Posted by: Kate | September 8, 2008

Monday Morning Mother-in-Law Madness

Well, grab your morning coffee and settle in, because I have a new mother-in-law story.  It has been brewing for a while, but came to a head over the weekend.

To the extent possible, I’m going to let her – and our – words speak for themselves, because I’m interested in your thoughts.  I’ve got tons of my own, of course, but for now, the evidence.

Exhibit 1: An email from mother-in-law to my 8-year-old daughter.
As background, once in a while, we let the kids dictate emails in lieu of a bedtime story.  We let them choose the recipient and the content of their notes.  Emily chose to write to Grandma C, and each time wrote newsy, babbly, 8-year-old sorts of things, including referencing the times when we had traveled or visited.  The first two times, C replied with a cursory acknowledgement of the stuff that was important to Emily and a longer bit applying guilt to Emily, and to us, for not having invited her to visit this summer.  Those times, she ignored that bit and just replied with more newsy stuff.  This is the third response from C.

Hi Emily and Jacob;
I was really happy to get your email and to hear about all the things you’re doing and all the places you’ve been visiting. I’m sorry no one told me you’d all be in NY. I live so close to there that I would have been able to go there to see you and Jacob and get a hug in person. Maybe you can ask Mom and Dad to let me know the next time you’re so close to where I live or maybe I can come to your house to see you and Jacob.
I’m glad you’re having so much fun as a 3rd grader and that you have a nice teacher. I can’t believe you’re growing up so quickly..Jacob,too! I miss both of you an awful lot.
I hope you have a real fun weekend. Please give Jacob a hug for me and ask him to give you a hug for me.
I love you both a lot. xxxxxxx ooooooo Granma C

Exhibit 2: Willem’s response to his mother.
I still struggle with the possibility that perhaps she didn’t think we were reading Emily’s emails. Could she really think that (1) I would let my kid have an unsupervised email account this young, and (2) that the spelling, punctuation and grammar would be correct if she was writing on her own?


In the past several months, Kate and I have had a very hard time communicating effectively with you. This has been going on for many years now, but lately it has become especially unpleasant. We are very frustrated and disappointed that you have now chosen to involve Emily through email.

In April, when we saw you at Pam’s house, I made an effort to inform you about our summer schedule. I told you that we would be very busy, but that you could visit if you made plans early. I’m quite certain that I made a big deal about this, imploring you to contact us as soon as possible.

Then in May, Kate called you to thank you for the balloons you sent her for Mother’s Day. During this phone call she repeated what I had told you a month earlier. We continued to wait for you to call us in order to make plans. You never did.

At any point during April, May, June, or July, all you needed to do was contact us by phone or email in order to figure out potential dates for a visit. We both thought that it was strange that you weren’t doing so as the summer went on, but we both refused to chase you and beg you to come out. We had informed you twice, individually, on separate occasions, about our plans. To do this a third time would have been insulting to the independence of everyone involved.

As for Jacob’s birthday, when we were at Pam’s house, Kate told everyone that we would be celebrating Jacob’s birthday on the last weekend in July at our house. Pam and the girls remembered. Dave remembered. The H’s remembered. Again, at any point during the summer, you could have called and asked what we were doing for Jacob’s birthday if you had forgotten. You never did.

This was compounded even further when you called and sent flowers on the wrong day, and never called Jacob back after he left a message on your machine. I understand that people make mistakes, and I never berated or admonished you for getting the day wrong. We were out of the house when you called the next day, and it wasn’t until 7 or so that Jacob was able to try to call you back. He left a message. We haven’t heard from you since.

There are three things we want you to understand at this point:

1. We were never angry or hurt that you had not called to make plans, because we assumed that you had other things going on throughout the summer. It has only been since Jacob’s birthday that we have felt increasingly upset.

2. We have neither the time nor the desire to be involved in dramatic and passive-aggressive relationships with close relatives. Please do not continue to send guilt-inducing messages to Emily.

3. We would love for you to have a healthy relationship with our kids, and with us. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have put so much time and effort into writing a very difficult email. If you wish to discuss this further, please call, or write, at your convenience.


Exhibit 3: Mother-in-law’s response to Willem this morning.

