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Carolyn Hax: Struggling to silence an overbearing mother-in-law


Hi there, Carolyn: I am desperate for help, and my mom isn’t cutting it. My mother-in-law (whom we see often) insists on weighing in on everything we do for our son, usually indicating that we are somehow doing it wrong because it’s not what she would do. Nothing objectively wrong, just not “her way.” For example, she keeps trying to feed him baby food and formula, at our house, when we’re trying to feed him “real” food and he clearly doesn’t want formula or baby food.

It feels like a judgment of our abilities, so my mom says, “Just tell her she’s making you feel like she thinks you aren’t competent.” But that’s easier said than done.

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

How do I convey: “He’s our child, let us do it, respect our decisions, please stop, put the bottle down” — without seeming nasty or rude? But at the same time with enough conviction that she gets the hint, when prior efforts (“I’ll do it,” “It’s just easier,” “He’s not hungry”) don’t work?

I want to find a way to convey to her that I’m at my wit’s end, she has to back off, etc., without seeming too nasty. — R.

(Nick Galifianakis/For The Washington Post)

So, “easier said than done” equals “I won’t bother to try”? Mom is cutting it, with honest communication, and you blew her off.

Of course it’s hard to say how you feel, to be vulnerable and potentially awkward. But the alternative you’re advice-shopping for is clearly combative — and besides setting you up to be just another combative daughter-in-law in the sad continuum of mother-in-law/daughter-in-law hostility, it creates the long-term discomfort of an antagonistic environment vs. the short-term discomfort of communicating your way toward mutual respect.

And that’s whether or not she joins you on that path, and whether or not you find a non-“nasty” way to tell someone to go away, frolicking among unicorns.

Yes, I’m telling you to listen to your mother. But I’m offering an extended sample script, too:

1. “It must drive you nuts to see us doing things you would do differently — I get it.”

2. “When you jump in with suggestions, though, I’m not just hearing, ‘Give him formula.’ I hear: ‘You don’t know what you’re doing! Let me handle it.’ ”

3. “It’s not that I think I’m always right or you’re always wrong. It’s that I want to find my own way, what works for me and Spouse and Baby.”

*4. “You did such a great job with Spouse that I married him/her! I do respect your opinion.”

*5. “I just prefer to ask for it. You were in my place once, surely you understand.”

If she says, “I do understand, but don’t call me Shirley,” then you’re either in the clear or in a scene from “Airplane!”

I gave 4 and 5 an asterisk because anyone who is genuinely trying to help vs. trying to run your life (or boost her own ego) will stop you after No. 3 and pledge to back off, probably with an apology and possibly with gratitude for the second chance your candor permits.

The ones who want to control, control, control won’t get the message even after Nos. 4 and 5 — but saying them will lay a foundation of empathy you can build on later, especially if she keeps butting in and you need a firmer, “Please put the bottle down, and respect our decisions.”

Also useful: following through with the promise of seeking her perspective. “Baby has started doing X. Did Spouse ever do that as a child?” Always try including her on your terms before barring the door.

* * *

Dear Carolyn: I have recently started seeing someone I really enjoy. The only problem is she uses a lot of synthetic fragrances (body wash, shampoo, laundry detergent, perfume) that all make me feel a bit sick.

I only use natural stuff and would like her to, too. I have tried asking (as tactfully as possible) a former lover as well as former roommates to change their products, even offering to subsidize any increased cost, and have never gotten a positive response. I’m afraid to bring this up because I don’t want to turn this into a fight, but it’s not something I can ignore indefinitely. — A.

It’s possible your tact is the problem. What you have isn’t an opinion, it’s a physical reaction.

So present it that way: “Perfumes make me sick.” Pad the preface as you want (“This might sound weird/intrusive,” etc.), but be completely plain with the point.

Then, specifics: “I’m sensitive to anything with a synthetic fragrance — shampoo, detergent, scented candles.” The last one is unrelated to her body, which might help.

Then, ask: “Would you be willing to change what you use?”

For someone I see often, I’d sign on without thinking twice. The right person for you will do the same. Obstacles like these are a natural filter; trust that the keepers will pass right through.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or Get her column delivered to your inbox each morning at



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