How to Avoid Emotional Landmines With Your Mother-in-Law

There’s No Innocent Way to Ask Your Son or Daughter About Grandkids

How to Avoid Emotional Landmines With Your Mother-in-Law

Getty / Will Mullery

This summer, my family has been spending a month at the beach. It’s been a daydream come to life: bright days and languid evenings spent with family, including a sparkly 3-year-old and her serene new baby sister. My granddaughters.

I started picturing—and pining for—this kind of family gathering, the three-generation kind that includes grandchildren, as my 60s loomed and my two daughters entered their 30s with no obvious plans for baby-making. I’d kept to a pretty brisk schedule when I became a mother; I had both of my girls before I turned 30.

But now those girls, so many other women their age, seemed to me to be acting as if they had all the time in the world to decide about kids. I didn’t think they had all the time in the world—and, more to the point, I knew that I didn’t.

As my joints started creaking and my knees stiffened up, I started to worry that by the time grandbabies came along, I’d be too old to enjoy them.

I tried to keep my mouth shut about my eagerness for grandchildren. The subject did come up several times with my younger daughter, but that’s because we were writing a book together on the topic of 20-somethings and their life choices, which made the conversations seem impersonal and therefore relatively conflict-free.

I learned the hard way not to raise the subject with my older daughter, after I asked, on the eve of her first marriage, “So, how do you think you two will decide about having kids?” She told me, in no uncertain terms, to back off. I’d thought it was an innocent question, that we were close enough to be able to discuss these things.

But I learned that on this topic, there’s no such thing as an innocent question.  

Here’s how to give parenting advice to adult children

The longing for grandchildren is something my friends and I talk about among ourselves, but we’re afraid to say anything to our kids for fear of angering or alienating them.

Almost as worrisome is that in working so hard to hold our tongues, our silence could be misinterpreted as disinterest, or as unwillingness to be actively involved grandparents when the opportunity finally arrives.

So is there any safe way for parents to raise the subject with their adult children?

Don’t even try it, the psychologist Karen Fingerman told me by email when I asked what advice she’d offer to would-be grandparents. You might introduce tension and even drive a wedge between you and your children, she wrote, which could have a direct effect on the quality of your relationship with the grandchildren you eventually have.

“Grandchildren are a ‘contingent’ relationship,” wrote Fingerman, who heads the Adult Family Project at the University of Texas at Austin, “contingent on a middle generation who is really the key to that tie.

In general, in adult families, the generation that ‘owns’ the decision is the one that should be driving that decision. In some families, grown children may discuss this subject with their parents.

But for many individuals, fertility is deeply private.”

Fertility can also be a topic tinged with grief, anxiety, and pain. If would-be grandparents are disappointed that the grandchildren they yearn for aren’t materializing on schedule, they should stop for a moment to consider the very real possibility that their children are disappointed, too, to see that their family-building isn’t shaping up quite the way they planned.

How Long Can You Wait to Have a Baby?

A recent survey of young adults commissioned by The New York Times in collaboration with the polling group Morning Consult found a fair amount of dashed expectations on the subject of childbearing.

The National Center for Health Statistics had just reported that the nation’s fertility rate is at a record low, at 60.2 babies per 1,000 women of childbearing age.

So the survey team wondered: Where have all the children gone?

They polled 1,858 men and women ages 20 to 45, half of whom were already parents. About one-quarter of the respondents said they were going to start having children, or had already started having them, later than they wanted to; a similar proportion expected to have fewer children in total than they’d originally hoped.

Earlier this year, the Times conducted another survey, this time with the forecasting company Demographic Intelligence, that found something similar: that the gap between the number of children women said they wanted to have (2.7, on average) and the number they expected to have (1.8) was the largest it’s been in 40 years.

The main reasons for this lowering of expectations were financial. In the Morning Consult poll, respondents indicated that child care is too expensive (64 percent), that the economy is too uncertain (49 percent), or that they just, for unspecified reasons, think they “can't afford more children” (44 percent).

