Bianca Bagnarelli

Editor’s Note: Every Monday, Lori Gottlieb answers questions from readers about their problems, big and small. Have a question? Email her at dear.therapist@theatlantic.com.

Dear Therapist,

Six years ago, my retired husband and I moved to be close to our grandkids, and three years ago, our daughter’s family and ours bought houses with adjoining backyards. My husband was the “manny” four days a week until each child was old enough to go to preschool a couple of days a week.

That changed with the pandemic. My daughter already worked remotely, and my son-in-law moved to a remote position because he has a health issue that makes him higher-risk. The kindergartner and 3-year-old were now home and my husband was taking care of both of them five days a week instead of only one child all day twice a week and both kids after school four days a week.

My husband never asks our daughter or son-in-law to pick up the kids by a certain time. The one thing he asked over the summer was that they have the kids at our house by 7:45 a.m. so he could take them out for a walk or a bike ride before it got too hot. Almost every morning, he had to call my son-in-law and ask what the kids’ status was, despite repeatedly stating this wish. He also mentioned it to our daughter, but there was still no consistency in getting them here on time.

Additionally, my husband always asks our daughter and son-in-law what they  need from the store. They almost always ask for things. My son-in-law, on the other hand, rarely asks if we need anything when he places a grocery order, even though we’d be happy to pay for our share. Although my husband routinely includes them in meal preparation, my son-in-law will sporadically decide to make a meal for his family without notifying my husband first—after my husband has started working on something else—and often doesn’t invite us to join them (and when he does, he makes so little food, we feel like we’re imposing).

Our daughter gets very defensive of her husband, and we have virtually no relationship with him directly because he only stays in the room with us if she’s there or if he’s doing something directly for the kids. If the three of us are talking, he checks out of the conversation and gets on his phone. As a result, I find it very awkward to talk to him at all, much less about something this loaded. But I am really starting to resent feeling like our son-in-law is showing no respect for my husband. I am more bothered by this than my husband is.

Any time I want to talk with my daughter about an issue between us, she tells me she doesn’t have time and it’s not a priority for her. If I try to guess what she’s thinking, she gets upset with me for overthinking it. So I can’t imagine that trying to talk with  her about this issue regarding our son-in-law would go any better.

We’re kind of stuck, and we don’t want to hurt the grandkids at all. Any advice?

Anonymous


Dear Anonymous,

I can understand why you feel frustrated with the way things are going in the current child-care situation and with your unsuccessful attempts to make things better so far. But you might be feeling stuck not because there’s no solution, but because of the way you’re thinking about the problem.

You say this is an issue with your husband and your son-in-law, but as you describe it, the issue involves the entire family. Each of you, in your own ways and to various degrees, seems to feel resentful. You feel resentful that your husband isn’t appreciated for taking care of the grandkids. Your husband shares some of this resentment. Your son-in-law resents the requests you make of him. Your daughter resents that you resent her husband.

What’s not clear here is why there’s so much resentment among you given that it seems to have been a mutual decision to buy houses with adjacent yards in order to be close to each other and facilitate the child-care arrangement. What is clear is that you don’t have an open line of communication, so when issues arise, instead of getting aired and resolved, they go underground and rot.

Often people I see in therapy will say, “I can’t talk to so-and-so because it hasn’t worked in the past.” But what they don’t realize is that a conversation is indeed taking place—indirectly and not very productively—through people’s actions.

Your husband, for example, despite putting a lot of time and effort into caring for the grandchildren, has made just one request of their parents—to bring the kids over early enough to get them outside. And when that request wasn’t honored, he doesn’t seem to have done much about it. No matter how inconsiderate your son-in-law is—whether it’s about respecting schedules, communication and generosity around sharing meals, or being polite while in the same room together—your husband has acted with a passivity that says, I don’t like what you’re doing, but I’m afraid of what might happen if I stand up for myself.

For your part, although it sounds as if you’ve tried to broach other issues with your daughter, your behavior also communicates something to her and your son-in-law: If you ignore me, I won’t hold you accountable.

Not coincidentally, what your daughter and son-in-law’s behavior communicates is that they don’t want to be held accountable—at least when it comes to honoring your or your husband’s feelings. People generally avoid talking about something that they don’t want to change, and their behavior supports this theory. Your son-in-law doesn’t respond to your husband’s requests (he just continues doing what he wants), and your daughter deflects the conversation with you entirely (no time, not a priority, you overthink things).

The thing about resentment is that it’s essentially a sense of unfairness—that someone is putting out more than they’re getting back. When people feel resentful, there’s an accounting going on—you’re asking too much of me; I’m not getting enough back from you—and the equation needs to be balanced. You can do this in one of two ways: increase what you’re getting, or decrease what you’re giving.

To increase what you’re getting, you and your husband are going to have to be more direct about your needs—and that should start with a conversation among all the adults. You might say something like “Hey, we really love seeing the kids and helping out, but we know there’s been some tension, and we’d like to get together and work things through.” Then offer three specific dates and times after the kids have gone to sleep. If they accept your invitation, you can start the meeting by saying that you’d like to have a happy relationship with them and wonder if either one of them is upset with either of you—and if so, you’d welcome hearing about it. They might give you some information that’s useful and can then be addressed.

It could be that your daughter and son-in-law are just really struggling as a result of the pandemic—kids at home, financial stress, health concerns, no social outlets—and they might be too exhausted and overwhelmed to coordinate their days with your needs in mind. Another possibility is that your son-in-law is experiencing some financial difficulties and feels intense shame, which might explain the small meal portions as well as his difficulty expressing gratitude or even engaging in conversation with you right now. And sometimes having two sets of grandparents with very different levels of involvement in the kids’ lives (for whatever reason) can leave the spouse with the less involved parents feeling out of sorts.

At this meeting, you and your husband would also be able to talk about what has been upsetting you. If they claim that there’s no problem at all, you can still take the opportunity to share your experience around lack of consideration or appreciation, and enlist their help in coming up with a mutually agreeable solution.

Of course, they might not agree to have a conversation at all, or they might dismiss what you have to say. In that case, you could choose to move on to the other side of the resentment equation: instead of trying to increase what you’re getting, you could decrease what you’re giving. This might mean dropping the kids back at their place at a set time each day instead of wondering when they’ll be picked up; preparing meals for just the two of you; or reducing the number of days your husband takes care of the grandkids if their father can’t show gratitude (or, at the very least, civility) to the person who cares for his children.

The beauty of balancing the equation is that the mere act of doing so moves you from feeling helpless to claiming agency. You might get more open communication and greater respect and appreciation, or you might not—but you will definitely get less resentment, because your side of the equation is completely under your control.


Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.

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