Dear Carolyn: I've always had a warm and close relationship with my sister-in-law. Then, she had a baby, and everything changed. She seems to resent me if I talk about things I'm doing for fun. She'll say things like, "It must be nice to have that much free time" or ends conversations quickly if I mention a new hobby or somewhere cool I went. She's also totally unwilling to socialize without bringing her now-toddler, despite having an involved husband and tons of available family to babysit. I've specifically asked her to do something one-on-one with me, only to have her show up with the toddler, which makes it basically impossible to talk.
She knows I'm happily child-free, but I try very hard to support her and be there for her however I can — babysitting, bringing meals when she was pregnant — and I try to be very affirming of her parenting choices, since I know it can be a hostile world out there for moms. I also try to keep our conversations focused more on her and how she's doing.
But when she inevitably asks me what I've been up to, I feel like I can't say anything without offending her. It just doesn't seem like we have anything in common anymore. Will we ever be close again? Or is the child-free/child-having divide too much to overcome?
— Missing Sister-in-Law
Missing Sister-in-Law: It certainly isn’t in general, though it may well be with her. Hard to say, because it’s such a personal thing.
One issue that is tough to overcome, almost universally so, is thin skin. Someone who takes offense no matter what you say is not capable of being close with anyone. Unless you’re one of the rare ones who just speak their minds regardless, it’s simple emotional math: She takes offense frequently, so you learn to be vigilant in guarding what you say, so your close relationship gets replaced by superficiality. It’s sad.
And, for her particularly, it’s a recipe for loneliness. Being the primary caregiver of a small child is one of the toughest times to find the energy to be a good friend, and one of the toughest times to become alienated from friends: The thing you need most is the thing you feel least equipped to cultivate. It’s like depression in that way, and not by accident; your sister-in-law could, like so many other new and newish parents, be struggling with some degree of depression herself.
Either way, the contradiction of pushing away something badly needed comes through in your description. She sighs out a bunch of must-be-nice laments about free time, but doesn’t accept free time offered to her by other caregivers? Hmm.
I think asking her about the mixed message, vs. trying to game it out, is a chance to get a useful answer. “It sounds like you miss your free time, understandably-slash-obviously. But it also appears you’d rather bring Toddler than leave her home with Husband. You seem torn — or am I misreading?”
You can also answer her questions with a bigger answer: “When you ask what I’m up to, I feel uncomfortable. I’m not sure what to say.” You’re clearly making an effort to be sensitive to her needs; maybe now, give her a chance to tell you what they are.