Published On: Sun, Dec 10th, 2023

Carolyn Hax: Wife insists he needs in-laws’ help with their kids

Carolyn Hax: Wife insists he needs in-laws’ help with their kids
Carolyn Hax: Wife insists he needs in-laws’ help with their kids

Hi, Carolyn: My wife and I are two busy (but not crazy busy) professionals with three children in grade school. My wife just left for a week-long work trip. Without consulting me, she arranged for her parents to stay at our house “to help you with the kids.” It’s a bit of a rougher week, but I can manage the kids alone quite fine. I told her before she did this that, considering the inconvenience to her parents and the minimal benefit to me at best, they should stay home and I’d manage alone.

My father-in-law was too busy, so my mother-in-law came alone. Confirming my concerns, having to explain things to her during the morning rush was actually more work for me. I also feel the need to entertain her, whereas I would otherwise finish my workday and just wind down on my own. I feel guilty because my mother-in-law is busting her rear end to do something I neither need nor want, which she can barely accomplish, and which only my wife thinks is necessary.

To be clear, my mom-in-law is cool, we get along very well, she is full of good intentions, but I was looking forward to this week alone to work from home. My wife works from home and basically does not let me do that as well, even though I could, so I commute to work.

My wife says I am ungrateful and everyone is making sacrifices to help me, and my kids are happy to see their grandmother. (Note, they see their grandparents a lot.) To be honest, I also feel this is in small measure a way for her to control my comings and goings. I’m a perfectly normal if not boring guy, but she hates not knowing where I am at all times. Am I ungrateful?

Normal Guy: So it’s not enough that no one listens to you and you can’t get your share of the last word in your own home, but you also need to say thank you? And you’re a jerk if you don’t?

It took you a while to get there, but you got us there: Your marriage is a power struggle, and you’ve been on the losing end of it so long, I’m not sure you know it could be otherwise.

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Who works where is a decision both halves of a couple make together — but you’re commuting by fiat. Who stays in your home is a decision both halves of a couple make together — but she booked her mom by fiat. What one parent needs when the other’s away is a decision the home-based parent makes for himself! — but she sent help by fiat.

How you feel about all of the above is 100 percent your business — but she’s presuming to correct how you feel.

This suggests a serious problem, for a bunch of reasons.

First, it is dehumanizing. Such control is a violation of another person’s autonomy, bodily and otherwise. Either you are a worthy spouse and parent, or you are not — and if you are not, then it’s on her to seek legal recourse. She doesn’t get to have it both ways, to keep you as a partner while denying you partnership.

Second, control rarely stays in its current container. If she is so certain you can’t be a solo parent for a week that she voids your input entirely, then what other decisions does she feel certain you can’t make for yourself? Money, job, friends — any chance there’s a growing list of things you’ve had to give up? Or a sense your world grows ever smaller?

Third, your frustration is so palpable, it’s ticking. But blowing up, which is a fairly typical consequence of living under someone’s control, would further undermine your standing in your home. The cost of not finding your “no” while you can still maintain your composure can be surprisingly high.

Finally, but most consequentially, a power imbalance hurts your kids. Do you want them to be deferent to their partners to the point of self-erasure, or, alternately, to steamroll their wishes? And well before that — is your wife as certain and inflexible with your kids as she has been with you? This could constrain their development and, especially when they hit their oppositional peak in their teens, needlessly harm their relationships with each of you.

I am mindful with my column of making a little into a lot, but in this case, I think I’m making a lot of a lot. Your unwanted, wife-ordered houseguest pretty much says your “comings and goings” are spousally controlled — and you don’t assert your valid, due claim to decide everything on your side of the line for yourself. So please, in counseling if needed — solo only for help with controlling partners — find that line and hold it.

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