Q. I need advice on how to handle the hate between my husband and mom. The relationship between them didn’t start out so sour. They liked each other — or at least put up with each other — for quite some time before fissures erupted since the birth of our child. After that, I had a bout of undiagnosed postpartum depression and went back to work in a really bad place until the entire world shut down from the pandemic. It’s taken me a while to finally feel whole again.
My husband has a very intense job that he’s passionate about, and he’s able to really provide for us as a family. This has given us freedom to let me step back from work while we raise our child, which is a really big privilege, even if being a stay-at-home-mom was never my plan. I think my mom has really been irritated that this shift to me being at home means that some of who I once was is now missing, in addition to the fact that my husband has stepped back from more active parenting.
My marriage was brought to the brink during the pandemic. I never discussed these details with my mom. I did consult with a therapist, and my husband and I hashed things out (albeit not everything), but we both feel a huge weight off our shoulders and a recommitment to the marriage. During that phase, my mom made it clear she’s unhappy about how the bulk of responsibility is shouldered on me. Her issues are that my husband doesn’t engage with our son, uses his phone too much while with our son, and that he places blame on me for small things (e.g. a misplaced or expired item). Interestingly, these are all things we are slowly working on as a couple. I never told my mom this or complained to her about these issues. She just feels he’s not living up to the really engaged dad that I have. This all means that my mom has now become passive-aggressive and rude toward my husband.
After a (too extended) stay over the holidays with my parents, things boiled over. My husband has now said he will not see my mom until an apology and action plan is in place on how she’ll not bully him going forward. My mom is really even more upset at his screen addiction and disappearing act. I think it’s a cycle that feeds itself, where my husband spends more time checked out and she gets angrier. These are two people I can’t live without. The answer is not divorce, and the answer is not cutting off family. Both of these people are flawed in their own way and I’ve learned how to love them anyway. My husband will never live up to my dad as a parent, because I didn’t marry my dad. My mom will never back down from making sure that my life is filled with happiness, but my husband has made it clear he just wants me stress-free and happy. Help. I’ve been a wreck for days.
A. “My husband has made it clear he just wants me stress-free and happy.”
Well, if that’s true, he should stop asking you to get an “apology plan” in place for your mom. Tell him the request will cause more conflict — and more emotional labor for you.
Really, it’s time to tell both of these loving, flawed, important people that you spend far more time worrying about their perception of each other than you do about yourself. Assure Mom that you’ve heard her concerns and are considering them. It doesn’t help to hear her reiterate them over and over. Remind her that in-law/holiday time isn’t a regular Tuesday. Some of what she sees with the phone might not be what happens on a normal day.
Explain how this affects you — that in these moments, when she’s trying to protect you, you wind up more interested in managing the people you love than taking care of yourself. She can ask you about your life and your happiness, but the “Why is he like this?” speeches make this more about her.
When the next holiday comes around, make the visit shorter. Work with your husband (share the labor) to plan an activity that requires engagement (and distraction) for at least a few hours. This is why board games were invented. This is why we ice skate on Frog Pond. It’s quality time, without phones, but also without passive-aggressive conversation.
Make your boundaries clear. “I can’t mediate this problem without taking on more stress. I don’t need more stress. Let’s all work on being better to each other during the next visit. For now, we let it go and assume the best of each other. Do this for me. The end.” Ask them both to help make this easier for the person they love most.
It sounds like you and your husband are working on your marriage — kudos — your mom needs to step back, learn her place, AND learn how to be a good guest in your home so she will be invited back.
Your mother doesn’t recognize that, with an adult child, a mother’s role changes. She is no longer in control. She has NO RIGHT to interfere with your marriage or parenting. She should give an opinion only when asked or if you are in danger. I don’t know how you can tolerate being in the middle of this crossfire. It’s up to you to end it.
Helicopter mom is wrong here. Very wrong. An important rule in parenting is letting go as your kids grow up. It’s your marriage and your family. Not hers. It’s your career. Not hers. It’s your life. Not hers. Time for mom to roll the chopper back into the hangar.
I really do suggest you evaluate your own feelings about your husband’s behavior. Something tells me your mom’s comments are striking a chord with you, and you are disappointed in your husband, too.
Send your own relationship and dating questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch new episodes of Meredith Goldstein’s “Love Letters” podcast at loveletters.show or wherever you listen to podcasts. Column and comments are edited and reprinted from boston.com/loveletters.