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 firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon. I look forward to your questions.
Q. Disappointment to My Parents: My parents are very ambitious, successful people. I was their only child, and they were determined to mold me into someone extraordinary. Instead I rebelled against their efforts and turned out very ordinary—an indifferent student, never got more than a bachelor’s degree, and I work a mid-level office job. I may pursue more education later, but I’m not in a hurry to do so. I’m happy with my life: I’m married to a wonderful man and we have a lovely, energetic toddler. So what do I say when my parents start in about how they wished I’d gone further in my education, wish I’d change X about my life, or tell horror stories about what a “difficult” child I was? At this point I don’t think it’s worth trying to get into an emotional conversation with them—I’d rather just gently and firmly shut it down when it starts. Any suggestions?
A: You don’t sound ordinary to me. You completed your education, you are gainfully employed, you have a happy marriage, and a wonderful kid. This should make any parents proud and satisfied. If yours aren’t, you need to shut down your tiger parents’ “if only” talk. Explain to them that you want them in your life and that of your child, but you’re going to have to limit that if every time you’re together you hear a critique of how you’re living your life. Say that you have always done them the favor of not harping on what demanding, cold, judgmental parents they were. So you don’t want to hear about your supposed failings, either. If they can’t be pleasant when you’re together, they’re going to have to understand you will be failing to be together.
Q. On Being a MIL: The hardest role I have ever had in life is proving to be the role of mother-in-law. I have two adult daughters and when I see behavior that hurts one of them on the part of their husbands, I have a very hard time biting my tongue, so I don’t. This of course has led to both men not liking me. It would seem that this is one of those “keeping the peace” issues but not saying anything feels hypocritical to me. How on earth do I manage this? I want to see my grandkids. Or do I just accept the old adage that mothers-in-law are shrews and everyone hates theirs, period?
A: Last week, in “honor” of Mother’s Day, I ran a piece on the worst mothers-in-law to appear in this column. Lots of people wrote to me to tell about their wonderful mothers-in-law, so I asked people to post these stories on my Facebook page. There are more than 160 tributes to these great women, and I love that this breaks the stereotype of the meddling, interfering mother-in-law.
But you are portraying yourself as a meddling, interfering mother-in-law. I don’t know what you mean by your daughters being “hurt.” If they have both married abusive men, that is alarming. If so, you should have a private meeting with your daughters to express your concern that they are not safe. But if by hurt you mean anything that makes your girls less than ecstatic, that is, the normal wear and tear and annoyance of marriage, then you need to bite your tongue. You say your sons-in-law can’t stand you. But you don’t say if your daughters are egging you on and urging you to give it to their husbands. Or if they are embarrassed and appalled by your commentary. You say your interference risks your being able to see your grandchildren, so it seems your insights are not welcome by anyone. Your daughters are adults, but you sound like you’re hypersensitive to their emotional state, which is not good for you or them. You don’t have to accept the old adages about mothers-in-law, you just have to acknowledge you are being a lousy one, and that’s it’s within your power to change your behavior.
Q. Mother’s Day, Ughhhhh: Every Mother’s Day it’s the same: My kids (now teens, but it was ever thus) do nothing until they are begged/nagged by my husband, then they scrawl some last-minute card out of obligation. It doesn’t help that I’m not that wild about my own mother, either. I try to joke that we put the “fun” in dysfunctional, but it always makes me feel terrible, because I really do a lot for them and would like them to learn to express some appreciation. Should we just cancel the holiday? It’s always an exercise in disappointment, even when I lower my expectations wayyy down.
A: This is both a global and specific problem. Because of your own poor relationship with your mother, you may be conveying that contempt for one’s mother is an OK thing. You have to examine how what you say and do as regards your own mother has been communicated to your kids about how they should treat you. But it’s understandable that you feel dissed by a paltry, tossed off acknowledgement of you. I think you should talk this out with your husband and then he should go to the kids and say all of you need to do a redo. He can talk about how much you love them and how much you do to make their lives better. He explains that demands gratitude and acknowledgement, and not just one day a year. Have him tell them they are all going to take you out for a delayed Mother’s Day celebration, and in the meantime, they need to compose thoughtful letters to you. Let’s hope your kids will rise to this challenge. And if they won’t, they you need to have a conversation with them—not a guilt trip—about how you are concerned that your relationship with them seems so one-way.
Q. Security Camera in Bathroom: Over the past year, my mother has been getting increasingly more paranoid of others taking her valuables. She talks about it constantly, although as far as I can tell, it’s never happened. She’s just read a lot about theft. Things reached a new height recently when she decided to install security cameras in her house, so that she can monitor the “trustworthiness” of her maid staff and her nanny (she takes care of my two daughters part time, when I am travelling, and she employs child care to help her out.) Two of the security cameras are in her downstairs bathrooms. The cameras are hidden, and even if they weren’t, I feel this violates the privacy rights of both the nanny and the maid staff. But I don’t know how to address this with my mother without making her feel upset. Should I address it with my mother or alert the nanny and the maid staff of the cameras in the bathrooms?
A: Increasing paranoia with no reasonable cause behind it calls for a medical intervention. Since you and your mother are obviously close, you should talk to her about your concern that she’s worried about unnecessary things and tell her you’ll make a doctor’s appointment for her and accompany her. What your mother has done as far as the bathroom pee-cam is concerned is really creepy. (And maybe a lawyer can explain if filming someone in the bathroom in your own home could be illegal.) I hope at the end of the day your mother is not reviewing the tapes hoping to find the staff relieving themselves of her valuables and not just relieving themselves. Since your mother is not capable of caring for your kids without help, it might make most sense for you to separate these functions. Arrange for your own child care when you travel. And visit your mother with your kids when you’re in town. But most important is getting to the bottom of this personality change.