Thursday, August 02, 2007

How I Spent My Summer Vacation: The Nana Wars

I used to hear stories about other people’s in-laws and think that I really shouldn’t complain. My mother-in-law is a bit of a handful, sure; but she’s generous, energetic, and great with my kid. I used to think I had it pretty lucky.

Not anymore.

We just got back from a trip to Nana and Papa’s. We don’t get up there more than about twice a year, because whether you take a car, a plane, or a train, at some point the trip necessarily involves hours of driving. (I suppose helicopter would be an exception; they do have a big enough field that one could be landed there. I haven’t priced helicopter charters recently, but I’m pretty sure that wouldn’t fit in our budget.) This was a minor annoyance before the birth of HellBoy; since then, whenever the subject comes up, I get a visceral reaction something like I imagine a mild case of PTSD to be. But HB is much, much better in the car than he used to be, which is to say, he doesn’t keep up an unearthly, earsplitting, gurgling, yodeling howl the entire time.*

Anyway, we armed ourselves with dvds and treats (both of which lose all potency after about twenty minutes), and off we went. It was bad, that’s all I’ll say. But we got there. And it’s little boy heaven at Nana’s. HB went on a horse and a tractor, caught a fish, swam in the pond, chased tadpoles, ate cherries, and was doted upon. TrophyHusband did lots of bike riding. I caught up on some work, which was relaxing in its own way. I had insisted in advance that we only stay three days, because by the fourth day, I’m usually cracking from the strain of not saying what I’m really thinking. This time, though, Nana seemed to be behaving herself. No comments about HB’s size—well, not very many; no comments about the fact that he doesn’t go to sleep at seven pm like his cousin—well, only one or two. On Tuesday evening, I had been lulled into thinking about offering that we put off leaving for another day.

The usual routine at Nana’s is that Nana and Papa take HB on adventures until he’s worn completely out; TH and I get a break until the end of the day, when one of us takes over wrangling him. Our last night there, Nana had just brought HB back from the pond. He was worn out and a little hungry. TH was off riding. HB and I played in the family room for a few minutes, but he insisted on jumping on the chairs naked, which is against the rules at Nana’s (both the jumping and the nudity), so I took him outside. We took a walk back to the pond, where he was happy for a little while, until I refused to push him around on the inner tube in the exact direction he preferred for the forty-seventh time. Then he threw a fit because I wouldn’t carry him in my arms like a baby all the way back to the house. Then he threw a fit that I wouldn’t let him go back inside to jump on the chairs naked. Then I didn’t spin him around by the arms and land him on the grass quite the right way. And etc. Finally his dinner was ready and I took him back inside and got his pants on.

Nana asked why he was being grumpy, so I recited litany of his complaints against me.

“You know where I think you should take him?” she said.

The hackles rose on the back of my neck. I knew I wasn’t going to like where this was leading. “To daycare?” I joked.

“No,” she said. “I think you should take him to a therapist. The two of you should go together, so that you can learn how to handle him.”


I was stunned speechless. Or more accurately, I was too stunned to think of something to say that wouldn’t take us right to in-law DEFCON 1. She mistook my silence as rapt attention, and went on. “You work really long hours, and when you get to spend time with him, you should be able to enjoy him, not resent him!” She kept talking, but the buzzing in my ears was so loud I couldn’t process it well.

I got HB safely into his highchair and fled upstairs to, I’m ashamed to say, bawl in the bathroom for the next fifteen minutes or so.

It’s a lot easier to take outrageous statements from her when they’re about something that I know she 100% wrong about. That we don’t feed HB, for instance. But this, this is a sore point. Of course it is—don’t most people fear that they’re not doing the “right” thing with their children? The fact that I know she’s batshit crazy didn’t make it less painful to hear. In some ways it made it worse—I had been thinking that maybe she wasn’t so bad, maybe we could have some real conversations from time to time. I had let down my guard.

Finally I splashed water on my face, came down and got a beer, and went back outside with HB until TH got home. I didn’t get long enough alone with him to let him know what was going on until we went to bed, at which point he was appropriately comforting, reminding me of all the horrible things she’s said to him over the years. We got out of there first thing in the morning, and I didn’t have to have any more conversations with her.

