Carolyn Hax: When Grandma isn’t on call to babysit

Carolyn Hax
Columnist March 6, 2013

Hi, Carolyn:

My husband and I (as well as his sister and spouse) are at our wits’ end.

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

Let me start by saying, I have a great relationship with my mother-in-law. Before we had kids, we vacationed with my husband’s immediate family, and went for dinner and drinks very frequently together.

We live within minutes of my in-laws but do not get or ask for a lot of help. When we do ask for babysitting help, we are made to feel like it is a major inconvenience. My sister-in-law gets the same response. We get a laundry list of things she has going on that MAY be impacted by a few hours with her grandchildren. It is usually hair and nail appointments, not work, medical appointments or other terribly pressing matters.

I do not mean to imply that her obligations are any less important than mine. Although, we truly ask only when it is necessary and an occasional (one in four years) anniversary dinner without children. If it is that much of an inconvenience, we would prefer she just say no and leave it at that. Any advice on how we can approach this with her? We are all very frustrated.


J.

Best approach: Stop asking.

It would be better if she just said no, I agree. I also get that you want Grandma and grandkids to be close. Her huffing and puffing, though, are the equivalent of no, with the added message that she feels bad enough about saying it that she’ll go out of her way not to.

I’m not excusing this (it is spineless), just explaining it — though I think it’s something you already know. I think you also know that, yes, you are implying your “truly necessary” whatever is more important than her manicure. Own that position — otherwise it sounds pretty rich that you’re annoyed at her for not owning hers.

If you don’t have even a short list of sitters you can hire, then you need to develop one. If you do have a short list and occasionally everyone is busy, then either you postpone your anniversary dinner to a workable night, or, okay, you ask you mother-in-law — knowing you’ll get 18 excuses and possibly no sitter. Part of any “great” relationship is making allowances for the occasional non-great thing that’s part of the package with every person on Earth.

Either way, it sounds as if you need to employ the strictest possible definition of “necessary” — and, perhaps, a looser definition of grandmother. That offhand remark, about “things she has going on that MAY be impacted by a few hours with her grandchildren”? It reveals a whole world view: that grandmas put themselves aside for their grandchildren.

It is lovely when they, and grandpas, do. However, some grandparents are through with child care, done done done, and they — not you, and not Norman Rockwell — get to decide what kind of grandparents they’ll be, barring emergencies.

For dinner, for drinks, for vacay, they’re in. Pattern alert.

So when you have an emergency, yes, recruit your in-laws. Otherwise? You, your husband, your sister- and brother-in-law, your kids, their grandparents, all your collective wits and anything else involved in this familial tug of war would all be better served if you just let go of the rope.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or tellme@washpost.com. Sign up for Carolyn Hax’s column, delivered to your inbox early each morning, at bit.ly/haxpost .

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