Question: My husband and I are blessed with having our parents (three sets) all somewhat nearby. At the same time, this causes our social calendar to fill up quickly and makes it hard to balance family obligations. While we want our child to have a rich understanding, closeness and appreciation for her extended family, at times we feel we are asked to events simply to present our child (the only grandchild thus far) as a dog-and-pony show of sorts. Can you provide any advice as to how to carefully broach the topic with our families that we simply cannot attend all events and want our daughter to have some quiet time with her immediate family rather than jumping from event to event every weekend/holiday?
Answer: I loved receiving this question because I consider this the best problem to have in America right now.
Allow me to explain:
After about a year or two of dating, my then boyfriend, now husband, informed me that he was going to buy a house directly next to his family home. Directly next to his parents. As in, eight feet away. I was 20 years old and thought, “Well, that’s odd . . . but I’ll never marry him.” So I congratulated him on his purchase and we kept dating.
Years passed and, well, we kept dating. I slowly began to admit to people that I was probably going to marry this man and, yes, he had purposely bought a house next to his parents.
My family, like many American families, valued the child leaving the house. For college. And an apartment. And a job. While my parents would never leave me high and dry, they would also think that I had lost my mind if I bought a house next to them.
So I married the guy and moved into the house, and it was pretty wretched.
I was a 26-year-old bride living next to her in-laws. My husband, his parents and his brothers thought it was grand. I thought I was in hell.
Fast-forward to having kids and it became more awkward. While my in-laws mostly respected my boundaries, I could feel (or at least I thought I could feel) their judgment at every turn. Food, sleep, schedules, too cold, too hot. I always felt that I was parenting just a little offbeat. I was depressed and lonely, but I wouldn’t reach out to the family right next to me. I struggled with my breast-feeding, and my insecurity was too high. Every glance felt like an insult and every comment was a critique.
As the children got older, though, something funny happened. I allowed the in-laws in. Babysitting started, giving my husband and me some crucial time together in those early years. Yes, we had some Sunday dinners where no one spoke English, but the kids loved it. My mother-in-law made elaborate Serbian meals on real china, and my children ate it up (literally and figuratively).
And every word, song and step my children took was cheered on by them. If one of my children danced a little shimmy, they would clap wildly and pronounce that her “skill is obvious and indisputable.” When my children mispronounced their first words, my in-laws proclaimed that it was “the sweetest thing that we’ve ever heard.”
I rolled my eyes; my heart began to soften. I began to allow more cookies at Baba’s house at 5 p.m. An ice cream cone at 10:30 a.m.? Well . . . okay.
My children stayed up too late at Serbian parties and stayed too long at church functions. My mother-in-law would show them off without embarrassment, admonishing my exasperated children to straighten sweaters and clip their hair into bows, and I would knowingly smile. “Make your Baba happy,” I would whisper. And they would.
When my father-in-law was dying, the girls visited him in bed, and then in the hospital. It was a little scary for them, but this is what intimacy gets you. It gets you a front-row seat for both the beautiful and the painful.
Because I put my dukes down and let the boundaries soften, my children had (and have) fully fleshed-out relationships with their grandparents.
So, dear reader, your life is completely different from mine and totally the same, as all lives are. You are finding your footing as a new parent. You are finding your family rhythm. You are experiencing the competing feeling of “please others” and “please self.”
The good news? This will not end (the competing interests), and there are so many ways to make this easier.
First, accept that this is your life, the good and the bad. And it seems like you’re at least partway there. You have many people to love and watch your child, as well as many people who are going to intrude upon your time.
Second, you always have three possible answers to every question: Yes, No, and Silence. Say YES when you want to say it, say NO when something really doesn’t work, and take a moment of SILENCE when you don’t know what you want to say.
Simple, right? I mean, you can clutter this up with what you think you should do and how you are imagining that others may feel and so on and so forth, but life really can be this easy.
Now here’s a really important part: Sometimes, the grandparents may feel inconvenienced or pushed aside or put out. As long you don’t go out of your way to be unkind, it is okay if people have uncomfortable feelings.
Sometimes you will feel annoyed, suffocated and yanked around. And that’s okay, too. This is the price of having so many people nearby who love you and your child. Just recognize when your stress is building and do what you’ve got to do.
Now my children are older and the cookie and ice cream days are fewer and far between. My beloved father-in-law is dead and my mother-in-law moves a little more slowly. The babysitting aspect is largely gone, and all of the relationships are maturing, changing and growing.
So, you see? Nothing lasts forever. Your child will not be little forever. Her grandparents will not be able-bodied forever.
Don’t be afraid of what will happen, just enjoy all of this messy family love.
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Read a transcript of a recent live Q&A with Leahy at washingtonpost.com/advice , and find past columns there at at washingtonpost.com/onparenting.