Dear Willem;
I also want a healthy and happy relationship with you, Kate, Emily and Jacob. I’m so sorry for anything I said or did that turned out poorly. It was never my intention to hurt anyone.
I think it’s time to wipe the proverbial slate clean on both sides and start fresh. You, Kate, Emily and Jacob are my family. I want to be involved in your lives because I love all of you and life is short.

Love you always, Mom

Share with me your thoughts, if you will, and when I’m done stabbing myself in the eye with a knitting needle I’ll try to organize some of mine.



  1. I could say things, but won’t…here. Over a bottle of wine on your couch with some knitting? You bet your ass.

  2. Wish I was close enough to join you & Gretchen with that bottle of wine and discussion!!

  3. The best way to deal with passive/aggressive is to take them at their written or spoken word, always, without letting them get away with anything. Willem’s email does that. He called her out, and at face value she has ostensibly apologized, whatever we might speculate about her real motives or what she will do if we let our guard down.

    Next, what he does is respond neutrally along the lines of “I’m glad, and thanks, now let’s get Thanksgiving (or whenever) on the calendar right now. Here is our availability.” Then you get the commitment or lack thereof back in her court where it rightfully belongs.

    If she pulls the stunt with the daughter’s email again, you should help the daughter frame a similar response by reminding daughter that Grandma is welcome to come anytime, so why doesn’t she ask Grandma. This is of benefit to your daughter because you are helping her develop skills in dealing with these kinds of people. She’ll thank you later.

    Dealing with passive/aggressive sociopaths is so draining. You constantly have to be vigilant and redirect to keep it in the planet of normalcy. Another toddler is the last thing anyone needs. But the distance must be within your control utilizing boundaries that you decide upon. This mitigates their opportunities to screw with you and those you love.

  4. I think giving your MIL the benefit of the doubt and making a good faith effort to start anew is the way to go. Life IS short, and family IS important. She’s your husband’s mother and grandmother to your children, and it sounds like she’s reaching out, is apologetic, and might be finally aware of what she could lose. I agree with Betsy as to how to handle the future visit-pin her down and put a definite date on the calendar now.

  5. Your mil’s suggestion to wipe the slate clean on both sides reminds me of a note I got from my mil after a big blow-up where she arrived at our house unannounced and uninvited to “communicate” with me about why I wasn’t as friendly to her anymore. After the blow up she sent me a note saying that she was sorry I had a problem and that she’d be ready to “communicate” with me when I got over my problem.

    Your mil seems to be blaming some of the problems on you and your husband.

    But maybe I’m just overly reactionary to passive-aggressive crazies and ready to believe the worst of them.

    • honestly i love my mil so much. However she is pulling almost the same stunts and recently sent me almost an identical email. strange.But since the ‘apology’ she has found a way to undermine me. Is there hope for her to not be this way? are there times when it is worse for passive aggressive people?

  6. I agree with Joanna’s response.

    And if she really is a difficult person, she could’ve really blown up and over-reacted to Willem’s email.

    Their relationship must really be strained, because I really can’t imagine a written exchange like that between son and mother.

    I think her response was pleasant and of good sense.

    It really doesn’t make sense to have cold war feuds with family members – no one ever wins and it sucks for everyone, especially the kids.

    I can sometimes be guilty of not following up on a call or email and would hope that a family member would give me a break and just call me again to remind me. I know that feelings can and do get hurt even from perceived slights, but I’d like to think (unless the person was just a true bitch or ass) that the slights are unintentional.

    Hope the clean slate works out for you – especially since I think your kids are young enough to love unconditionally, and as they get older, they’ll be more in tune with tensions, kwim?

  7. She sounds just like my MIL…but further away from you. (Again, consider yourself extremely lucky.) We’ll have a big blow-up with my MIL and a week or so later she’ll force her way over & pretend nothing happened. Even to the point of over-doing the niceness “I just love you…hug me” To which I wish I could respond: “No bitch…you’re crazy…get OUT of my house!”

    Sounds like she half-read Willem’s email & just wants to avoid any confrontation.

    Maybe she’ll send you more balloons to celebrate 😉

  8. Hey! I found your blog a few weeks ago and I’ve really enjoyed reading it. I’ve especially found you MIL issues to be interesting.

