Dear Carolyn: My husband’s parents favor their daughter and her children over my family and his brother’s family. Their daughter is aware of it, and brags about it — “I’m Daddy’s favorite so I get to park in the driveway.” This is a grown woman in her 40s. She claims constantly that she has no money, when she and her husband make more money than my family and my husband’s brother’s family. We all live on a tight budget. They have multiple flat-screen televisions, computers and fitness equipment. And yet my husband’s parents constantly give her money and their credit cards. They try to keep it from the rest of us. We live five minutes away from my husband’s parents, yet we never see them. They travel 40 minutes on a weekly basis to see their daughter and her family for whatever reason.
We have tried to spend more time with them. For example, we invited them to a Memorial Day picnic, and they accepted. But when they found out their daughter didn’t have plans, they canceled on us to spend time with her. This behavior leads to hurt feelings for me and my husband’s brother’s wife.
It doesn’t seem to bother my husband as much. He thinks it is wrong, but, frankly, I think he is used to it because he grew up that way.
I tried to blow it off and accept it, but now my children are older and they see the favoritism. This brings my hurt feelings bubbling back to the surface. My husband’s mother’s way of dealing with the favoritism with the grandchildren is she buys my kids things, but she doesn’t spend much time with them.
I have approached my husband’s parents twice and they defend why they feel they need to “help” their daughter, even though I explained that giving her money all the time isn’t helping her. I tried to tell them they are missing out on my kids’ and my husband’s brother’s kids’ childhoods, but nothing trumps their daughter and her problems. How do I handle it and protect my children in the process?
Tired of Favoritism
Tired of Favoritism: Oh, my goodness, just stop, please.
Stop trying to get better treatment.
Stop believing that you are owed better treatment.
Stop serving your kids up to these people just to be treated as second-best.
Stop taking it personally that your in-laws are twisted.
Stop bean-counting TVs and treadmills.
Stop banging your head against a wall.
Stop teaching your kids that banging their heads against a wall is an appropriate way to handle a problem.
Your kids are indeed getting shortchanged on grandparents. That stinks. It’s not fair. It’s a stupid way for your in-laws to behave.
But none of these facts of sympathy will change anything about the reality of your in-law situation. So instead of trying to change that reality — an effort that has long since proven itself to be futile, by your own description — please start working with your reality to construct a healthy environment for your kids.
● Plan things with people who love and appreciate your family. Your fellow-outcast brother- and sister-in-law are a fine place to start. Good friends, too, can become family of choice when families of birth let you down.
● Stay cordial with your in-laws but don’t go out of your way and don’t expect anything from them. Even if you let yourselves expect what they typically provide — gifts, lip service? “Gosh, thanks, Grams” — don’t register disappointment if they fail to produce even that.
● With your husband, prepare honest, age-appropriate answers to your kids’ questions about their grandparents: “I’m sorry, too, that Grandma and Grandpa aren’t here.” “I know we don’t see them much. That’s the way they have always been.” “Daddy does love them, though they don’t have a close relationship — that was true long before you guys were born.” Let your kids ask follow-up questions, and use “I believe . . . ” to frame your answers to make room both for different perceptions and for your kids to think for themselves. Such as, “I believe they’re entitled to spend their time as they wish — and that they’re missing out.”
It is a hard line to walk, where you tell the truth of someone’s limitations without vilifying them. And you don’t want to vilify them, of course, because people are complicated, families even more so, and for all you know your kids could form their own relationships with their grandparents down the road.
What helps with this line-walking is having laid the groundwork with your kids of explaining, accepting and keeping calm amid human frailty. That means admitting your mistakes when you make them; not losing your minds when your kids make them; showing forgiveness; and modeling good emotional health: Decide who does and doesn’t warrant an investment of your time and trust, then move on.
The facts are telling you what level of investment in your in-laws is healthy. Your job is simply to hear what these facts have to say.