ago I had the flip side of this letter. It was from the less-wealthy mother who was concerned about the extravagant parties and gifts her husband's ex-wife showered on her stepson, things she couldn't afford to do for her own kids. I understand that you don't want to take your stepdaughter's half sister. This would be especially inappropriate if it intruded on the only time your husband had with his daughter. So your husband should say to his ex that he understands the two girls are sisters, but he has so little time with his own child that he wants to just spend it with her. But I think you two might reconsider your whole approach to parenting. Sure, trips to Disneyland and Europe and bags of toys and clothes are thrilling, but that is not what being a parent is about. It would be far better for your stepdaughter to simply become a member of your household for the time you all are together. How much nicer for your daughter if instead of a princess whirlwind, she helped with the cooking, walked the dog, went to the neighborhood park. I'm not saying there should never be a special event or purchase, but such fantasy trips probably make it difficult to have the moments of everyday connection she needs with her father. It's probably easier to fill her visits with big events because she is such a stranger. Quieter times will help all of you know each other better.

Q. Bethesda: My wife gave birth to our first child about a month ago. Her mother came and stayed with us for two weeks, and I stayed home for two weeks and a day (so her first day without mom wasn't completely alone). I then eased back into the workweek. Now, I'm working full-time. However, my wife still expects the same level of support—specifically nighttime support—that was provided during those first couple weeks. Waking up with feedings, changing him before feeding, swaddling him after, putting him back to sleep, etc. I just can't do that AND wake up and go to work full-time. I know being a mom is hard work, but she can nap during the day; I can't. She doesn't have to worry about falling asleep at the wheel on a commute. How can I gently raise the issue that she's going to have to do things on her own those five weeknights (four, actually, as I work from home one day a week so it's not as big an issue) so I can be somewhat functional at work and not kill myself while driving?

A: Forget opening with, "You can nap and I can't." When our daughter was born, after my husband went back to work he moved into the guest room to be able to sleep through the night. I called it his "bachelor pad" and eventually our daughter started sleeping through most of the night, and he returned to our bedroom. You need to tell your wife that you've had some close calls on the road with driving while sleep-deprived—that's dangerous. Say until your daughter starts dropping some of the nighttime feedings, you need to work out a system so that your wife is getting support and you're not falling asleep behind the wheel. Do it in the sense of helping each other, not justifying who has it harder.

Q. Re: Mental Child: Just thank your lucky stars that if you ever have kids, she'll be enthusiastically watching The Little Mermaid for the 100th time in a row alongside them while you can occupy yourself with more important adult things.

A: Exactly!

Emily Yoffe: Thanks everyone. And I salute the Pepco crews (not their bosses, but the people out repairing the lines) who kept the power on through the chat.

Emily Yoffe is a regular Slate contributor. She writes the Dear Prudence column. 

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