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Carolyn Hax: Ill mother-in-law’s voicing of disappointment not welcomed

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Hi Carolyn: My mother-in-law is battling cancer, and has lately been making passive-aggressive comments to my husband about how she’s so disappointed she’ll never see our kids, and talking about birth details of all of her kids . . . .

I don’t want kids! Even if I did, the endometriosis and ovarian cysts have rendered me about as fecund as the lunar surface.

I hate trying to dance around this topic when she’s not feeling well, but it leaves a bad taste in my mouth that she’d use her current frailty to try to guilt us into something we’ve already said we’re not interested in.

Is there a tasteful (or at least less hostile) way to tell her to mind her own uterus? — Happily Barren

You could give her the benefit of the doubt, and take her comments not as passive aggression or guilt-tripping, but instead as honest expressions of grief at not having grandchildren.

Maybe there is no doubt for you to work with and you know from history that she’s working the guilt levers hard — but that still leaves you with some options besides pushing back.

The most appealing of them, from where I sit, is to give her what you’re so annoyed about not getting from her: respect for her position.

Some disclaiming is in order. First, the only one with any standing to talk about your uterus is you, so I do not regard her position as equal to yours on the matter of grandchildren. Not even close. Second, it’s best for all involved to let this matter rest — or at least for your mother-in-law to express her grief to her friend/clergy/shrink, instead of the two people who’ll take it as a slap in the face.

However, while she’s obviously not entitled to a grandchild, she is entitled to her feelings. And, the absence in her life also happens to be real: I hope I will have the maturity, flexibility and forbearance not to pester them like an untrained puppy, but I do so want to be a gramma when my kids are grown. It’s not a fringe sentiment.

For a woman wrestling with her own mortality who lets that sentiment fly, I think the best response isn’t, “Get out of my uterus,” it’s, “I know you’re disappointed, and I’m sorry about that.” You can validate her feelings while not budging an inch.

If she persists, then — with warmth and patience — there’s this: “I hear you, and sympathize, as I’ve said. But since we’re not changing our plans, revisiting the subject only has me feeling frustrated/defensive/angry/sad/(your feelings here).” It’s an invitation for her to validate you; if she declines, it’s a boundary. Once set, you can enforce it by not engaging. No “dancing around” required.

* * *

Dear Carolyn: Long story short: One lovely husband and two adult kids. Both children live away from us. Over the years, we have been extremely generous, both in terms of our time and our resources.

Our problem is that they have come to expect our generosity as something they are due. I will fully admit we created these monsters, but my husband and I have had enough. We feel used and irrelevant, except for what we can give them. I feel so sad having to admit this.

Our plan is to make sure they understand there will be changes soon in our household, where their father and I will be kicking into high gear and doing all the things we worked for so many years to be able to do. (We will be retiring.) The result of our “new normal” will mean the party is over, so to speak, and we will be cutting back on monetary gifts. Is there any good way to accomplish this and keep everyone happy? — Feeling Irrelevant

“Keep everyone happy”? The goal that launched a thousand monsters.

If you present your “new normal” as if it’s unexploded ordnance, then you’re all but leading them to conclude it’s a terrible, terrible thing. Why not treat them as deeper than that? Present your news as part of a natural progression, and they might well receive it that way.

And my reasoning might well be corrupted by rainbows and buttercups.

Fortunately, neither of our visions need affect your approach. When you announce the coming change, keep your disappointment, disgust and “party” or “gravy train” references out of it, and use facts: “We’re retiring on (date) and will be treating ourselves some — responsibly (you do owe them that). That means we won’t be sending any more/as much money.”

Unless they’ve conquered mortality, they’ve known all along the party would eventually end. Don’t be afraid to plant a few empathy seeds — ”We’ve looked forward to this for years, as I’m sure you will someday” — and to deflect any backlash with this gentle door-closer: “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.”

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or tellme@washpost.com. Subscribe at www.facebook.com/carolynhax.

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