Some respondents said they were having fewer children than they’d originally hoped because of what might be termed “quality-of-life” decisions: They found that they wanted to devote more time to the children they already had (54 percent), wanted more leisure time to themselves (42 percent), or were already struggling to find the right work-life balance (36 percent).

These surveys show that adult children have ly already given the question a lot of thought. If they have decided not to have kids, as 24 percent of the nonparents in the Morning Consult poll had, then having their parents ask about it just puts them on the defensive.

If they haven’t decided yet, as was the case for 34 percent of the nonparents, asking about it just adds pressure they don’t need.

And if they want children but have had to temper their expectations, either because of financial hardship or troubles conceiving, raising the topic could bring up painful feelings of disappointment and regret that they’d just as soon keep to themselves.

So is there anything parents can say to lighten their kids’ burden, or to make them think differently about having children? Is it better for parents and their adult children to talk about this subject, or better not to?

I posed these questions to The Atlantic’s family-centric group, Homebodies, and the consensus seemed to be that the best technique is to keep your mouth shut. As one group member, Suzanna Kruger of Seaside, Oregon, wrote, “That’s nobody’s business but the couple planning on having children or not.

It demonstrates a SEVERE lack of boundaries for people to pressure their adult children to have grandchildren for them.

” Kruger, a high-school biology teacher and single mother of two girls, ages 13 and 7, had a suggestion for the older generation: “If you want grandchildren, go volunteer in an elementary school classroom or become a lunch buddy at the middle school.”

Fingerman, too, mentioned volunteer opportunities as a way to create the grandparent-grandchild relationship older adults might be yearning for, without having to drag their kids into it.

“The key,” she wrote, is for the parents “to own their feelings and find ways to deal with their desires,” such as by working at a local school or becoming a mentor through programs Generation to Generation.

“No one but a couple knows what’s happening in their bedroom and in their doctor’s offices,” wrote another member of the Homebodies group, a young mother from Tel Aviv named Inbal.

(She asked to be identified only by her first name; she says she still feels a lot of shame about her infertility.

) “So often parents broach the subject and don’t think about the pain that the couple or their child might be experiencing because they’re trying [to have a baby] and it’s not working out.”

It’s to avoid this possibility that Maureen Kelly, the medical director of Society Hill Reproductive Medicine, in Philadelphia, told The New York Times last summer that no one should ask young people whether they plan to have children, when they want them, how many they’ll have, or anything else about baby-making. “This includes mothers, sisters, close friends, acquaintances and other family members,” Kelly said. “This is a highly personal topic and should be considered off limits unless someone brings it up.”

Still, silence can create its own problem.

When Inbal and her partner went through the stress and grief of infertility, they did so without their parents’ knowledge, which they now realize would have been a comfort.

“We had no idea,” wrote Inbal, now the mother of a toddler conceived through IVF, “how to ask for and get the support we needed from our parents, whom my partner and I are both very close to.”

Deborah Tannen has some ideas about how Inbal might have raised the subject.

“For mothers and adult daughters, it might be helpful to realize that knowing what’s going on in somebody’s life, for most women, is treasured, and they feel hurt when they realize they had not been told something important,” says Tannen, a linguistics professor at Georgetown University. That makes it possible to raise a difficult topic infertility with a simple statement: “I don’t want you to feel I’m keeping anything from you.”

For men and women a, conversations between intimates always take place on two levels, Tannen says: the message (the literal meaning of the words) and the meta-message (what it means about the relationship that you say these words, in this way, at this time).

“Criticism and caring often exist in the same words,” says Tannen, whose books include You’re Wearing That? Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation.

“A mother might think she’s just offering advice or help, and a daughter might hear it as criticism.” And both would be right, she says.

The mother is speaking love, but criticism is implicit too, since “someone doing nothing wrong does not need advice or help.”

