Uh Oh. Here it comes again. Read any "advice" column and you come across the usual litany of complaints about us by our daughters-in-law or sons-in-law: We're too critical, judgmental, intrusive. We want them to run their households our way. We use money to control their vacations and other comings and goings. Some of us have made adjustments when we've recognized an untoward behavior but otherwise, when we read the columns, we just stew over the unfair picture of mothers-in-law and fathers-in-law.
This time, Carolyn Hax works a compliment from a reader about her mother-in-law into what it really is: a complaint about smother love. It's hard not to take it to heart.
Her in laws, a woman writes, "are too nice." Case in point: when her husband [the son] and and son [the grandchild] visit the mother/grandmother, she sends back "gifts." Unfortunately, they are usually "foods we're trying to avoid." Worse, each of the gifts "requires a special phone call of thanks." The in-laws also want phone calls anytime the family travels long distances or in bad weather. "They keep track of our kids' doctors' appointments so they can ask how everything went." What this Hax correspondent wants to know is whether there's a polite way "to get them to back off, just a little. We love them and appreciate that they are always there for us, but it's just too much of an emotional burden to handle their anxieties about our everyday life."
So what does Carolyn have to say about too much niceness? It is, she writes, a variation of smother love. "You describe a mother-in-law who is manipulative, controlling, insecure and boundary-challenged." Hax then asks whether the husband is "as uncomfortable with this as you are? Is he ready to set some limits, or has he too bought into the “nice” canard? I suspect you’d both benefit from reading on boundaries and emotional manipulation. Don’t tune me out: The best read on this topic is “The Gift of Fear” by Gavin de Becker. It will seem like a loopy recommendation for “just” a fussy mom, but it’s actually square on point."
Having suffered through a non-smothering but manipulative mother, I'm heading for the Gavin de Becker. Better late than never. Besides, I want to make sure I don't see myself in it--that all the "niceness" I like to confer on my children is above suspicion, that it is not turning me into a secret smother-mother or mother-in-law. I will report back on what I learn. Stay tuned.