My Mother-in-Law Thinks She’s a Crucial Part of our Kids’ Bedtime. Yikes.

Twice a week, my husband works an overnight shift which means I put our kids (a 1-year-old girl and a 2-month-old boy) to bed on my own. He’s had this schedule for at least five years, so having to do bedtime alone wasn’t unexpected for me. Since our youngest was born and my husband went back to work, we’ve settled into a nice routine and it goes very smoothly nearly all of the time. But this doesn’t stop my mother-in-law from calling and/or texting every time my husband works that shift (also any other night he isn’t home) to ask if she should come over to “be another set of hands” for bedtime (often this call comes when I’m already well into the process).

The first month or so, I politely declined and thanked her for the offer every time. When she didn’t get the message, I switched to declining and telling her that I knew and appreciated that she was available to help and that I’d contact her if I ever felt her help was needed. My husband reiterated this, telling her she didn’t need to keep offering. But nothing changed. Recently, I told her that I put my phone on the charger and don’t have it with me during bedtime so it doesn’t distract the kids by going off (the truth), so there’s a good chance I won’t answer, and I’ve done just that (sometimes sending a text after the kids are down, letting her know that everyone’s asleep).

Last night, both kids were sick with a standard respiratory virus. My MIL called early to offer to come help since “it might be more difficult with them sick.” I thanked her and said they were doing well with meds, so I didn’t think bedtime would be an issue. I added that I didn’t think it was appropriate to have people over when the kids were sick anyway, as we didn’t want anyone to catch it, and I pointed out that she seems to get more severely ill than others when sick (I don’t think she actually gets sicker than other people, but she seems to think so—she gets very dramatic about it). She said that wasn’t my decision to make for her, and that if she was comfortable being around them, she could still come over. I told her it was true she could choose to be around my kids when sick if given the option, but if my husband and I don’t want anyone to come over due to illness, then she doesn’t get to overrule that. She hung up and me. I went about my night. After I got both kids to bed and was back into the kitchen finishing cleanup, I realized there was a car in the driveway. It was her. I went out to talk to her and she said she had come over “just to be ready” in case I needed her. I told her she needed to go home and start listening to what I’m telling her about our needs, not what she decides they are. It’s all so bizarre to me. When my husband and I talk to her, how can we make it clear that this needs to stop? She sees the kids regularly, two or three times a week, so it’s not like they’re being withheld from her.

—All Set for Bedtime

Dear Set,

I’d be frustrated too—this sounds maddening. But it also sounds like your mother-in-law may need help: Her behavior seems to me to go beyond garden-variety overinvestment in grandchildren, and even beyond “ordinary” intrusiveness. The repeated calls, after being told outright to stop calling, are troubling enough. Showing up at your house to sit in the driveway “just in case” you need her may indicate a serious mental health issue.

It’s pretty clear that this is not something you can address with her. Your relationship with her doesn’t sound very tender (I’m not criticizing you; as I said, I get that she’s hard to deal with). I don’t know if your husband is in a better position to help her get the care I think she may need—that’s his call. He may have some ideas about the best way to approach this. But I don’t think you can make your position any clearer to her than you already have. There is a disconnect in play between you two. Your MIL can’t seem to hear what you’re saying. Maybe she’s “just” lonely. Maybe things aren’t as dire as they appear to me. But even if she’s just sad, lonely, feeling useless, and obsolete—maybe just a little depressed—I’m wondering if you can find a little place in your heart to feel for her.

I am absolutely not suggesting that you accept her offer of help at bedtime (if you’ve got bedtime down, my hat’s off to you—and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it), but perhaps you can see her as something more than simply a source of annoyance. Can you spare a thought for her as a whole person—indeed, the person who raised the man you love—with her own complicated set of troubles and needs? It’s possible this will help you feel less irritated. If you pair that with reduced direct engagement (you don’t have to respond every time she reaches out), and perhaps give her a wee bit more (day)time with the kids during the course of the week. If she can be trusted alone with them (I am not assuming she can be!), you wouldn’t even have to spend that extra time in her presence.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband, who’s now 36, and I (32) have always wanted kids, but now that we are in a position to consider having them, I am finding myself extremely conflicted—specifically, about having biological kids. The issue is that I have a younger sibling and several other family members with fairly severe mental health issues. My sibling and two (out of five) of my first cousins will never live independently. On some level, I have always known that there must be a genetic component (the similarities between various family members are too striking to be coincidental), but it wasn’t until an extended family reunion this past year that I realized just how widespread these mental health issues are across multiple generations of our family tree. I want to make it clear that I love my family and I would love my child no matter what mental or physical health challenges they have. I am not even opposed to potentially adopting a child with similar special needs, since I am well-versed in them.

My question/concern is around the ethics of choosing to bring a biological child into the world when there is a significant chance that their life will be substantially more difficult than it is for the general populace. The world is a hard enough place just as it is! My inclination at this point is to skip straight to adoption, but my husband very much wants a biological child (though he is open to adoption, too, if I’m unwilling—or, for that matter, if it turns out that I’m unable—to give birth to a child). I feel guilty for wanting to deny him something he wants so much, particularly because I was more or less on board with the idea of having one for the first decade of our relationship. Do you have any advice for me? Should I take biological children off the table or is this—as a friend suggested—an ableist concern that I should just let go of? (In case it is necessary information: All of these family members have autism spectrum disorder and anxiety disorders, and some have other co-occurring conditions.)