Tannen said would-be grandparents can raise the subject of grandchildren cautiously, as long as they’re sensitive to the potential double-edged nature of the words being used.

“Try to cut off at the pass the implication that you are disapproving or that you are making an indirect request,” she says.

“Start with something positive: You have a great life and I’m full of admiration for the way you have organized it, or you have such a great career, or you keep such a beautiful house, or you have such excellent judgment— whatever you know your daughter takes pride in.”

But Tannen is cautious abfering a script, because “what is the right thing to say to one person could be the wrong thing to say to another.

” She also thinks the odds are good that the adult children already know exactly how their parents feel about grandchildren.

“I’ll bet anything that many adult children of parents who think they’ve never broached the topic will tell you that their parents have made their feelings clear.”

My daughters certainly would tell you I’d made mine clear, even though I worked hard not to dump my late-life baby lust into their laps. After that first misguided question to my older daughter, 10 years ago, I never asked either one a direct question about childbearing.

But kids know their parents so well that it doesn’t take much for them to read our minds, even when we’re not literally saying anything.

Texting a long-single daughter too quickly to see how a first date went, or looking around for a room that could work as a nursery in a just-married son’s new house, can speak volumes.

My younger daughter tolerated my unspoken questions, and I tried to focus on other things—my career, my husband, my mentorship of a teenage girl—as my internal grandma-clock ticked away, until my daughter found the right guy and the right moment in her own life to start a family.

And today, as I watch my 3-year-old granddaughter cavorting with her parents in the gentle waves of the Delaware Bay while I sit on a sand chair with her three-month-old sister on my lap, I’m glad that I—mostly—held my tongue during the years I was so, so eager to get to this lovely, long-imagined place.

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The Emotional Labor of Parenting

How to Avoid Emotional Landmines With Your Mother-in-Law

I have seen the term emotional labor applied to the plight of the modern mother, in the context of mental load. I haven’t seen the phrase emotional labor used specific to parenting. I present the idea that there is a largely unrecognized emotional labor of parenting.

In my definition, this includes tuning into emotions underlying our children’s behaviors, restraining our own emotions in order to more effectively respond to theirs, and getting ahead of potential emotional landmines by taking action.

It’s downright exhausting and may be impossible at times, but I also argue it’s worth whatever ounce of emotional labor you have to give.


The other night, my husband and I finally watched Won’t You Be My Neighbor, the documentary about Mr. Rogers. Fred Rogers’ mission really hit my mama heart nerve: to transmit the message via television to every child viewer that they are a special person.

I knew that as my children aged, the stakes would feel higher. I wouldn’t have to cover my outlets with those annoying plastic things anymore, but I wouldn’t be able to child-proof their outer worlds. This means they could metaphorically electrocute themselves with their own mistakes while I stand by, a nervous wreck.

As a child psychologist, I am highly in tune with the inner emotional workings of even very young children. As innocent and resilient as they can be, children are also constantly processing messages they are receiving from their worlds.

“It has felt a total revelation to now pay attention to how to structure their worlds for their emotional needs as these needs become more complex and mysterious.”

As a culture, I think we have made tremendous progress with some of these messages.

For example, our awareness around gendered messages (“girls can’t do this, boys can’t do that”) has shifted even in the last two decades.

We have also come a long way in building self-esteem by focusing on praise and being careful with criticism, although some would argue we may have gone too far (myself included, but that’s a post for another day).

So as I am leaving early childhood with my youngest now closer to age 5 than age 4 (sniff, sniff), and my oldest rapidly matures in front of my eyes at age 9, it is sinking in.

How I’m parenting is part of building their internal messages about themselves. And they are developing complex inner emotional lives that I want to support.

This is going to be some HARD work that may even make me miss the days of worrying about having everything I need in the diaper bag.