Thanksgiving, I’m staying home.

*When HB was an infant, Nana was terribly offended that we wouldn’t drive up to see them, and said that we just needed to let him “cry it out.” The next time she came to visit us, we got in the car for a short trip and HB did his usual routine. It lasted maybe five minutes before Nana was howling too. “My god, what’s WRONG with him?” she shrieked. “Make him stop! Make him stop! Let me out!” (In fact, I often had my husband let me out of the car once we got within a half mile of our house. He would have climbed out too, but that would have left no one to watch the baby. Although the way HB shrieked, I don’t think anyone would have been willing to even carjack him.) I think the longest we ever tried to let him “cry it out” was 45 minutes; perhaps we just didn’t wait it out long enough, but by that point our nerves were shattered. Multi-stop trips were even worse; he got more frantic with each time he was strapped into the seat.


Unknown said...

Here's what your mother-in-law should have said:
"You are doing a wonderful job. It may not be how I raised my son, but there's more than one right way to raise a child. HellBoy is happy, spirited, and loving. If his behavior ever becomes disrespectful, harmful or inappropriate for his developmental stage, I am sure you will handle it immediately. And well done for setting such a great example with your demanding and fulfilling career. His future wife will thank you. Now, it's your vacation, and I'm sure you need the rest. Can I fix you a cocktail?"

Anonymous said...

She sounds like my MIL. My condolences.

San said...

I want to tell you that maybe your MIL is onto something here. I have been trying to get the same message to my own daughter. And I have deleted and re-written this comment 6 times because I don't want to come off sounding like I am calling you a bad mother, I am more than sure you are not. Maybe a therapist is not in order, but parenting classes might be a good idea for all involved. As is the case with my own lovely daughter, she also works a high stress, demanding job, putting in 60+ hours per week. (Which in itself is way more than I could ever do.) Her TH is a full time stay at home dad. This may or may not be the same with you, but I see her exhaustion and guilt at being gone so much. Her oldest is now 6.5 and has become disrespectful and has dangerous and inappropriate meltdowns. The younger one is beginning to imitate her older brother to a tee. And mommy and daddy are at their wits end. I don't know how else to say this without sounding like assvice but it does sound like an intervention wouldn't hurt and just might help. Of course, feel free to tell me to shut up and myob.

Snickollet said...

I would like to designate a black hole as the "MIL Black Hole" and devise a way to shoot them all out there to be sucked into a bottomless vortex.

It's so awful when they hit a nerve like that. My MIL knows all my buttons and pushes them on purpose. Grrr.

Anonymous said...

Wow. She couldn't have come up with a more hurtful comment if she'd TRIED (DID she try? Not outside the realm of possibility!).

There are few things worse than being stretched to a few micrometers thin, trying the best you can to hold things together, being personally okay with whatever tenuous state of copacetic you've wrangled into place... only to have a third party blow it all to hell by saying, effectively, "You're doing it all wrong. You're fucking it up [and by implication, "You're fucking your CHILD up!"]. Your way is WRONG."

Y'know what? Screw that. There is no one on earth with better info and instincts on the art and science of HellBoy Husbandry than you and TH. It looks difficult from the outside because - guess what? - IT IS HARD. That doesn't mean there's any better way, and cheerily suggesting as much is just... asinine.

Um... uh... and welcome back? [stomps off, gritting teeth]

Orange said...

Here's my assvice. Do a little bit of reading on sensory integration dysfunction and see if any of it resonates with you. The jumping, craving the spinning, hating the carseat—these things are familiar to me. Ben used to hit and kick me when I tried to buckle him into the carseat around the same age. (He didn't scream for the duration of the trip, though, and for that, I see, I need to be grateful!) I found that most of the SID warning signs were completely not Ben (generally the things that relate to not liking sensations), but some of the sensory-seeking ones really shouted to me.

Of course, my first step in handling the carseat conflicts (after the routine frustrated crying--on my part) was to undertake a course of parenting therapy. We learned all about the effective way to use time-outs...and it didn't make much difference. He'd still grab two fistfuls of refried beans at a restaurant, and he'd still fight me at carseat time.

