I have a problematic mother in law. She has bipolar disorder and is addicted to pain pills. She also frequently has mood swings where she will get angry with my husband if she finds out we have visited my husband's father (they are divorced but live in the same state) without visiting her, even though we have two babies under the age of 2 and it's hard to see everyone every time we visit that state. Recently I disagreed with her about something; she'd been complaining nonstop about a simple surgical procedure on her knees which would make it easier for her to walk without limping, and she has been putting it off the six years I've known her so she can collect disability. I told her she'd feel better if she didn't complain all the time, and she called me a "bitch." Then, she said she was just kidding. I was willing to put up with her strangeness, never letting her watch our children unattended, but now I feel like I am being abused. My husband did speak to her and say it was inappropriate, but he still expects me to visit her and I seriously cannot stand to be in the same room with her she is so negative. Help! —Kate
You had me at “two babies under the age of 2,” darling. It is, in fact, your panacea. You should just keep saying that phrase, like a mantra. Mutter it under your breath when someone starts complaining about something you’ve done, or asks you for a favor that does not involve the immediate safety or care of your family. “Two babies under 2. Two babies under 2. Two babies under 2.” And then everyone will leave you alone.
Except, of course, people who have mental illnesses or are addicted to drugs, and you cleverly led with both of those items. My, what a pickle.
One thing you should never, ever do is engage with the Chronic Complainer. She does NOT want to be fixed. Think of it as that old “men are from Mars, women are from Venus” thing. In this case, regular people are from Earth, and Complainers are from a completely different galaxy. The CC complains because she doesn’t know what else to talk about. You can change the subject, you can partake in some activity that doesn’t involve speaking (like going to the movies), you can fake a headache and go take a nap in the guest room, but whatever you do, DO NOT try to address her complaints.
The first thing you should remember at all times is that your mother in law created and raised your husband, and your husband seems to be a stand-up guy. I applaud a man who does the right thing and tells off his errant mother in support of his wife. (As a mother of sons, I am glad their adulthood and potential mate-getting is far in my future, for this very reason, among many others.) Since your guy turned out so well, it’s safe to say your MIL has a nugget of goodness deep down inside, so it will help you—the kindhearted, smart mother of two babies—to approach her with love in your mind.
Still, keeping love and understanding in your heart doesn’t mean you have to lay down like a doormat and take your MIL’s abuse. My guess is that after your husband gave her a “talking-to,” not much has changed and she continues her negative chatter. Your best bet is to never visit her again. Now, while your children are babies, you need all of your energy to take care of them. When they are older, they will perceive her negativity, and your job is to protect them. If it works out for your family, kindly tell your husband you fully support him visiting his mother, but that you will not be joining him.
But you probably want to go along with your husband’s wishes. Since you live far away from your MIL, at least you don’t have to be exposed to her complaining all the time. When you do, your mission, my dear, is to suffer through your mother-in-law’s visits with a smile on your face and a steel cage around your brain, letting nothing in. Bringing the babies around her is bound to cheer her up a little, but don’t expect miracles. Even if they do shine some light on her droopy countenance, she’ll never let you know. It’s a thankless job, like so many aspects of parenting, but you’ll get karma points and your husband will appreciate it.
Are you in a quandary that you can’t tell anyone else about? Send it to me firstname.lastname@example.org, and I may choose to answer it in next week’s column. I’ve got your back, sister.