Okay – I know these above revelations sound so incredibly obvious, but you know the difference of intellectually understanding an idea and FEELING that truth deep within? As I watched Mr. Rogers treat every child with the greatest dignity and respect, the weight of my own emotional labor as a mother hit hard.

Emotional Labor: deep thoughts

We make jokes about how my children with two child psychologists as parents are sure to have rich material for their own therapy later in life. But in all seriousness, it may be the fact that I witness emotional scars in even young children that makes me panic at times about how my humanity as a mother – mistakes and oversights – could hurt my children.

Intellectually, I’m not panicked.

Through my lens as a child psychologist with years of experience in child abuse and neglect, I have a healthy perspective of what is unequivocally harmful at the extremes of unhealthy parenting practices.

Within this framework of knowing I am forming healthy attachments with my children, as a majority of parents do, I also see room for the never-ending process of learning and improving as a mother. 

I have become much better at not sweating the small stuff, with the knowledge I am providing the foundation of what any child needs to grow. When my brain takes a break and my heart takes over, I am also realizing the enormity of this emotional labor aspect of parenting and then I have my Mom panic moments.

As my three children develop completely distinct personalities, this includes forming their own quite individualized relationships with each parent, and with each other. I have focused on all the benefits of these relationships, but now I can’t help but wonder how these relationships may inform future therapy sessions?

I look at how one of my children may feel left out from the other two. Is that building a lifetime of feeling excluded? One of my children has made comments that I love the others more (knife to the heart).

How deep and long-lasting will this belief be? Another will literally suck in their emotions – but I can see the hurt feelings, attempting to stay safe inside.

What will this tendency to internalize emotions mean for future well-being?

Emotional Labor: Taking Action

As my children are getting older and I’m becoming more aware of these possible emotional patterns and core beliefs (meaning automatic thoughts that develop about the self or the world, interpretations rather than reality), I am realizing the time is now for Mom and Dad to not just pay closer attention, but also take action.

After a rough Sunday morning recently, with our children all seeming sync and on the emotional edge, I reflected on what I said in the morning’s stressful moments that could be imprinting a message I didn’t want my child to have from me. They were reactive moments, in frustration rather than thoughtfulness. During my reflection, I allowed myself to feel the strength of tough emotions (sadness and regret), and I could feel it physically, pain in my chest.

There I was, truly tuning into my children’s emotions of the morning, how their behaviors may be springing from some larger emotional themes we needed to address, and not allowing myself to escape my own tough emotions about all of it. My husband and I talked it through – understanding the different personalities of our children, why each child does what they do during stress, and what we need to do for some repair.

Later that night, my husband and I each had a one-on-one conversation with our kids that put words to what we were guessing were the real issues: “Do you think we love your siblings more than you?” “Do you feel you have to make sure everyone else is happy? We want to know how YOU feel.”  

Through early childhood years, we have become so accustomed to structuring their worlds to best meet their basic physical needs (eg, when and what to eat, times to sleep, dressing them in warm winter wear). It has felt a total revelation to now pay attention to how to structure their worlds for their emotional needs as these needs become more complex and mysterious.

Why Emotional Labor Feels Labor 

As I discussed in my analysis of the problem with positive parenting, the biggest challenge I see to doing this emotional labor of parenting well is that we as parents do not have the support we need.

I see multiple articles a week about why women are so stressed out, why teens’ mental health problems are rising significantly, and how Americans are performing pretty dismally in the worldwide happiness rankings (Norway – I see you, but you’re cold).

I cannot do justice to the abundance of theories and smart analyses of the reasons, but they are deep in many of our systems — parenting leave laws, workplace cultures, health care, education, elder care. I’m all about personal responsibility, but we are not islands and all of these aspects of our lives affect our capacity for parenting.

If we are to successfully value our children as a culture, we need to value parenting and all the many layers of society that affect the family unit.

As my husband and I collapsed onto our couch that Sunday night after a weekend of managing grumpy moods, bickering, meltdowns, and deep conversations, I felt the exhaustion in my bones. The weight of the parenting responsibility bore down in a different way.