—Hereditary Hesitancy

Dear Hereditary,

I think “just let go” of something that’s troubling you is never helpful advice, though I know where your friend is coming from. And it’s a losing battle—a battle that I think isn’t even worth fighting—to try to ensure that all the human beings we bring into the world will be free of “disorders.” It takes all kinds to make up a world—all kinds of folks, all kinds of abilities and disabilities, all kinds of everything. “Normality” itself is an ableist (not to mention other -ists) concept. So while I don’t think calling your fears ableism is a way of helping you move forward, it’s worth thinking about all the expectations you may have had in the past when you imagined having children.

There’s no “should” here, I’m afraid. “Should” you take biological children off the table? “Should” you push past your genuine concerns and worries about the well-being of your potential children and Just Do It? Neither. Take several breaths. Talk through this decision with your husband. It’s yours—the two of yours—to make. There’s no reason for anyone else, including me, to weigh in. Thinking through why you do or don’t want to have biological children is worthwhile—and a bigger, more complex decision than most people seem to think it is. Don’t rush to judgment.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband is in the middle of a major mental health struggle and is unable to provide solo childcare for our daughter right now. It is a triumph for him to just get out of bed in the morning, so I have to turn down social engagements, evening work projects, and anything else that happens outside of the workday hours when we have childcare. The issue is that my husband doesn’t want anyone to know about his current condition, but my friends and employer have commented on the fact that I can never get away. When I decline invitations and such, they say things like, “Just have Bill look after her! If you stop micromanaging childcare, he’ll step up to the plate!” Bill cannot step up to the plate. He is miles away from the plate. So now I am holding everything together at home, while also dealing with assumptions that I’m a clingy weirdo who refuses to leave her daughter for an hour. What should I do/say?

—I Just Can’t

Dear Can’t,

How about, “Mind your own damned business”?

No, I know you can’t say that to your employer, and you don’t want to say it to your friends. And I know you hate that people think you’re a “clingy weirdo.” And I know it’s easier said than done to shrug it off (who cares what people think? You know the truth). But perhaps you could say something along the lines of (sweetly), “I so appreciate your thoughts! I’ll think about that!” or even just, “Thanks”—and nothing else. You don’t owe anyone any explanations.

May I make a suggestion, though? Is it possible that your focus on people’s annoying assumptions and rude unasked-for advice is a displacement of sorts? That the situation you find yourself in is spectacularly difficult, stressful, sad, and painful—but you feel you can’t and shouldn’t let yourself feel all of that, since your husband is (to the naked eye) the one in trouble? And are you perhaps just the teeniest bit angry with him for not letting you tell people what’s up—that you’re shouldering all of this in silence?

I think you need to talk to someone. Even if it’s just one friend you can absolutely trust (better yet, a terrific therapist—if you can swing one of those childcare-covered hours for it). Dealing with people’s ill-informed, unwelcomed opinions, as unpleasant as they are, is nothing compared to everything else you’ve got on your plate right now.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I am very much a personification of the stereotype of the small woman who wants to be with a much taller guy. I’m 5’3” and my husband stands at a colossal 7’2”. Our marriage is great, and we have a 10-year-old son, “Daryl.” Daryl seems to have inherited his father’s genes for height. He’s already 5’8”, and sometimes I swear I can see him growing right in front of me. And while he’s never been anything but respectful to me—and he’s a good kid overall—I have this persistent feeling that one day he’s going to realize how much bigger he is than his mom and just stop listening to me. I’d rather not see a therapist about this—it seems too minor and embarrassing—but do you know anything less intensive that might help me deal with these intrusive thoughts? I know they’re irrational, but I can’t get them out of my head.

—It’s Just a Number, Right?

Dear Number,

If height were “just a number,” would you be the personification of this particular stereotype? I mean, for you there’s something appealing about looking up (way, way up) at a man. I think it’s worth considering what that something is—not because there’s anything wrong with it (we like what we like!) but because I’m pretty sure that whatever that is is now confusing you when it comes to your son. Let me assure you that seeing a therapist to get help with anything that’s troubling you should not be embarrassing (and intrusive thoughts are not a “minor” problem), but if you hate the thought of seeking professional help, see if you can get to the bottom of this on your own (the only “less intensive” method I can offer). Are you attracted to very tall men because they make you feel adorably tiny? Because their tallness represents power? Domination? (I have no idea. I myself am shorter than you are, and I’ve never found tallness attractive in the least. As I said: We like what we like.)

I’m guessing that whatever it is that’s behind this turn-on is precisely what’s freaking you out now that you have a male child who possesses that physical trait. Decoupling the fact of tallness from what(ever) it represents to you, I’m guessing, will take you a long way toward a cure for your persistent worrying where your son is concerned.

—Michelle

More Advice From Slate

My children (10, 8, 6, and 5) have been attending school virtually since March. Our 5-year-old misses his friends and the in-person nature of school, but has been doing very well in long-distance kindergarten. He’s always been a little bit behind (within normal parameters) for self-regulating and similar skills, but he’s not regressed too much. My mother-in-law moved in with us in August, for the foreseeable future, and my partner and I have noticed that she treats the 5-year-old differently than she did the others at the same age, especially when it comes to discipline.