    I don’t have this problem myself, but the behavior you are describing is exactly the same as my paternal grandmother’s when I was a child. She would visit once a year and shower us with gifts (mostly Barbies and other toys and sweets that were expressly forbidden). When we were alone, she would tell me how much she would like for me to come stay with her for a few weeks, and that she was “working on my mother” to make that happen. It never did, and I was heartbroken each time. She would also tell me that she would like to visit more, but felt like she was intruding. This also made me sad and angry.

    I now recognize what a struggle it must’ve been for my mother to keep her cool. What my grandma did was not fair to my mother or to me, and I really resented my mom when I felt she was the one denying me extra weeks of gifts and treats. Even then, mom never involved me in the battle between her and my grandma. She never tried to turn me against grandma, and managed to keep secret the fact that they didn’t get along. She let me call and write grandma as often as I wanted, and always (I have no idea how) managed to hold her tongue.

    I hope all you guys are able to wipe the slate clean but, from the standpoint of someone who has been there as a child instead of as an adult, I think you’re doing a great job keeping your kids out of this as much as possible. They obviously love their grandma and are too young to see her faults; you should keep it that way as long as possible. Believe me, they will know soon enough! :^)

  9. AAAAAH!

    Okay, having gotten that out of my system, I can now say that this woman is certainly Chock Full O’ Gall, isn’t she? In response to a letter that tells her that your family has no time or energy to waste on passive-aggressive behavior, she sends a reply that is straight-up passive-aggressive. NEAT!
    I can only be thankful that my MIL is not Internet-savvy, and that her blowups are generally followed by a nice, peaceful month or two of her “punishing” us by ignoring us.
    But your MIL is a master, I have to say. The interesting thing here is that I have to wonder if she knows of any other method of communication? Perhaps she doesn’t understand healthy communication, and to her that *is* normal. Yikes.

  10. Kate,
    I am not taking a Dr. Phil approach here in any way shape or form. I believe family is imporant but surrounding children around mentally unhealthy people nulls the family relations in my “box.”
    I believe MIL knows you and Willem so she expected you both to be overseeing Emily’s email, if not she was fooling herself. From the “past history” she was picking scabs and pouring lemon juice on them. Strict boundaries need to be set to protect your children from being dragged into her unhappy place, which I know you have done. She does need to apologize for her actions if she means it, “I’m sorry for what-ever I have done that offended you” is not an apology it is in reality “your offended and I don’t see the problem with what I did, it is your issue to deal with.”
    I also see that since your lives don’t revolve around her, due to her unstability, she needs to find an unhealthy way to interject herself. She is a grown up and needs to set appropriate examples for your children if she wants a good relationship with them, that should also mean she needs to hold herself accountable. Otherwise you will alway be trying to explain yourselves to Emily & Jacob after any communication with her, regardless of how important family is they don’t need to pick-up that this type of family interaction is normal. Granted this is my take on things after having to deal with a SUPER ABUSIVE and Passive Aggressive MIL of my own. She hasn’t had a any real time with our children since Thanksgiving 2007 (when she verbally attacked me at my parents’ house and physically prevented me from walking away from her.) Finally, you are always welcome to forgive and try again but you cannot forget, for your own sake because it isn’t safe for your family to hash this out every few months or even years. I wish you all the best getting through this and and finding a suitable resolution.

  11. oh wow…she’s good! but she did apologize and suggested that the slate be wiped clean. try to give her another chance with a specific date to get together like some others have suggested. but at some point your (you, willem, the kids) expectations of her will have to change. she’s not the kind of mother, mil, or grandmother that you all want and deserve. and expecting her to be different just makes it harder on you guys. 😦

  12. She does sound like a difficult person. But I could imagine so many worse ways her email response could have gone, like straight into Crazay Land. Is your m-i-l one of those people who never feels welcome anywhere, even if she’s invited?

    I agree with Betsy and Kristin. Take her at her word, get her on your family calendar, and let the healing begin! Then come back here and tell us everything. 🙂

    Kidding aside, it sounds like you guys are doing everything you can to do right by her, which is great. You don’t want your kids to get the sense that you are contributing in any way to this rift, if it becomes a rift. Family is hard.

