Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the 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 email@example.com.)
Emily Yoffe: Merry Christmas! It would be great if all our problems took a holiday. But if they haven't, don't turn to the spiked eggnog for solace; unburden yourself here.
Q. Grandma's Secret Christmas: I am fortunate to have a large extended family living in close proximity, including four grandparents. My mother-in-law sees my children regularly and never forgets their birthdays, which is wonderful. Traditionally, our families gather the weekend before Christmas for a gift exchange. We always have a nice time. This year I discovered, through a conversation with my niece, that Grandma travels to their home on Christmas morning to cook them a special breakfast and celebrate what my niece describes as "real Christmas when Grandma brings our big gifts." This year, my niece explained, she expects some expensive electronics and gift cards from my MIL in addition to the gifts she'd opened that day at our gathering. My feelings were hurt, and I told my husband. He admitted that he knew about these other Christmas celebrations but sees no need to confront his mother about them because "our children don't need those gifts." I agree that we do not need any more gifts, but this "secret Christmas" celebration seems wrong and hurtful to me, and I worry about what might happen when my daughters are old enough to feel left out if they discover them, too. Should I confront my MIL? If not, what do I tell my children when they inevitably hear about this?
A: Dealings with your mother-in-law are the territory of your husband. He seems completely untroubled by his mother's extra time with his sister and their kids, and you should follow his lead. You don't explain it here, but perhaps your sister-in-law and her family are in the kind of financial straits that your family fortunately is not. So Grandma does something extra for this brood that yours does not need. You seem to have no other complaints about your mother-in-law and say she's an excellent grandmother to your children. Leave this alone. An important lesson for children to learn is that fairness does not dictate exact equality. If they find out about Grandma's special visit, you just shrug it off and point out some wonderful things in their lives that their cousins don't have. If you want your children to have more time with your mother-in-law then facilitate that—just don't make it about material possessions.
Dear Prudence: Father with a Gross Habit
Q. Mother-in-Law: When I'm around my MIL, it is a constant barrage of criticism about my house, my taste in clothing, certain facial features, etc. Last night I had a crying breakdown, tightness in my chest, and a double nosebleed after she left. After spending 15 hours this week trying to make my home cute and Christmasy, nothing was good enough. Food was gross; need better rugs; tree too small; too many penguins used in the decorations. The most neutral thing she said was "Well isn't that interesting" about a couple of things. I usually smile halfheartedly and say, "It was the size tree we wanted," "I like that wall color actually," etc. The problem is my husband is happy to defend me, but he has been around her negativity and critical self for so many years that it doesn't even faze him or occur to him to step in. He tunes her out; it's like he doesn't even hear it, and it's only after she leaves and I list the 62 criticisms that he realizes it's a bit much for his new wife. I can't change her. How can I change my response so that I am not having physiological, emotional meltdowns after being around her? I have tried just "tuning her out" like my husband, but when a woman is attacking her daughter-in-law's tastes, decor, home, food, and appearance, that cuts to the core of a woman's identity and insecurities.
A: At least your husband isn't defending her and he is coming to understand how awful her visits are for you. You are right, she is not going to change. So all you can do is change your response to her, or limit the time you are required to respond to her. Explain to your husband that you just aren't as tough as he is and having someone attack everything from your "facial features" to your Christmas decorations is too much. Say you want him to have a relationship with his mother, but much of it will have to take place without you—he goes to visit her privately, or visits are kept short. Then you need to stop responding to her except to say, "Thank you!" So she says, "That hairdo makes your nose look so big." You respond, "Thank you, Hortense!" She says, "I can't believe how many penguins you used in the decorations." Again, you say, "Thank you for pointing that out!" Stop taking her sickness personally. Think for a moment what it must be like to go through life stewing in such vileness. In this season of counting your blessings, be grateful that you are not her, and that somehow she raised a wonderful son with whom you'll have a great life.
Q. My Mom Loves Animals ... Too Much: My mom has always been an animal lover. Growing up, we had seven birds, five cats, two lizards, two snakes, various hamsters, rabbits, guinea pigs, and fish. Currently, she has four dogs, three cats, a bird, a turtle and she's fostering two other cats. She doesn't abuse the animals, and they all go to the vet regularly, eat well, and have clean water. The problem is that the house is disgusting. The 19-year-old cat that she refuses to euthanize, despite the fact that he is very ill, uses the guest bathroom as his own personal litter box, so no one else can use it (and the only other bathroom is in my mother's room). All of the carpets have various animal stains on them, and the hardwood floor in part of the dining room is so saturated with cat urine that it needs to be ripped up and replaced. There is animal hair all over everything, and it's getting to the point where my husband and I don't want to go over there because of the stench. In fact, her own sister recommended that we all come to Maryland this year for dinner the Saturday after Christmas, and she confided in me that it's because the house is disgusting and full of animals. My mom continues to take on animals, despite not having a full-time job. She lives in a single-family home (1,600 square feet) with a small yard, but it's certainly not a farm or anywhere close to big enough for all of these creatures! What do I do about Christmas Day, when my husband and I have to go over there, and how can we get her to fix this and stop her before she's a hoarder, if she isn't already?
A: You say the animals are well cared for and the numbers you cite are not at the hoarding level, although I agree this is something that needs to be monitored. But this situation sounds awful. So tell your mother you're not going over there for Christmas, you're going to take your sister up on her offer to have a family dinner at her house on Saturday and you hope she will be there. You explain you can't be going to her house regularly because the smell and the filth make a visit too uncomfortable. For visits, ask that she come see you—although you should drop by briefly and occasionally to keep your eye on this. If you feel she's reached a tipping point, you tell her you're going to report her to animal control because she has too many animals to care for properly and you're also worried the property is going to be condemned.
Q. Thank you!: Thanks for chatting today! My mother and mother-in-law buy way too many presents for our kids. The kids are young enough that we just tend to donate most of the gifts before they aren't even opened, and my daughter who is old enough to notice disappearing gifts tends not to like what either grandma buys her (though is very good about covering it and sending thank you notes), so she's fine with donating the gifts. We've tried asking both grandmas to stop buying so much, but since I have been reading advice columns for some time, I don't think there is any way to get them to stop. My question is: Do we ever need to tell them what happens to most of the gifts? Thanking them profusely and then donating the gifts seems deceptive, and there's no telling if we'll be able to keep the charade up as the kids get older. Should we fess up or wait until we're caught?
A: You and your husband should have a talk with each grandmother and explain how much you appreciate their generosity, but that it is too much. You can say since they are so generous you'd like them to consider cutting back on the presents and perhaps making a contribution to the kids' college funds. That way down the road, your children will know their loving grandmothers helped pay for their education. Then once you've spoken, that's all you can do. Keep a few gifts and donate the rest. If the grannies ask where the missing toys are you say they were lovely but that your family's tradition is to spread your good fortune and you dropped the extras at Toys for Tots.