Q. We see my in-laws two to three times a month as a family, and they baby-sit my 3-year-old daughter once a week. But my mother-in-law often calls to suggest places we can go without our daughter. How do we deal with her wanting to baby-sit more often and get together more often than we feel comfortable with?
-- A Mother in Richmond, Va.
A. Dividing time among relatives is not a matter of simple math. There aren't enough hours in the day to suit everyone.
In the quest for a workable solution, do what's best for your immediate family, but don't overlook the benefits of having a mother-in-law who's able and willing to take care of your daughter.
"Please accept this advice from someone who married into a large family and had similar well-intentioned boundary issues," says a mother of two from Raleigh, N.C. "The couple must view themselves more as a separate family entity and know that it's not only OK to say no to in-laws, but a necessity that will make them feel more in charge."
A parent from Rhode Island sees this mother-in-law's request to baby-sit as a blessing, not a problem.
"This lady should thank her lucky stars that she lives close enough to her mother-in-law that she has a reliable sitter," she says. "If my mother-in-law was available on a weekly basis, it would be sheer heaven."
There may be a break in communication rather than any underlying ill will, suggest the co-authors of"Grandloving: Making Memories with Your Grandchildren" (Heartstrings Press, $16.95). Sue Johnson, a grandmother, wrote "Grandloving" with her daughter-in-law, Julie Carlson.
"As a mother-in-law myself, I would assume that the mother-in-law is just trying to offer her support rather than be intrusive," Johnson says. "It's possible that she merely wants to be helpful and would feel relieved that she doesn't need to be quite so magnanimous with her time."
To reach a mutually acceptable solution, it's important that the mother and mother-in-law have an honest talk to let each other know how they truly feel about the situation, Johnson says. "They both will have the best interest of the child at heart," she says.
Set the stage with a non-threatening opener such as, "We seem to have different expectations about how much time you spend baby-sitting. Would you like to discuss it?"
Don't criticize or blame, Johnson says. "Listen carefully, keep an open mind about the other person's opinions, and allow time for you both to express your thoughts," she says.
Let your mother-in-law know first how you appreciate the time she spends with your daughter and how meaningful that has been, Carlson suggests. Then you might suggest that the arrangement that you have now is working well for you, and that you need to have some private time with your young family.
"Even if it turns out that she's craving more closeness with your daughter, you can do what long-distance families do: encourage communication by mail, phone, e-mail and fax," Carlson says. "Having your daughter exchange little notes with Grandma won't crowd your family calendar, and it will be a great opportunity for enriching their relationship."
Can you help?
We have twin boys, age 3 1/2 , in our toddler class. Their mother is concerned that one boy, who has a stronger personality, overpowers the other and makes him feel a bit low. Please recommend some books for this mother. I've suggested that she stop dressing them the same, let the twins choose their own ways and go to different classes next year. What else?
-- A Teacher in Allen, Texas
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