My husband’s parents live nearby and have been a great support since my son was born last year (my family live abroad). They regularly help out with childcare and, despite a few minor differences of opinion, we trust them and are grateful we can rely on them when we need a helping hand.
But my father-in-law has become very critical of me. He regularly makes hurtful comments, always aimed at me, even when it’s something involving my husband. Often the comments get laughed off by other people or just ignored. I tend not to respond to them – I clam up when I’m hurt or embarrassed.
I want my son to have a close relationship with his grandparents. My husband has noticed the comments and is supportive. We’ve talked things over and we both agree that his father doesn’t seem to dislike me as a person and doesn’t say these things to be malicious. I don’t remember him making any negative comments about me before our son was born; it’s more about my role as a mother. I work hard to maintain a good relationship with them, despite our differences. I’ve also seen how a disagreement with parents-in-law can make things difficult for the spouse, and I don’t want that for my husband.
On some level, I know it’s not really about me or my parenting; I know my father-in-law had a difficult, rather neglectful upbringing himself. I’d appreciate some tips on how to tackle the comments and stop them ruining what is, on the whole, a positive relationship, as opposed to stopping the comments themselves, which is unlikely. I know it’s not up to me to “heal” my father-in-law, but something’s got to give.
You sound thoughtful and astute. You asked me not to mention the sort of comments your father-in-law makes, but they are very pointed. There is clearly something about the way you parent that gets under his skin, and I think you are spot on with your suspicion that his own difficult upbringing has something to do with it.
However, I wonder if, far from disliking you, your father-in-law actually quite admires you. He clearly wants your attention. It is interesting that he changed after you had your baby, which further reinforces the idea that this is about you as a mother, rather than as a person. Some people find the intimacy between a mother and child threatening. It can tap into unresolved issues within them, often subconsciously. But it’s not fair to aim this at you.
The family psychotherapist I consulted, Nicola McCarry (aft.org.uk), said something really interesting: “What you believe about a person’s intent [when they say something to you] really impacts on how you feel and respond. So if you think, for example, he’s a mean old man, damaged from childhood, you’re going to receive his comments in a particular way and respond accordingly.” We all do this, and it’s something to watch; it’s very hard to take comments neutrally if you’ve already overlaid them with meaning.
I think you and your father-in-law have something in common: you’re not communicating honestly with each other. You clam up, and he’s making barbed comments that are very probably about something else entirely. “You’re both stuck,” McCarry said, “in a circular pattern.” She also muted the idea that he may be missing the connection [you had] from before. “Some people don’t have the skills to reflect [on their behaviour] and say, for example, ‘I really miss our conversations’, and instead start picking at someone to provoke a response.”
McCarry suggested to, first, try to see this as coming not from a place of criticism but him “trying to reconnect”; that may soften your reaction to him. Second, you say he talks “through” the baby when he criticises you. Try doing the same: “Oh, look how much Grandad loves you, he thinks about you all the time” etc. She also suggested you make sure your in-laws are happy about the amount of childcare they are giving you.
I would go further, if you can, and when he next says something negative, ask, “Oh, are you feeling left out?” and see how he reacts. Of course, you could ask him straight: “Why the catty comments?” But while I’m all for directness, sometimes it’s too direct and doesn’t give you the result you want, because it puts others on the back foot.
There is a great saying, “In with anger, out with love.” If you can manage to do it, it’s highly disarming.
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