Hi, Carolyn: Our son-in-law recently lodged a complaint that our daughter shared: that we are “far too involved” in their personal business. It makes him uncomfortable to know his wife talks to her parents about much of their lives.
We understand and would happily step back but are not sure how to accomplish that considering they live rent-free in a home we own — this arrangement was supposed to last a year, but has stretched to three — and receive free child care from us two days a week. We are not choosing to be so intimately involved in their daily lives, but do not see how it’s avoidable when they are so reliant on us.
They are not in a position to buy a home yet, and it would be wasteful for them to start renting just to have more independence from us. No one wants to end the babysitting arrangement, although this is largely what’s leading to our son-in-law’s discomfort. Also, I am not sure our daughter was supposed to share her husband’s comment. We are feeling awkward, underappreciated and a little bit hurt. What should we do?
— Washington, D.C.
Washington, D.C.: You could step back to admire how beautifully your daughter just made his point, by oversharing his concern about oversharing.
That would require a level of detachment, though, that I suspect you haven’t achieved.
For one thing, you cite a financial arrangement as a defense for an emotional one, and it doesn’t work that way. Ask anyone rearing aloof teenagers: They can depend on you utterly and break bread with you daily and keep you thoroughly, exquisitely shut out of their inner emotional lives, if they so choose. Being enmeshed on one front doesn’t guarantee it on others.
Nor does being in control on the financial front entitle you to control on another.
There is intimacy in child care, granted, especially since kids are so gleefully unfiltered when it comes to dishing on their parents. But you can still opt not to close that circuit, easily: 1. Don’t circulate what your daughter shares with you; 2. Don’t circulate what the kids burble to you, unless it’s utterly superficial or utterly serious; 3. Don’t give them unsolicited advice, rearrange their cupboards, correct their parenting techniques. If asked for advice, answer only minimally, leaving room for follow-up questions.
You can start applying these best practices on this very topic, since the oversharing issue isn’t about you, it’s strictly between husband and wife. Say so when your daughter brings it up: “We’ll be mindful not to butt in, starting now: You two need to work it out on your own.”
I’ll flag one thing that I hope doesn’t sabotage this advice. Abusers often isolate partners by demanding “privacy” — eavesdropping on calls, say, and trying to clamp down on what’s shared. I don’t necessarily suspect it here but must be thorough.
Please see how your opinion has jumped into their finances, too, and withdraw it; whether you think renting is "wasteful" is irrelevant. Maybe rent money would be extremely well-spent toward their health and independence as adults, spouses and parents.
And maybe charging them rent, which you then save for them, would help set them free? Just one idea toward a larger point: Hereafter, contribute only toward making yourselves obsolete. It’s a parent’s most precious gift.
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