We were fortunate to have the time and space that particular weekend for such intensive emotional labor, but the reality is it is probably more the exception than the norm.

This reinforces for me the importance of seizing the moment whenever we are able, and being gentle with ourselves when we are not.

It’s the simplest message: to love others, we have to love ourselves first. This is true for emotional labor in parenting: to truly see and effectively respond to our children’s deep emotional needs, our emotional needs require time and attention too.

The Reward of Emotional Labor 

As I wrap up this weighty reflection, I know I am not providing answers or fixes, because there aren’t any quick and concise ones. What I hope I’m giving you is putting words to this experience so it feels less ambiguous and lonely as a parent going through it.

In my optimist spirit, though, I will end with the reward for this invisible labor. In this moment of time, I feel a new emotional intimacy with my children as well.

After I watched my oldest be completely independent from me with her friends on a recent Girl Scout camping trip, I cherished even more our coffee and hot chocolate at a Denny’s afterwards.

She asked me why I wore so much make-up (for the record, I don’t think I do), and I realized we have a great journey ahead of us of getting to know each other in new and different ways.

As long as each of my children feels a Mr. Rogers-level of existing as special, important, and valued by us as their parents, the emotional labor is worth all future Sunday nights of bone-deep exhaustion.


Marriage Issues vs. Mother-in-Law Issues: Tips on How to Know the Difference

How to Avoid Emotional Landmines With Your Mother-in-Law

Marriage, as wonderful as it can be, certainly has its challenges — especially when you throw your relationship with your mother-in-law into the mix.

Whether you get along with your mother-in-law most of the time, some of the time, or rarely, this relationship is no other relationship you have.

You may think you can turn to your husband for help maneuvering around the landmines — after all, he knows you, and he knows his mother. But if you're not careful, you might end up Donna and Michael:

“Why does she say those awful things to me?” Donna asks her husband. “She has no respect for me, and yet she wants me to respect her.” Donna waits for Michael to say something helpful, something supportive. But he just sits and says nothing, feeling a bit trapped and not having any idea what to say or what to do.

“Why don't you do something?” Donna pleads, her voice escalating, clearly exasperated. “She's your mother!” Feeling Donna's rage, Michael continues to sit, frozen, almost panicked. If he didn't know what to say before, he is even more paralyzed now. All he can think is, “Donna's not only mad at my mom, but now she's furious at me!”

What's happening here is that two different issues have gotten mixed together.

What starts out as one matter (a mother-in-law/daughter-in-law issue) often quickly moves into another (a marital issue) because Donna and Michael, both you and your husband have unspoken desires and expectations. When issues get compounded this, neither one ends up getting resolved, and they both often become worse.

To get unstuck, you must fight one battle at a time. Learning how to identify what part of the disagreement is a marital issue and what part is a mother-in-law/daughter-in-law issue is vital. Here are some pointers:

It is a mother-in-law/daughter-in-law issue when:

• Your husband clearly gets your issues with his mother, and you and he are both on the same page.

• Your husband can listen to your concerns without getting defensive or protective of his mother (even when he may not completely agree with you).

• You and your husband can come up with solutions together to make the situation with his mother better.

• You want your husband to be more of a sounding board than to fix the problem.

It becomes a marital issue when:

• You want (or expect) your husband to fix his mother or fix the problem.

• You start arguing about his mother, but then the fight spreads to other issues between the two of you.

• As you start talking about the issue you have with his mother, you become keenly aware of how much you're losing respect for your husband.

• You want to cut off all ties to his side of the family, and you're angry with him when he refuses to do so.

If you have a marital issue, addressing that first will put you in a better position to work on the mother-in-law/daughter-in-law issue. Here are three valuable strategies for doing that without starting World War III:

1. Figure out what you want from your husband. Do you just want to vent, do you want him to truly understand your emotional pain, or do you want something else entirely? (Sorry, he cannot fix it for you.) Get clear on this first, because after all, if you don't know what it is you want from him, how can he know?

