Monday, February 15, 2010

Dear Prudence gives advice to a daughter-in-law. My thoughts

Here is the exchange (scroll down), copy and pasted:

Topeka, Kan.: Do you have any advice for a gal who despises her mother-in-law? We got along great until she decided that what she (and her daughter—my sister-in-law) wanted at the birth of my child was more important than what I wanted and threw a fit at the hospital. That was a lack of respect I couldn't forgive. (Just so you know, my husband defended my desires to the end. I gave in to their demands to lessen the stress so I could, you know, give birth.)

Almost two years later, I still hate them. I do nothing to get in the way of them seeing my child (despite the fact that they don't deserve the privilege), but unfortunately, I see them frequently, and to see my child bringing them such joy just kills me. And I'm bitter because, due to proximity, they see my child more than my family does.

I tried faking it for the first few months, but that made me feel worse. Right now, I barely speak to them. But soon my child will be old enough to notice that Mommy doesn't like Grandma, so I need to change my tactic. Do you have any advice?

Emily Yoffe: What did they demand at the hospital——that Grandma perform the episiotomy and sister-in-law cut the cord? I agree that anyone who makes demands of a woman in labor and then throws a fit deserves to be firmly put in her place—which should be in the hospital parking lot. But you say all of you got along great until the maternity-ward unpleasantness. Now you have not only nursed your child, but the past two years you have been nursing a grudge, and guess what, the person it's hurting is you. "To see my child bringing them such joy just kills me" is a very disturbing admission. If you don't get over this, you're only going to poison yourself and your child's relationship with your in-laws. I think you should seek some short-term therapy so you can talk this out and come up with a plan for getting over it. Maybe you need to have a conversation (not a confrontation) with your mother-in-law that allows her to acknowledge that her actions caused you pain so you can move on. But it's possible you won't get that from her, yet it's imperative you find a way to heal this wound. This has become an obsession, and you need to find a way out.


My thoughts

first off, anyone who says the phrase "get over it" is spitting out something akin to a punch in the least to a sizeable number of us. Maybe we are a minority, and most can hear that phrase and be ok. Such differing possibilities make it hard to craft any consensus view that this phrase belongs in the dirt pile, so (unless a better idea comes along) we probably have to tolerate it now and then.

The good thing is that Topeka, Emily, and I all agree that what the mother-in-law did was wrong.

After that point, my views on Emily's advice get a little nuanced. She says that Topeka has been "nursing a grudge" that has been "hurting her". I can agree that every person who suffers at the hands of a parent, sibling, or anyone close will feel two things: 1. they will feel the direct effect of that person's hurt 2. they will feel the effects of what they themselves might create in their own heads. However, one antidote (or treatment) could simply be to get better at managing your emotions, thoughts, behaviors. This may not require "faking it", but it does require controlling yourself enough not to do anything bad that would truly "poison" anyone around you. I kind of hope Emily is not saying that carrying these things inside is itself poisoning anyone, but on the other hand we have to be aware of how the things we think we carry inside do come out whether we want it or not.

But still, I wonder about the idea of confronting/conversing with the mother-in-law about what she did. The hope is that she would realize it was wrong - and it seems obvious to anyone that her behavior is not wht you do to a woman in labor. She, being a mother should know that especially. But there is no mention of her ever apologizing, so we may doubt whether she would apologize now. I'm fearing she's going to say "you're still not over that!". The fact that Emily the advisor is sharing that sentiment does not help.

I'm wondering if the husband might share that sentiment. He was definitely on her side when it happened - and we should give him kudos for that. But he might be of the "get over it" mentality, even if he avoids explicitly using that hurtful phrase.

If we think about what it may have been like for Topeka, we might understand her case more. First, what the mother and sister in law did was obviously wrong to anyone. We generally know that when a woman in labor needs to do her thing what anyone else SHOULDN'T do is demand to have their way with her.

And how should she feel about this event, the birth of her child, which was supposed to be a great thing where she was supposed to count on the support of anyone who was family? Instead the moment got tarred by her having to capitulate in a way no woman in labor would ever have to (again, don't we all know that it's us who are supposed to serve the woman in labor, not the other way around?).

On the other hand, perhaps we might entertain skepticism of what specifically was asked of Topeka by her mother. Maybe it was something small or something reasonable. I'm entertaining these thoughts because 1.) the devil's often in the details 2.) Emily entertained these thoughts with her own question, "What did they demand at the hospital——that Grandma perform the episiotomy and sister-in-law cut the cord?". The fact that this sentence was all the time Emily spent entertaining those possibilities before taking her stand - that yes, the mother was wrong for all those reason we all agree - means that Emily is giving the benefit of the doubt to Topeka. Sounds right to me. I may have entertained the thoughts in this paragraph more than Emily did, but you all know how I love to be thorough.


Things can change when a child is in the picture. I don't have one. And yes, we need to be concerned about not "poisoning" the child's relationship with anyone. I might wonder what specifical behaviors classify as poisoning if you choose to keep your thoughts to yourself. Yes, we have to consider that thing kept inside can find away out, but then again, people aren't mind readers, and the fact that we spend a lot of time advocating others to think before they speak, means that yes some good number of things never reach the awareness of others if we keep them inside. Can keeping this inside "poison" you? Possibly. But, there are a lot of things we don't tell others, and in fact are advised not to. Is that poisoning us? Could it simply be a matter that each individual has different levels of strength to carry things inside, the same way we differ on how much physical weight we can carry?

The thing that makes me even wonder about a "need" to keep keeping the stuff inside is that I'm not sure, for reasons I've suggested above, that the mother and sister are going to realize their wrong if Topeka tells them. We might advise her to try, because even if she fails, she will at least never have to wonder. Susan Forward may say the same thing, though I suspect that Susan's idea of "confrontation" differs from Emily's (who advised Topeka to "converse" rather than "confront").

I spent a short time in a grad school class on family therapy before dropping out. I did take one principle before my quick departure: that therapy prescriptions often must differ for different adult children. Because it seems different things "work" for different families, and what seems bad to one set of eyes could be a workable family way for the family itself. I recommend reading "Bungee Families" by Martha Strauss. The main point of all this suggests that it is really hard - if not impossible - to find a single theraputic model that works for all, or even most, families. Even "most" may not be good enough, because every person or family counseled is an individual case. And many therapists don't necessarilly attract clients that are representative of most families. The people that go to Susan Forward might be very different than the people who might go to a therapist that Emily would approve of. Not that I'm saying I know what Emily would approve of. She might think Susan is good sometimes.

Going to post this post in the comment section of the link I gave. Hopefully if she and/or the commenters write back, they keep their "get over it"s to a minimum. But I can only hope.

Update: Go to the link, and see at comments. Mine as "MV" should be at the top (most recent comments are at top)

One more thought: They say the difference between madness and genius is measured by success. In a nutshell, I think that means is that your "grudge", "obsession", or what some might call memory for injustice, is only as justified as what you can create from it. Perhaps the way to avoid the poison is to avoid the being constructive. Getting creative.