Dear Carolyn: Our daughter and grandson escaped an abusive ex a few years ago, and we were very happy when she met a new guy, who professed his love for her and the desire to be a father for her son. They married recently, just as he was starting a new, very high-stress job.
Now, we are hearing about frictions. He has to work nights a lot and times in medicine are horrific, so I get that he has signed up for a lot of stress all at once. More than I could handle.
We are deeply worried their new marriage could explode, damaging our daughter and grandson.
I was young and overworked and stressed myself, back in the day, and I'd love to sit down with him during one of his few moments of rest and give him some coaching on how to make it work, but my wife is highly dubious that I could help. I can't say her advice is wrong, but.
Is there a good way for a well-intentioned father-in-law to help, or do I have to just grit my teeth and hope for the best? I’m looking for ways to be helpful that won’t be perceived as meddling. Or is that just meddling by another name?
FIL: So when you were young and overworked and stressed yourself, back in the day, did you want to spend one of your few moments of rest hearing all the things you were doing wrong from someone you didn’t ask?
I'm going with “no.”
I know we're conditioned to teach fishing vs. give someone a fish. But you have three great reasons just to hand the thing over: 1. This is a crisis. 2. He didn't book a fishing lesson.
And 3. You aren't in this marriage yourself, so you can suspect the husband needs Fishing 101 more than your daughter does, but you can't know that.
The crisis is the one in health-care settings right now, but it could just as easily be the crisis of a lot of changes to their household at once.
Either way, to the extent they need help at all — they may well get through this on love and skills alone — the best you and your wife can offer this family is direct, short-term pressure relief. Can you, without offending or condescending, treat them to something, run their errands, hire out their lawn care/home maintenance/repairs/cleaning, sign them up for a meal service, babysit for a date night, lend a nonjudgmental ear, express confidence they’ll find their way through this? Direct help.
“How can I lighten their load?” is the question you want to answer.
Then — do not skip this step — check your answer against your daughter’s, with encouragement for her to check with her husband. That’s how you help without meddling. There’s no de-meddling side portal into their family business.
Even if you ask first, and even if she says there's nothing you can do to help, and even if she's wrong about that, and even if this marriage buckles under the weight of all these stresses at once when you could have taken a few of them off, respecting this couple as the head of their own household will have been the right thing to do.
That’s not “grit my teeth” stuff, either. That’s trusting adults to find their way, just as someone once did for you.
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