  13. Seriously, your MIL and my mom should get together. Then they could have a fun old time talking about their kids and grandkids and pretending that they are both a great mother and grandmother. I love the way that they talk about people behind their back in front of their faces. Run as fast as you can away from her – she is saying the clean slate thing to smooth things over but will slip back into the not healthy stuff. Maybe since you guys live on one side of the US and I the other, we could ship our MIL and mom to the middle and forget to buy a ticket back…..just think about it. 🙂

  14. Madison can we put my MIL on that trip too? 😉

  15. You are a mean person. When you geet old, and your kids treat you like this, you;’ll know. Old people have insecurities to deal with and their illiteracy towards technology to deal with, and may be it forces them to lie. You sleeping with your hubby and giving him ‘what he wants’ apparently makes you think you can turn him against someone where he came from. Thats too much…But, wife is more important than mother anyday , but I think, we should know where to draw the line. There is a saying, You can see a Mother in a Wife, but not the other way round. So, make adjustments and dont hurt the poor soul MIL. After all, what did we bring to this world to take from here? Nothing…

  16. you poor confused soul, idigitalriver. nobody is being forced to lie in this situation and my sister is not an emotional prostitute. in the future, you and the cunning rhetoric you rode in on ought to stick to passing judgment on people you know.

  17. If Mary is MIL’s sister, I certainly didnt mean she is one, neither can do I care if she is one. But, then speaking things out is best – its a bad habit to show angst on youngsters – it spoils the relationship. Always, wife is important for the family as long as cruelty is not meted out to the MIL. I think the MIL here, should ahve just communicated things directly to the happy couple. EGO hurts and would spoil the fmaily relationships…Prestige is different from stupid ego…know that.

  18. Our past relationships come to haunt us, so its best to see whats good for the family and move on…seriously, getting the kidns involved is a bad thing…

  19. Well all has been said here! Personally, I’m a family meeting confront the issue type. I did it once with my own mother in law and after a time of discomfort, all is forgiven, she was put in her place in NO uncertain terms by her own son and despite being a widow for 20 years, we are now very close. Emails can be misinterpreted and misunderstood. One last chance I reckon but do it in person.

  20. Mrs. B is funny, she probably will send you balloons again!

    Sounds to me like she was called out, and know she has to apologize, but not without giving you your share of the blame. She says wipe the slate clean on both sides, without being specific as to what it is that you did that needs to be forgiven! Classic.

  21. Nothing constructive to say here with regard to the current MIL situation (I haven’t the experience to look back on in my own personal life to justify a retort) I just wanted to kick this out there: elequence and matter of factness is spelled M-A-R-Y. Good onya.

  22. So… idigitalriver did not in fact actually READ the post, I take it? Or the one before this, or the one before it, regarding the MIL?
    Oh, wait! I see! idr is actually someone’s MIL, and this hit too close to home; either that, or idr does not actually have to deal with someone like this, and thus is passing judgment on a stranger out of ignorance.
    Got it.

  23. P.S. Mary ROCKS.

  24. Mary, Go girl!!!!

  25. My own experience with Shane’s dad biases my opinion, I’m sure, but my first thought is that she is never going to change. It may look like she has apologized, but she won’t feel sorry for long (if, in fact, she feels sorry now). Things may improve for a little while, but they’ll eventually go back to “normal.” Don’t let your guard down – the fight is likely to come back some day soon.

    Mary is awesome. Way to shut ’em down!

  26. For the record, I think Willem wrote an incredible, well-thought out, well-worded, direct email Props to him!!!!!!

  27. Wow.

    I gotta say that I’m surprised to hear your MIL actually apologize. For anything. No matter how little. I’m still sort of wiping myself off the floor over this one.

    Is it significant that she actually included you, Kate, in the “I want a healthy relationship with …” list? I know there’s been intentional exclusion in the past, whether it was the plane trip way back when or photos in her house. Just wondering if this is a step in the right direction for her or if it’s more of a say-one-thing-do-another issue.

    Geez, I don’t know. I would so love to give her the benefit of the doubt. Problem is, I don’t think she KNOWS what a healthy relationship looks like. Were she the least bit self-aware, she’d realize she’s had the perfect example right under her nose in her son and his family. But that’s probably giving her too much credit.

