DEAR CAROLYN: My daughter and I are semi-estranged (her choice). She lives overseas.
Very rarely she confides in me when she is troubled, and I always walk on eggshells trying to give her advice, opinions or insight into the problem.
Recently she called to tell me she had witnessed her husband being too rough physically and emotionally with their son, my grandson. He is Mr. Mom to the family. She tells me in their 16 years of marriage, she’s never seen him behave this way before. I certainly have seen it on several occasions.
I don’t believe my son-in-law would beat the children, but he is too hard on them. Do I risk pushing my daughter further away, and possibly losing my tenuous but beautiful connection to my grandchildren, by telling her how strongly I feel about this? She knows my son-in-law and I don’t particularly care for each other and I fear she will think I am badmouthing him because of that. She also resents what she often considers my intrusion into their lives. What should I do?
DEAR GRANDMOTHER: What a helpless feeling this must be, I am so sorry. And nerve-racking.
But I don’t see any benefit to telling your daughter “how strongly I feel.” You identify the risk, I think rightly, that speaking up will only push her away — and what do you foresee accomplishing with your words, besides getting them off your chest?
Through emotional and physical distance, your daughter chose to have to navigate even serious problems mostly without your involvement. There’s no avoiding that. The best thing you can do now for those kids is figure out what options you still have to be helpful to their parents, and to use them judiciously.
You were the parent of minor children once, of course — and no doubt you faced crises of your own. What helped you then? Would a relative saying some version of, “This is really bad and I’m very upset,” have been useful to you back then?
We all handle crises our own ways, but that strikes me as near-universally unhelpful.
I suspect you’d have preferred:
“Oh no — how did you respond?” [Room for reply.] “[Any sincere praise or sympathy you can offer.] Are you OK?” [Room for reply.] “What do you think you’ll do now?” [Room for reply.] “Is there anything I can say or do to help with that, or would you rather I just listen?” [Room for reply.]
This template allows respect for the seriousness of the issue and respect for the competence of the person confiding in you — and where you’d normally want to share your feelings, which could come across as critical or judgmental, it instead allows sympathy for others’ feelings. And it props the door for you to be asked to get involved.
If there are any words that qualify as magic, though, then it’ll be these: “You’re raising great kids. I know you’ll find a way through this. I’m here for whatever you need.” Trust is usually given when earned, yes — but don’t underestimate the power any parent has to create trust by giving it out.
DEAR CAROLYN: My 80-year-old parents recently upset my 17-year-old daughter by advising her that she should make a real effort to find a partner who “respects her intellect” and have children “before her biological clock runs out.” She was really upset they gave this advice to her but not to her brother. She thinks they are sexist and wants nothing to do with them.
I sympathize with her, but my parents are insisting they were just being practical and she needs to live in the real world.
Other than telling my parents to stop giving advice, which I have already done, do you have any ideas on how to defuse this conflict?
DEAR PARENT: Your daughter does live in the real world. Hers is just different from her sexist grandparents’ — at least with respect to the cultural expectations around marriage and children.
If you think it would help to spell this out for your parents, then have at it. Not only are they wrong, in my opinion, but they also have nothing to gain from pressing their point even if they turn out to be right. Their relationship with their granddaughter is worth trashing to make a couple of unoriginal and barely actionable points? Talk about impractical.
In a different respect, though, the real world for your daughter is exactly as it is for her grandparents and for you: filled with people who have contrary notions, stale ideas, offensive advice. If her only answer is to have “nothing to do with” such people, then her life in future schools, workplaces, neighborhoods, and friend groups is going to involve some social contortionism that I kind of want to watch her try to pull off.
Someone less ghoulish — you, say — can step in instead to guide her toward coexistence that keeps her integrity intact, like giving benefits of doubts. Families are the original lab rats for that.