Dear Carolyn: My only child, his wife and two children live a substantial distance away. Both my son and daughter-in-law have highly demanding, stressful careers. My husband and I are self-employed, so we can be flexible. We see our son and his family every couple of months and try to be as helpful as the distance permits. We have, for example, several times gone to visit on short notice to baby-sit.
Although my daughter-in-law can be effusively appreciative, she frequently scolds me or my husband. I have received emails that do not say, “Dear MIL, thank you for your help,” but only, “You left the garage door open and a raccoon could have turned over the garbage. You need to be more careful.” Once when we were 45 minutes late getting home with the children from a play group, I received an email chiding me for not being respectful of her parenting preferences. When we take the family on nice vacations (often to a location she has chosen), she complains that someplace else would have been better.
When I asked my son how I should respond to her criticism, he said she doesn’t intend to be mean, but she reacts/types without thinking. Of course, it is important to have a good relationship with her, we appreciate that we get to see our grandchildren often and we don’t want to put our son in the middle. Should we just ignore her critiques? – S.
You’ve covered the main reason: grandchild access, which is good for all of you. I get that it can feel like a hostage situation, but you do have the occasional “effusively appreciative” moments to hang on to as validation. And, of course, that priceless time with the kids.
Another reason to let her scoldings bounce off you: If she is as critical of your son and their kids as she is of you, then your son will need people outside his home whom he can count on to love him and his kids purely, and who can serve as touchstones for him; relationships with difficult or critical people can really bang up one’s sense of self. If you engage with his wife on these insults, which are more about her than they are about you, then you can’t be fully available to him as a safety zone.
Another possible reason: The criticisms you cite strike me as a little bizarre, as does her emailing them to you later instead of just saying as you arrive – “You’re 45 minutes late! Now they’re late for hula-hoop lessons!” Throw in the career, maybe – is it a brainy one? – and the fact that her criticisms aren’t tirades, but instead rather bloodless corrections – right? – and I wonder if this isn’t more about her poor grasp of social norms and cues than anything else.
Not that this would make her emails a bucket of giggles to open, but it might help you mentally quarantine them in a way that minimizes their effect.