Talking it Out
There are few relationships with more potential for tension than that of a mother-in-law (MIL) and daughter-in-law (DIL). Add in a grandkid or nine, and things can go off the rails rather quickly. That’s why it helps to broach certain subjects with your DIL—holidays, money, rules—well ahead of time.
”In so many of these situations, it should be the DIL doing this stuff, but she doesn’t always,” says Deanna Brann, Ph.D. author of Reluctantly Related Revisited: Breaking Free of the Mother-in-Law/Daughter-in-Law Conflict. That’s your cue, Grandma. Initiating these vital discussions can establish good MIL-DIL connections and pave the way for happier family relationships down the road. Read on for the lowdown.
1. What to call you
When you first establish a relationship with your DIL or DIL-to-be, she may stress over what to name to use for you. If you have a preference, a simple “Call me Joyce” can work wonders. If you don’t, let her take the lead, and remember: It doesn’t have to be traditional, and it doesn’t have to be what you called your mother-in-law.
The same goes for your grandparent name, a.k.a. what your grandchildren will call you. You can wait and see what the kids come up with, or pick your own moniker, like Gigi, Glamma, or G-Money—just make sure youask your son and DIL if it works for them.
Of course, the name is only a part of your MIL-DIL bond. In the beginning stages, “It’s really important that the MIL works on the relationship with a DIL, because that’s going to make all this other stuff much smoother,” says Dr. Brann. “Get to know who she is, let her know that she matters to you outside of her son.”
2. Visiting the new baby
You want to see your newest grandchild as soon as possible, and your DIL knows that. While you shouldn’t presume you’ll be in the delivery room, you can reasonably request some facetime within a few weeks of the birth. “This is a special time for [your son and DIL],” says Dr. Brann. “Give them several options letting them know you’re open to whatever they decide.” Still, make sure they actually decide. “You don’t want to leave it open.” For best results, start the discussion weeks—and even months—before baby comes along, and remember that DIL’s mom will most likely take priority, at least initially.
When you finally arrive, it’s best to play it cool, and lend as big of a helping hand as humanly possible. “Your helping out needs to be dishes, laundry, and cooking,” advises Dr. Brann. “Figure out what you can be doing to help her so she can spend time with the baby.” You’ll endear yourself, and get some quality time with your favorite newborn. Everybody wins.
3. How to handle short visits
Grandparents who live closer to children and grandchildren have a built-in advantage when it comes to family visits. Whether you’re there every day or drop by a few times a month, Dr. Brann has just one rule: “Always call ahead. Always call ahead. That’s just being respectful.” Remember that you’re asking if you can stop in, not alerting your DIL to your impending presence—and that means you might not be welcome at that exact second. “Don’t take it personally if they say no. They have lives, too,” says Dr. Brann. Make plans to see them another time, or invite them out.
4. Where you’ll stay during longer visits
In lots of families, it’s expected that long-term visitors will crash with hosts. However, when you’re first navigating overnight stays with your DIL or SIL, it’s best to play it safe. “Better to just go ahead and say, ‘Let me stay at a hotel,’” says Dr. Brann. “If they say, ‘No, no, no stay here,’ you can do that.” By not assuming you’ll be accommodated, you’re showing you’re respectful of their space.
And if you do end up at hotel? Look at the bright side, says Dr. Brann: “You can spend most of the day with them, and be at their house, but have a place to go where you can regroup.” It’s less stressful, and when you’re with the family, you can concentrate on just having fun.
5. The holidays
Thanksgiving and Christmas. Independence Day and Easter. Passover and Diwali. When it comes to big holidays, your son and DIL should ideally communicate their plans to you. However, if that doesn’t happen (and it often doesn’t), be ready to say something. Dr. Brann suggests an open-ended approach: “You don’t want to come across demanding, but you want to say, ‘I know you guys are trying to figure out the holidays. How do you think you might want to do that, so we can plan based on what you want to do?’” Keep in mind they’re establishing their own traditions, and that both sets of parents must be considered, so a Christmas visit may actually occur closer to New Year’s Day. “It may not actually be on the holiday, but if you give them some time during their holiday, that can be just as good.”
Of course, once kids come along, it’s a whole other story. “The parents may say, ‘Santa is coming. We’re staying here,’” says Dr. Brann. “A MIL has to be willing to be okay. Traditions will change as time goes on.”
6. Babysitting and enforcing rules
Whether it’s occasional babysitting or a full-time child care gig, you must have a discussion with your son and DIL about their expectations of you watching the grandchildren. “It’s really important that the ground rules are well established,” says Dr. Brann, who suggests asking questions like:
- What are your rules?
- How do I handle certain situations?
- How do I handle situations where I disagree with something you say to me?
- If you have an issue with me or I have an issue with you, how are we going to handle it? How do we keep it out of the family dynamic?
Money is another good topic of discussion. If you are being paid, getting the details—frequency, rate, extras, etc.—out up front could save a lot of confusion and heartache down the line.
Special tip: If you’re providing daycare, it’s a good idea to set “Grandma Time” aside with the children, during which you don’t have to worry about parental rules.
7. Money and gifts
News flash: Grandparents like to spoil their grandchildren. Most likely, kids won’t have any problems with this. However, your DIL and son, though they appreciate your generosity, might want to put the brakes on what they view as overindulgence. In any case, it doesn’t hurt to ask before you buy. “”Let’s say every time you see your grandkids, you want to bring a little gift. Check with the parents to see if it’s okay,” suggests Dr. Brann. “It’s always better to ask. It shows respect.” This goes double if you’re buying bigger gifts, like a bike or computer. Be open to pursuing other avenues, too; time spent can create wonderful memories, and money can always be deposited into a 529 college savings account.
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