When he started preschool and this social boy didn't play interactively with the other kids, it didn't make sense. The teacher felt it was "off" enough to mention it to me more than once. So I took Ben for an occupational therapy (OT) evaluation at a clinic that works with kids with SID.

That was 3 1/2 years ago, and he still goes to OT almost every week (less often this summer). I find it helps him to keep himself regulated, which means I look like a more effective parent and enjoy him more. In kindergarten, we slacked off on the OT, and it was startling how quickly my parenting skills diminished. (Meaning that the exact same tactics failed to work.) So we resumed regular OT, and I think it helps. The research is iffy and it sounds like hooey, but I do feel it helps.

The OT also coached us on incorporating the kind of sensory input Ben needs. Ben thinks it feels great when I lie on top of him, with all my adult body weight pressing down on him. If a kid needs to jump, you channel it into letting him jump somewhere appropriate.

His bedtimes are more regular these last couple months, ever since I started reading Mary Sheedy Kurcinka's book, Sleepless in America. To help Ben wind down and get to sleep, it helps to massage his arms and hands at bedtime. And we take the evening down a notch. Less hollering at him for acting up, because hollering just revs him up and makes it harder for him to sleep. We were never bedtime-schedule/routine people before, and I think we had a chronically sleep-deprived kid on our hands who had a tough time behaving well as a result.

Which is not to say that your MIL isn't an ass. She is. If you're like me, no amount of therapy will "improve" your parenting skills. Maybe, though, there's something in my experience that will make you say "Hmm..." and consider exploring other avenues. But not therapy. Good lord, not therapy.

Erin said...

Wow. I get things moderately like that from my grandmother, and they drive me crazy. Toddlers are challenging, regardless of how many hours a week you work. I teach at a college full-time during the fall and spring semesters and I'm home with P over the summers, so I get both experiences as a WOHM and a SAHM. It's equally annoying and frustrating to be whined to when I have 12-13 waking hours a day with him and when I only have 3-4 waking hours a day with him.

When a toddler is overtired, that's what they do. They whine and want everything exactly their way. Toddlers don't do well with change under any circumstances; when they're on a vacation and being spoiled and worn out all day long, they're even more resistant to everything not being "perfect" in their eyes.

From what you've written, it seems like you're a fantastic mom with a fantastic husband who is a fantastic dad to HB...and a MIL who needs to be gagged.

Anonymous said...

If you're hungry and tired, you don't always make sense as an adult, let alone as a kid.
And kids and adults both do get hungry and tired.
Because your child was hungry and worn out doesn't make you a bad parent, or one who needs therapy.
It's okay for a grownup to tell her child quietly, "You're tired. You need to lie down now for a little while." Or: "You're probably hungry. Let's get you a glass of milk."
I am fascinated by Orange's comments--my child didn't go through what hers is going through, and I think her comments sound extremely useful.
But plain vanilla meltdowns are common in all ages--when my child was little, I remember occasionally driving in the car, as a way of dealing with her being absolutely too exhausted to fall asleep. And at the other end of the age spectrum, you know that fragile older people are said to make less sense in the evening--I've heard it called "sundowners' syndrome."
And if the child is too tired to realize what's going on, and why he's behaving this way, wouldn't it be a comfort to him to have Mom put a simple explanatory label on his behavior? He's not bad--he's just tired. Mom said it; so it's true.
And in the morning, you can say casually, "You were so tired last night. Isn't everything a little easier in the morning when you've had some sleep?" And this may help him learn to recognize himself some of what is going on.
I am so sorry that you cannot trust your MIL. If someday you are a MIL, there is no doubt in my mind that you'll do it right.

Anonymous said...

In response to the validation offered (however nicely) to your MIL's snipe by some of the other comments, I'm sorry.
You had a tired toddler on your hands. No therapy needed. You acted as you, as his mother, knew was best. Continue to trust your insticts and forget all the helpful advice.

Lisa said...

My M-I-L is a passive-aggressive hippie. She will come for a visit with her husband, enjoy hanging out with the kids, have a nice time with us... then she'll go home. Three days later we get a crazy e-mail, in which she takes one minor situation (my son says "No" to her or my daughter has a fit of temper) and she blows it all out of proportion, basically calling us horrible parents. She'll stop calling us for a month or two, then she'll start calling us and e-mailing us again, as if nothing had happened.

