By Esther Mann, LCSW
I used to be able to work part time and be home much of the time with my children. This arrangement suited me very well. But as our family grew, our needs grew and so did our yeshiva tuition. It became clear to my husband and me that I had no choice but to start working full-time. Though this was not what I wanted by any means, there was no other way to stay afloat.
Since we couldn’t afford to give any of our hard-earned money to hired help, my mother generously offered to pitch in and watch our children until I get home from work. She is dependable and, in her early sixties, still full of energy. I am very grateful for her help. Besides the money issue, I’m happy that my children, ages 3, 5, and 7, can be with family rather than a stranger.
But here is the problem. We have different belief systems, and she shares hers with our children, even though they are in direct contradiction of ours. For one thing, she has held on to her parents’ superstitions from way back when and is constantly trying to ram them into my children’s heads. Old European ideas from back in the shtetel. For instance, she’ll go mad if one of my children is lying on the floor and another one walks over him. Or if anyone walks around in just socks, without shoes. There’s a long list of these types of beliefs that my husband and I don’t believe in and now our children go crazy if, for example, they see me or my husband walking around in only socks.
When it comes to food, we think very differently. We don’t believe in forcing our children to eat if they aren’t hungry or not in the mood. We believe that when they’re hungry, they’ll eat. True, they are not the best of eaters, but they don’t look malnourished, either. My mother drives them crazy with food. Always pushing food on them, making it a big deal, to the point where they get nervous around food time. (I get home after dinner, so it’s a constant problem for them.) Though my children are thin, I don’t like giving them empty calories. Very often my mother shows up with bags of cookies and junk food, even though I’ve asked her not to.
As strict as my mother is with food, she takes homework lightly. My seven-year-old just completed 2nd grade. She didn’t have a great year, and I believe it’s because my mother isn’t spending enough time with her on homework. My mother would rather sit around with the children and play with them. That’s fine for the younger ones, but the oldest one needs to get serious regarding school and homework.
I’ve tried a few times to speak to my mother about my different approach to so many important things and tried asking her to do things a little differently. She gets extremely defensive and even will say stuff like, “Well, if you don’t think I’m a good enough grandmother to your children, maybe I should stop coming.” I go into a panic, because I can’t afford to be without her. My mother-in-law lives out of town, and if my mother decided to no longer babysit for me, I’d be finished. So I’m basically caught between a rock and a hard place. I desperately need her, yet am uncomfortable with her style and point of view on so many things.
I’m feeling angry, because she has the power to control me and get her way. She’s knows I’m desperate and have no other choice but to keep her in my home for so many hours every week, ruling the place however she sees fit, and my hands are tied.
As you can see, I walk a fine line here. I can’t risk upsetting my mother for fear of being without help, and on the other hand, I feel like she has taken over and is running the show.
What’s a mother to do?
It sounds like you are feeling enormously frustrated over the situation at hand, namely your inability to call the shots while your mother is babysitting for your three children. And rightfully so. Every mother wants to feel that they are the ones to set the tone for their children, determine what’s right and what’s wrong for them, and create rules and boundaries. In a sense, your rights have been taken away from you.
I would suggest that you are probably also feeling quite frustrated over the fact that you don’t have a choice right now when it comes to working. You seem to have been quite content when you were able to be home with your children without money issues coming into play. It’s not easy to feel forced into the labor market in order to pay the bills. Though many women do it, some women always believed they would remain stay-at-home moms. Dreams are hard to part with.
For these reasons, you no longer feel as though you are the master of your universe. You’ve been forced to relinquish control on several fronts, and that’s hard to do. No wonder you are upset.
I won’t get into the economic piece of your life now, since that is not why you wrote in. I will attempt to address your struggles with your mother. But before I go there, let me just say that life is often full of sacrifices. Most of us, for various reasons, are summoned to choose between the lesser of two evils. Or, putting it less dramatically, to make choices that are not quite as bad as the alternatives. When that happens, it’s easy to look at what we are giving up and feel anger and resentment as a result. That’s probably most people’s knee-jerk reaction to sacrificing something they want. But there is always the option of reminding ourselves that we have the ability to steer our thoughts toward what we are gaining. By controlling our thoughts in that way, we can create something positive from a negative situation.
Though your mother has decided she doesn’t have to play by your rules, my guess is that there are many areas in which your mother is adding to your children’s well-being and therefore to your life as well. For instance, you can rest assured that there is someone responsible in your home, who no doubt cares about the children above all else. Though you may not like what she is serving for dinner, you know that your children are being given dinner, a dinner served up with lots of love. You may not agree with all of her ideas, but at the end of the day, you don’t have to worry about your children’s safety. Things could be a lot worse.
I’m taking the “acceptance approach,” because it seems as though you’ve tried talking to your mother, to no avail. Therefore, rather than continue to fight her, join her. Compliment her on the things she’s doing right and the fact that your financial solvency is due to her help. This approach may even soften her up a bit and create less defensiveness on her part, which may ultimately lead to some compliance.
Someday, hopefully sooner rather than later, you may be able to stay home with your children and run the show to your liking. For now, you don’t have that option. It may be helpful to consider the fact that your mother obviously didn’t do such a bad job raising you and therefore you can rest assured that your children will turn out no worse for the wear.
And during the time you see your children in the evenings and on weekends, you and your husband have every opportunity to influence your children in any way that you like. If your daughter needs help with her studying skills, use part of your Sundays for that. You are still home enough to keep your attachments to your children intact, so ultimately your insights and input are what your children will hold on to.
Stay positive, stay grateful, stay calm, and you’ll see that it will all be OK.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Lawrence. Esther works with individuals and couples. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-314-2295.