Dear Carolyn: My wife and I have two children (whom I carried), ages 5 and 6 months. We spend two or three holidays and other “family vacations” a year with her family, which includes her parents and three sisters and their husbands and nine children ages 1 to 11. We spend anywhere from 3 to 5 days. Her family has always been supportive of our relationship even when mine wasn’t, and I appreciate that.
My issue is the lack of respect for our parenting. They all think it’s appropriate for young children to hold, pass around, and carry around infants, and I am adamantly opposed to this. My wife does not appreciate that they do this either, but she will not put a stop to it. She has said a few things to her mom but never follows through.
This leaves me to constantly hawk over the baby (as I did my 5-year-old back then) and say, “That’s enough passing her around.” Over Thanksgiving, at least three times, one of my wife’s sisters or her mother handed our baby to one of the young kids to hold immediately after one of us would say no to the child asking to hold her. This made me livid! I had a great deal of trouble keeping from responding in anger.
I also have to keep a close watch on our 5-year-old because he is pretty well-behaved and naive about the chaos, poor behavior and pretty rough playing that the other kids are accustomed to and allowed to do. It’s really overwhelming.
If I bring this up to my wife, we will argue, I guarantee it. She says things like, “What’s going to happen?”
At this point, it’s the disrespect that when I say enough, the aunts or Grandma will just do it anyway. This makes our baby fussy the whole time we’re there just from the massive overstimulation.
Should I duke it out with my wife in advance about it? Should I wait until we get there and jump on the first adult that pulls this stunt? Should I call my wife’s mother (we have always had a good relationship) and tell her she needs to “lead” the family by making sure they respect our wishes from now on? I don’t think I can keep from exploding when this happens again. I really want to stop going until our kids are older and can fend for themselves. – At the End of My Rope
“At this point, it’s the disrespect,” you say.
Does that mean your primary objection is no longer to the “chaos, poor behavior and pretty rough playing that the other kids are accustomed to”? Because that’s the opening I hoped for as you laid out your complaint, so I could say, embrace the chaos. For two or three days at a time. Intervening only when safety demands it.
Just reading your letter was stressful, and not because the kid-swarm sounded so terrible. On the contrary. A tight if somewhat unruly band of cousins to grow up with sounds like a gift to me.
The stress I felt instead was the peculiar one of absolute! resistance! to something you don’t necessarily need to resist. This cousin-centrism is like pink hair or a nose ring, not harmful so much as an affront to the way you think things should be.
That means changing your wife’s family or staying home – i.e., the unwavering “no!” – isn’t your only recourse. You can also move your perspective on these visits a few steps off to the side, far enough for you to embrace them as your kids’ annual and ultimately very brief doses of running with the cousinly herd.
I get that your kids themselves are overstimulated by (and the baby too young to appreciate) the herd. That could trace to its unruliness, yes – but even calm people in big numbers can overstimulate kids, too, as can just being away from home and out of the normal routine.
It sounds as if your wife would support your at least trying an attitude adjustment, too – “What’s going to happen?” – but stops short of saying so to avoid escalating that guaranteed fight.
All of which point to an experiment in unclenching your teeth and adapting yourself to this family’s pace and way of showing love. Again – at least trying.
I don’t mean to minimize the disrespect shown by aunties who ignore your wishes; it’s not only wrong of them, but also the easiest way to make a parent in your place irrational.
But your wife and co-parent and holder of 50 percent of the vote here doesn’t agree with you on scorching the earth to fix it, so I’m not going to endorse it, either – not until you give her way a real try, and not until you at least attempt to see this as a loving group vs. a combative one. “This is how they do family” would make a good mantra for this.