In-Law Stress: Not So Grand

Q:  The life of my daughter, Kelly, has become very difficult since the birth of her daughter Rose, my granddaughter.  For seven years, Kelly has catered to her overly dramatic and overly sensitive mother-in-law, and it hasn’t caused too much of a problem. But now, Kelly’s mothering abilities are being criticized and judged by  the Other Grandmother. If she isn’t holding Rose, she makes it clear how unhappy she is by pouting. When Kelly needs to take Rose for breastfeeding, the OG says, “Oh, your mommy thinks you’re hungry but you are really fine and love your Nana holding you, right?”

She took this to a new level recently, insisting on visiting in the evening, when Rose is tired and fussy. When Rose started crying, and my daughter put her to bed, the OG was furious, saying that the baby was crying because she didn’t get to hold her enough, that the baby’s “heart was broken.”  Also, when Kelly asked the OG to wash her hands before touching Rose, the OG said maybe my daughter should keep Rose “in a bubble.”

Then, the e-mails! “What happened to the happy baby I saw in the hospital?”

My daughter had been excited to share these early childhood years with her mother-in-law, but has now she has told the OG that, until she can be positive and supportive, she cannot go to their house. The OG says she has been “forbidden to see her granddaughter;” and refuses to apologize.

How can I help my daughter and her husband resolve this dilemma?

A: The Other Grandmother is behaving like a child having a tantrum. Obviously, her primary interest is in meeting her own needs while projecting blame on your daughter when she doesn’t get her own way. Evidently, your daughter has been able to grant her wishes in the past because she could overlook the consequences. But it’s different now that Rose’s welfare and Kelly’s self-esteem as a mother are at stake.

The OG’s attempts to make Kelly feel guilty for not meeting her expectations are just plain mean. Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the OG’s behavior is her complete inability to be distressed by her own behavior. This became clear when she was confronted her with her unreasonable behavior: unable to see a problem, she treated the confrontation as a serious attack.

This cluster of behaviors describes a Borderline Personality Disorder according to the American Psychiatric Association: Diagnostic and Statistical Manuel of Mental Disorders. People with this disorder are incredibly adept at making excuses that continue to exonerate themselves while making it seem like everyone else is the problem.

Generally, these life-long patterns of behavior are a result of emotional deprivation or trauma experienced as a child. The OG’s temper tantrums elicit the attention she seeks and express her sense of deprivation and envy. The OG’s motto is “It’s all about me”  — which, to her, justifies devaluing others when they doesn’t gratify her needs or allow her the special treatment she wants.

It is important that your daughter and her husband recognize that the OG’s behavior is not normal. Webster defines the act of mothering as “to care for and protect”. She is unable to do either. Kelly  was absolutely right to set boundaries and refuse to subject herself to the OG’s criticism and derogatory remarks.

How has your son-in-law related to his mother in the past? I suspect he has a long history of experiencing these maternal dramas. Kelly must enlist his support in attempting to smooth things with her but, unfortunately, this disorder is characterized by a lack of remorse., which she clearly demonstrates by her indifference to Kelly’s hurt feelings or Rose’s needs. The OG’s lack of introspection also makes her a poor subject for psychotherapy: people like her are unwilling to look into themselves and feel justified blaming others for their problems.

I applaud your daughter’s refusal to be intimidated and manipulated.. She maintained her self-esteem and dignity and used natural and logical consequences when dealing with the OG is appropriate behavior. She and her husband cannot sacrifice their lives or that of their family to her demands. As Dr. Christine Lawson comments in her book, Understanding the Borderline Mother, “You can love the queen without becoming her subject.” In other words, rather than worrying about being disloyal they must worry first about their own needs and those of their child.

I can imagine that this situation causes you anguish. Kelly has shown strength and will need your reassurance. Because they cannot expect the OG to change, I recommend that the new parents seek counseling to help support their resolve to establish boundaries, absolve their guilt and disappointment and maintain their determination to protect their family. They may also need support to withstand criticism from others who will not fully understand their situation. Please don’t let this problem interfere with your enjoyment of little Rose!

DR. LILLIAN CARSON

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