The first time I got one of those e-mails, I responded to it, calmly and firmly, but still angry. Now I just delete them. I almost wish she would have the cojones to say something to my face. I'd love to let her have it in person. I don't care if she is family - she'll get over it in a month or two.

CecilyK said...

ye gods. Now I feel guilty about my MIL having Alzheimer's and leaving me alone. Oh, right, but MY mom is nuts. Nevermind.

PS: The proflowers? From me. :)

Nichole said...

Uhhh...maybe HB was just tired? And in unfamiliar surroundings? And your MIL is batshit crazy? Oh wait, you already said that.

Anonymous said...

I'm sure that if I HAD ever managed to have children, my MIL would have driven me crazy too. She's very involved with my BIL's 2 kids, and yes, at times, I can see that she oversteps the line. But on the other hand, I think that as my BIL's wife accepts so much help from her, she has to also accept that her MIL is going to have an opinion too. Grandparents get a hard rap. They're expected to give freely of their time, but never venture any assvice. A tall order for a lot of people, and especially when you come from a different generation.

Whippersnapper said...

Oh DoctorMama, DoctorMama! First off, thank-you for spouting off about your MIL on your blog! I did this a while back, felt guilty about it for a month and then finally deleted the post. It's good to know other people do this sort of public venting as well! Of course, I have TWO MILs, so my suffering is twice that of yours... (kidding)

Yes, screaming kids and the stupid reactions of the "older, wiser" generation. I had a weekend like the one you described above and was told at the end of it that something was "very wrong" with my child. Everyone I talk to with kids this age deals with screaming jags all the time, yet according to old step-MIL my kid's temper tantrums were abnormal and indicative of some big personality defect. *sigh* Of course, this is coming from someone who had three kids: One committed suicide as a teenager and the other two became drug dealers...

Anyway, your MIL sounds incredibly stupid, not to mention clueless, and her suggestion was ridiculous. Three-year-olds suck!! Always have, always will! End of story.

amyinbc said...

My MIL is great. Yours? Not so much. Skip Thanksgiving (and Christmas) in my humble opinion. You don't need that crap.

Anonymous said...

Doctor Mama:

One of the things that I've learned from your blog is when doctors might be able to help.

Particularly, your stories about depression and the treatment of it have been hugely enlightening to me. First, they made me realize that my feelings of sadness are not clinical depression, just precisely because they are short lived and I pop out of them. Second, they made me realize that given that my feelings are so different, that I have been unreasonably dismissive of other people's disabling depression. Third, they've made me realize that treatment can really help. You're story of focusing on a thumb was especially enlightening. I know someone who does that, and it's always driven me insane. Your description made me realize that it's not simply a choice but a symptom, that theory of mind is a good thing, but that viewing another persons world through my brain can miss important things.

So what's my point? your entry is about an annoying MIL, who certainly doesn't know enough (about children, your child, or your life ) to give you useful advice.

But, is there useful advice available out there? Advice that makes your life more like you want it to be? Advice that you might give a patient who comes in focusing on the deformed thumb?


momo said...

Dooce says something about this dynamic here:

Anonymous said...

I'm an Emergency Physician w/ 2 kids: 6 yo girl and 4 yo boy. Our kids started acting wild/spoiled/disrespectful. We decided to go "old school" on them. We put them in parochial school (despite being VERY non-religious). We also started yelling/spanking/throwing away toys and being very strict. It worked like a charm. No more tantrums or spoiled behavior. I wish we would have done it earlier.

fiftyfinally said...

when my son was born i had to nurse for almost a year because he was alergic to every formula that was out there. Then when he went on solids and I was giving him milk with his meal I noticed behavior problems. I did some eliminating and discovered that milk should only be given to baby calfs. Humans should not drink milk. Milk, red and yellow food coloring are the three ingredients that should be banned as far as i'm concerned. I used to wonder why he would go nuts after eating something as simple as jello in a restaurant. And kool-aid also. He's 28 now and still gets hyper from milk.