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Carolyn Hax: Don’t crowd daughter-in-law

Dear Carolyn: I recently had occasion to drop off a package at my granddaughter’s afternoon preschool. Believing I was doing my daughter-in-law (DIL) a favor, I timed my drive to stop at my son and DIL’s house to pick up my granddaughter and save my DIL the trip to the school. Admittedly, I stopped unannounced, but we have a good relationship and often visit each other’s houses unannounced.

Upon arriving at my DIL’s house, I knocked repeatedly on the front door but nobody answered. My DIL’s car was parked at the house. I even took the time to look in the backyard to see if they were outside. After trying a second time at the front door, I left.

Sure enough, after 10 minutes, my DIL showed up at the school with my granddaughter in tow. I approached my DIL and said that I was just at her house but that nobody was apparently home. She acknowledged that she was there and saw me at the door, but simply blew it off saying she was running late for school. I then said to her that I had knocked on the door several times with no answer. Again, she responded only that she was running late and chose not to answer the door. She offered no apology for her actions. I was stunned and deeply hurt.

I can’t help but harbor ill will toward her and dread the day I am invited back into their home. Should I forget the whole incident knowing I was wronged and take the higher road, or should I expose her for her poor behavior? I have kept this whole incident to myself so far, not even confiding in my wife or son.

– S.

A: Wrong, you mean – not wronged. You’re two letters over the line. OK, you have a drop-in-unannounced type of relationship with your son and daughter-in-law. That’s great. It’s also good of you to have tried to make your DIL’s life easier by timing your trip the way you did. In general, small favors such as offering a lift to preschool are rescues in miniature for parents of young kids. But the good intentions of your stopping by don’t outweigh the missteps you made when you got there. For one, being on a drop-in basis with someone doesn’t mean every drop-in will be welcome; being casual on your side of the door means she can be casual on her side, too.

Plus, you popped by apparently as DIL was in full scramble mode to get her child to school on time. She had every right not to answer the door, just as people have every right not to pick up the phone when they know they’re unable to talk. Had she been in the shower, or changing her clothes, or on the phone, or in tears over something or other she didn’t care to explain, would you still begrudge her ignoring your knock?

Respecting people’s privacy means respecting the fact that (a) not all times will be opportune ones for a visit, and (b) they are not obligated to explain that to you in the moment just because you’re on their front stoop.

She had no way of knowing you were there to help; she just knew answering door = late.

And this is all assuming she told you the truth about being late. People in their own homes do not need to explain their reasons for declining to answer the door, which means they are absolutely entitled to give a vague explanation such as “I didn’t answer because I was running late.” You think she “blew it off,” but maybe she had an excellent reason you’re just not entitled to know.

Yes, her explanation ought to have started with, “I’m sorry.” That’s a point in your favor. But is it one worth trashing your relationship for? If anything, the intense grudge you’re nursing right now is the worst offense of them all to arise from this (non-)incident. So petty. She has her immediate family and herself to think about first – and she welcomes you freely, it seems, when circumstances allow her to.

You have to allow people their reasonable priorities, even when yours might differ, if you want to occupy a harmonious place in their lives.