Standing Up to a Strong-Willed Mother-in-Law

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Dear Whit,

My mother-in-law is a very opinionated person who will hardly ever admit that she is wrong. Despite her strong-willed nature and variety of differing points of view, she and I have gotten along fairly well in the seven years I have been with her son (five married), mostly because I know when not to pick a fight with her. Now that my husband and I have a daughter who is almost a year old, I find myself in a less flexible position for avoiding arguments, especially because she helps us out by looking after our daughter three times per week.

When we picked our daughter’s name, Carter, my MIL let us know immediately that she thought it was a big mistake for several reasons: it doesn’t sound feminine, it reminded her of one of our most ineffectual presidents (the hostages in Iran, high inflation, etc.), and it was a “trendy” name with no family significance.

My husband’s name has family significance; his first name is his grandfather’s name, and his middle name is what his parents and other relatives call a “family name,” which (to WASPs, which I am not) means a last name. What even complicates the issue more is that my husband has a nickname, Brudy, which comes from his sister’s attempt to say “brother” when they were little. Nobody but family members calls him that. Other members of the family have similar nicknames that all strike me as childish and silly.

So here is the problem: my MIL has taken to calling my daughter “Poopsie,” which came from a couple of very full diapers and which my MIL thinks is hysterically funny. This I find horrifying because of the family nicknaming tradition and even more horrifying because I know my MIL doesn’t like our daughter’s name. What should I do?

Horrified Mom

Dear Horrified:

The older you get, the better you realize that you must pick your battles, and pick them carefully. In this case, pick it carefully, but pick it. You have to make a stand, and you have to make it now before your MIL takes silence for acceptance.  She seems to be the kind of person who gets what she wants because of  “good men (or women) doing nothing,” as Edmund Burke is said to have famously put it. When other people are too polite to call her on her pushy, obnoxious behavior, to her way of thinking she is always right because no one has demonstrated or even told her that she is wrong.

With people who impose their will upon others, you need to stop being apologetic, polite or deferential and start being confident, determined, and assertive. Say to her, “You had the chance to name your children and call them what you wanted. Well, that’s what we want too — that same opportunity. I’m sure you can understand that.” Then, have no more discussion, because you are not having a colloquy, you are having an understanding. You have communicated what you want to have happen. Any factors beyond that are irrelevant.

If she protests (as she probably will), just repeat, “That’s what we want, and we expect that you will respect our wishes.” (Of course, I am assuming that your husband feels the same way, since you both named your daughter.) Neither of you can waffle on this expectation because, if your MIL suspects a supple spine in her son, she will cajole or steamroll “Brudy” into submission. (Just for the record, I think that calling a grown man by a cute mispronunciation given to him as a baby is twee and have always wondered who would do such a thing—thanks for clearing that up.)

Since your MIL is taking care of your daughter three times per week, she must enjoy doing it; in this respect, you have some leverage to bring her around to your way of thinking. Even though you benefit from her help, you have to be willing to give it up if she defies you.

It will be difficult, I’m sure, but you need to get in the habit of standing up for what you think is right, even (and especially) against imperious MILs.  As your daughter grows older, she will be glad and proud that you didn’t stand by and do nothing when something you cared about was at stake.

Got questions about life? Love? Parenting? Work? Write to Whit’s End, a new advice column by local husband, father, teacher, coach, former executive and former Marine Corps officer Al Whitaker.  Send your questions to [email protected]

 

 



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