How to deal with overly helpful in-laws

March 14, 2011

Q. I am living in a clash of family cultures, and it unsettles me. My husband and I, who have been married for three years, live in his country, which is 10 time zones away from my parents and a few minutes away from my in-laws. I really like my in-laws, and I appreciate their help, but they may help us too much.

They invite my husband and me and our 2-year-old son to dinner every Friday — as well as my sister-in-law and her family — and they host us for at least one other meal during the week. They also send us home with food, pick up our son from day care once a week and often babysit in the evening or even overnight. They have a great time with him (as he does with them), and I am generally happy with the closeness of our relationship, but sometimes I think that they over-parent their kids, including me. I am 40 years old and have lived on my own for a long time. However, my husband — like many people in his country — visited his parents’ every weekend after he grew up, which would have been stifling to me.

To complicate the situation still more, my husband has been employed only about half the time in the past three years, and we are now in difficult financial straits. We are burning through our savings, and though we really need help from my in-laws, I’m finding it harder and harder to accept it. I think I also blame them to some extent for a few of my husband’s personality traits and for some gaps in his résumé, which makes it harder for him to get a job.

Now I either want to lay my head down on their kitchen table and cry or draw myself up pridefully and tell them that I don’t need their help. Of course, I don’t do either of these things. Instead I thank them profusely, bring dessert, do dishes and help out wherever I can.

But how do I hang on to my dignity and get through this difficult period?


(Hadley Hooper/For The Washington Post)

A. You may have thought that you were done with tests when you got out of college, but it’s harder to pass the tests of life than to pass any test you ever got in school.

Some of life’s tests are scary, some are joyful, some are exciting and some are so boring that they seem to last forever. But the better you handle one test, the better you’ll handle the next one, no matter how different or difficult it is.

So far you’re handling this one very well, but you mustn’t get derailed. It may be tempting to blame your in-laws for babying your husband, either in the past or the present, but that would be pointless. You do, however, need to consider your options. Once you know what they are, you can surmount any problem.

Your in-laws probably do help you too much, which subliminally tells their son that he can’t get along without them. You don’t have to buy into that. It’s fine for your husband and your son to have dinner with your in-laws twice a week, but it’s clearly too much for an independent person like you, so you should tell them that you’d like to stay home on that second night and use the time to connect with your own parents.

Although you’ll want to Skype with your parents when your little boy is at home, this weekly break will give you time to phone or write them, and it will give your in-laws time alone with their son. As much as they like you, they have known and loved your husband since he was born and, like all parents, they’ll treasure a few hours alone with him and his son each week, even though they’ll be too polite to say so.

You can also use this break to write about your feelings before they overcome your good judgment. But mostly use it to think and to figure out how you can get a part-time job you could do at home, even if you already have a full-time job. With 40,000 non-governmental organizations operating internationally, surely one of them needs you to represent them in your part of the world. You’ll find many such groups listed at www.wango.org. Or ask the commercial attaché at the U.S. Embassy if a store or an importer is looking for someone to find unusual products that they could sell in the States.

It may seem like you have a lot of lemons on your plate, but if you find a pitcher, you can make a lot of lemonade.

Questions? Send them to advice@margueritekelly.com.

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