    I’m a lot of help, huh? I guess for a split second, I was hopeful, then realism took over; I suspect she probably doesn’t mean exactly what she says in her email … it’s more a way to try to smooth things over (in her mind) while telling herself she “did all she could.”

    I’m curious what you think. And Willem?

    And yeah, Mary does rock.

  28. Um, Kate, I think your MIL has finally found your blog!

    I’d like to join the “Mary Rocks” club, please.

    And I have to say that Gretchen is a bit brave for being willing to talk to Kate about her MIL whilst Kate has knitting needles in her hands.

    I’d not sit on the couch, Gretchen. Just to be safe sit across the room. Please.

  29. My hat, if I wore one, is off to Willem. Hard letter to write I’d think, but written so articulately.Personally, if I had become a problem like she is, I would appreciate such a letter. Because I’m dense, not saying she is.

    So the slate is clean. Send he an organizer with birth dates for everyone marked to start and tell her once again, you hate freakin’ balloons! One more time and she’s off your speed dial.
    I don’t know, Kate, what are you going to do?

  30. Willem’s letter bordered on brilliant.

    One word for thought on his mom: Hemlock.

  31. Look I am an asian, we believe that family even the extended family is important so we keep them dearly. In my (asian) point of view..your mil is asking your forgiveness and she does not seem a passive-agressive type of person. I tend to agree with Joana’s tip. You are now a parent yourselves and some years later you will be mil of someone else, people make mistake so…try to make things is is important..and kid is kid with their innocent, so they do not know unless you involve them. I am a mother myself, once or twice I do forget my pil (parents in law) important dates, I called them say sorry and come by or send cakes and hugs them. This happens with my own parents. We now is parents. Be wise our children copies us. Take care and hope you have peace with your mil and parents.

  32. My, what a lot of… advice… you’ve got in this thread!

    I hope you finish poking yourself in the eye with the knitting needles very, very soon.

  33. […] Lies Beneath Well, that was interesting.  I thought maybe I’d do a little sociology experiment, by posting the emails with as little […]

  34. Okay, I finally got around to reading all the comments. Whew.

    First, I add my kudos for Willem’s direct missive.

    Second, everything I planned to say I think Betsy said first, and probably better.

    Third, I have faith that you are going to come up with a better solution than I ever could, because you are way smart and savvy.

  35. I’m thankful that this makes my MIL look notsobad.

    I totally think she’s being passive-aggressive. There’s too much history there to “wipe the slate clean.”

    Keep us posted.

  36. Oh how it would be just amazing for MIL’s response to be true and real.

    But I’ve been reading your MIL stories for awhile now and (sigh) – do you actually wipe the slate clean (you’re gonna need bleach, steel wool and caustic cleaner for that one) and attempt to befriend her, which leaves yourself open for her well-aimed cruelty… OR…

    hmm… what *is* the or?

    I guess you could try to befriend and hope. Should she ruin her chance, well, it’ll be the very last time and you can stab her in the eye with that knitting needle.

    Good luck to you and W on this one – amazing well written letter by W.

  37. I’m rather late to this party.. I can only imagine the effort that that email cost Willem, it was very well written and more thoughtful than I would have been 🙂 And I definitely want a “Mary rocks” tshirt as soon as they become available 🙂 I have no advise unfortunately because my mom was cut from the same cloth and I have no idea how to deal with her lol

  38. Little late on the uptake here….but I totally disagree with those who think MIL is truly trying to wipe the slate clean. Her “apology” was nothing of the sort, and her passive-aggressiveness seems to be reaching new heights.

    I agree with the hemlock solution.

    And I LOVED Willem’s email…it was eloquent and thoughtful, factual, and not at all inflamatory. Just because MIL didn’t overreact to it does not mean that she has good in her heart…it means that she didn’t even bother to read the entire thing, or selectively read it (like selective hearing). I do try to believe that people are mostly good, but your MIL is TWISTED. Keep protecting your kids from her–while trying to foster a healthy relationship….good luck with that!

  39. […] Surprises There As a follow-up to the mother-in-law saga of the other […]

  40. […] was planning to come.  After two months of miscommunications and guilt trips and meaningless apologies, she had agreed upon this upcoming weekend as a time when […]

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