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Carolyn Hax: New baby, pushy grandma, passive husband, boom

(Nick Galifianakis for The Washington Post)

Hi, Carolyn: My husband comes from a very large, very close extended family that does just about everything together. When my husband and I were dating, and even after we married, we saw his parents every other week or so, maybe more if there were special events.

However, ever since we had a baby, my mother-in-law seems to feel she should be a lot more involved in our lives and should be seeing our child more often than she is. She has become very competitive with me as well when it comes to our son.

I have made an effort to make sure she sees him once a week, but she's not happy with that arrangement and feels she should have more time.

My husband and I both work full-time (as does my mother-in-law), so our time with our son is precious to us. My husband is all about "just giving in to keep the peace," but it really bothers me that he wants me to have her come over multiple times a week just to keep her happy — especially since, when she is there, I am made to feel like it's her time and I can't hold or feed him, only she can.

It's causing a lot of stress in my marriage and I don't know how to proceed.

— M

M: I’ll bet it is. He’s “keeping the peace” with his parent at the expense of his spouse, arguably the worst possible strategy for marital harmony — except maybe adding a baby to it.

But you’ve got your own mental granite to move. You married into a “very close extended family that does just about everything together.” And you didn’t anticipate more of it showing up when you made it one infant bigger?

Your husband sees their presence as part of himself and you see their absence as part of yourself. So you can’t let this go unreconciled.

Ideally you two will start by admitting to and apologizing for your clear strategic — and self-interested — errors. Such as:

He: “I am so sorry I prioritized my mom (and myself) instead of recognizing — immediately! — that our needs as a family are where my effort and attention belong.”

You: “I am so sorry I didn’t see this coming and discuss with you beforehand how to preserve my space while giving you the family immersion you want.”

But even if you don’t start there, you can still get there. Plant that flag with him as a shared goal. Breathe, talk, breathe.

When you both own the old biases, habits and expectations you brought to your new family configuration, then each of you will be better positioned to recognize, and therefore provide, what the other needs — without undue cost to yourselves.

Maybe you accept that he wants Grandma more involved. Not (just) to appease her, but to fulfill his own vision of a family.

Maybe he accepts that this extra involvement has to be on your terms, not his mom’s.

Maybe he’s enmeshed and this will take counseling. So be it.

One common possibility within these boundaries is that his mother arrives to bond like mad with her grandson while you and your husband enjoy some adults-only time. Or you and your husband, together, conjure ways to have his mother’s presence solve a problem in your household instead of creating one, then secure her cooperation with it — again, on your terms.

If there’s a cosmic reason babies generate so much work, this might be it. To produce many avenues to inclusion.

Which, in turn, can ease the impulse to compete for it.

However you draw the Venn diagram of your and his needs, you’ll improve the outcome if you center it on giving.

What you have now may have started with the best intentions, but it has deteriorated into a grab-fest: Husband is taking from you on his behalf; Grandma is taking from you on her own behalf; you’re reacting to the invasion with defensiveness and possessiveness. Of course you’re all feeling raw.

It’s bad for all of you, too, but the child most of all. A warring village might be worse than no village at all.

Approach it as a simple switch in focus, from the triangle — you, husband, husband’s family — to the line — you, husband. From there you both focus on meeting each other’s needs. Present it to him that way.

If he grasps it, then it’ll lessen the jump to:

●him giving you space with your son, and agency with his family’s visits;

●you giving his family frequent access as a gift to him — scheduled, so you can plan on and around it (but not capriciously or punitively withdraw it);

●you committing, both of you, to emotional honesty and listening to each other before making plans or decisions;

●both of you creating and respecting these healthy terms as a gift to your little family, allowing others to know, love and care responsibly for your child.

These boundaries build trust where distrust and self-interest crept in.