2. Let him in on this early on. Begin the conversation by letting him know right up front what you want from him. How you word your request is critical to getting what you're after. If you're berating his mother or blaming him, you are not going to get what you want — even if you think it makes you feel better.

3. Keep the focus on the two of you — not on your mother-in-law. Remember, you are working on getting closer to your spouse right now — his mother just happens to be the catalyst. For the time being, keep her it!

If you practice using these three strategies, before long your husband will start to feel more your ally than your adversary. Not only will that improve your marriage, but it will also go a long way toward helping you resolve your in-law issues. It's a win-win!


4 Land Mines to Avoid If Your Parents Have Money Struggles

How to Avoid Emotional Landmines With Your Mother-in-Law

If you’ve never been in this situation, we hope you’ll never have to experience it: having to talk with your parents when you realize they’re in a bad money situation.

You used to be their little kid. They used to take care of you. And now, here you are as a grown adult, talking with your parents about their financial shortcomings. There’s no sugar-coating it. It’s tough.

But as tough a situation as that might be, it’s still a reality that you may be caught in the middle of. Before you make any quick decisions, decide that you (and your spouse) will not do these four things during this potentially tricky situation.

1. Don’t offer your opinion if you haven’t been asked

This goes back to the “powdered butt syndrome”—if someone powdered your butt when you were a baby, then they don’t want to hear your advice about money.

That’s sad, because you’re not a kid in a diaper anymore. You’re an adult with valid opinions and—quite possibly—helpful solutions that can benefit your parents’ financial situation.

If they don’t ask for your opinion or help, the only things you can control are your tongue and how you handle money. So listen to them and set a positive example by having your money in order, which will create a more peaceful tone in your life and stress level.

No more money fights! Get on the same page with your money!

2. Don’t enable them to continue a bad pattern

If your parents keep racking up debt on credit cards, don’t give them money so they can turn around and pay off that debt to free up more credit. That doesn’t get to the root of the problem or change behaviors over time.

If you really want to help, pay for them to get help through a financial coach. This should be an unbiased third party who will help them understand and move past their problems without emotions being involved. Dave has a team of coaches who would love to sit down with your parents and figure out how to get through their situation.

Sometimes parents can be stubborn, right? What if they won’t talk with a financial coach? As difficult as it may be to watch them continue down a destructive or ignorant path, you can’t control their decisions. Just let them know the offer to talk with a financial coach is always on the table.

3. Don’t let helping your parents become a stumbling block in your own marriage

Let’s say your parents ask you for money. You’re able to help them out, so you give them a little. Three weeks later, you notice your dad has bought an iPad.

We never would tell you to loan money to family, because you’ll add a layer of unneeded awkwardness to your relationship. Give to them if you’re able and willing and your spouse completely agrees with you. But if they are repeatedly asking you for money, they are putting strain on your relationship with them—and probably on your relationship with your spouse.   

If you’re married, your first relational priority is with your spouse, not your parents. tweet this. You and your spouse must agree on how to give and spend your money. If you both agree that it’s appropriate to financially help your parents, agree on the boundaries and goals of the help. Reevaluate this often if the giving is ongoing.

4. Don’t fall victim to a guilt trip

Sometimes, parents can remind you of everything they did for you when you were a kid. But there’s the difference: You were a kid. Do your best to remove the emotion from the decision and think of the most logical way to handle the situation.

Do what you can to help your parents within the boundaries you’ve decided for your household. But also realize that sometimes the best thing you can do is let them learn on their own.

If you’re in this situation and are interested in talking in-depth with a financial coach, we are here to help. Dave Ramsey has a team of financial coaches who specialize in these cases and would love to talk with you or your parents. Find out how our coaches can help you today.

Have a specific question? You can ask a coach here for free.


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