I am 60, with three sons. My husband died when they were teenagers, so we are very close. Their partners are treated like the daughters I never had.
I babysit grandchildren for each family in turn . . . but now we come to Mary, the third daughter-in-law, who had a difficult upbringing.
The family moved to live nearby and had their first baby. All was well until one day my son berated me for not being helpful enough to Mary. She’d accused me of saying something I hadn’t said. When she returned to work, I minded the baby, but she constantly complained (via my son) — not over how I was minding her child, but other things.
I was told not to speak about my other grandchildren or refer to my children when they were small. I walked on eggshells. My self-esteem took a knock. With Covid, I was relieved not to be allowed to babysit.
After their second baby, she went for treatment for post-natal depression. I was sympathetic and we were getting on very well. Then she became convinced something was wrong with their elder boy. She took him to a therapist while I babysat, and when she returned she launched a verbal attack, accusing me of many things. Tears streamed down my face as I tried to defend myself.
I saw a counsellor, whose verdict was that she needed professional help and I should stay well away.
But I visited — only be mocked by her. To my shame, I lost my temper and told her she was paranoid and controlling. I regret my words and am willing to apologise, but she won’t come into the middle ground.
Six months on, her husband is changed from my sunny boy to a very stressed man. She asked him to get my other sons to back her, which they won’t. It’s as if she’s trying to isolate my son from us and bully me.
The only time I see those grandchildren is an hour a month when my son calls. He does not see any of his former friends and they’ve commented on this.
I’m fond of her mother but daren’t contact her. She spends as much time as she wants with the grandchildren, while I am here alone. I feel so depressed. Sometimes it’s a struggle just to get up — but I make myself. Can this be fixed?
I’m afraid of being alone with her in case she twists something to use against me. It feels like a bereavement. The second baby’s christening is coming up and I am sick at the thought of it. Any advice?
This week Bel advises a reader who is struggling to get along with her daughter in law
Your letter was well over three times as long as I have space for, and I have even changed details here to avoid making matters worse than they are.
Difficulties with in-laws are a staple of advice columns and there is no quick fix when things go badly wrong.
In fact, is there really a quick fix to most of our problems?
I suggest there isn’t. It takes much thought, sensitivity, courage, determination and empathy to right wrongs within a family, yet too many people think a text with a brusque ‘I’m sorry’ will do the trick. Even that is better than the high horse people climb on, before a bloody, brutal medieval jousting session.
Wrong has been done — and we must face up to the fact that it may never be put entirely right. Words cannot be taken back. Wounds never quite healed. Forgiving and forgetting is not an option in most cases.
I may be accused of pessimism, but I am a realist and will not lie. What is left? To work out the desired outcome and work slowly towards it as best we can.
Read that sentence again, because it is crucial. Only by deciding what you most want will you have any chance of helping the son you love and his children.
Your very long letter gives much detail and, without labelling (I hate those instant ‘mental health’ diagnoses when only one side of a story is known), let’s just say that Mary has had a tough time and will be vulnerable — and sensitive — as a result.
Sad to say, some daughters-in-law do try to alienate a husband from his family and if that is the case the only option for said family is to be careful, dignified and strong.
You know you made a mistake in visiting her and losing your temper (through hurt) when your counsellor had explicitly warned against it. Now you must be resolute in putting that behind you (even if Mary can’t), in order to work towards the greater good.
The immediate goal is for this family christening to be joyful. I suggest you ask your son to ask Mary what she would especially like as a gift for baby.
Feeling ‘sick’ at the prospect of a religious ceremony makes it all about you, I’m afraid, so you have to switch off that side of your brain (and honestly, I do understand why you feel like this) and focus heart and soul on the child.
You can also vow to have a pleasant talk with Mary’s mum and make sure you tell her what a good mother her daughter is. This is where tact, strength and determination comes in.
What is the alternative? You most want to have a good relationship with your son and spend time with his children.
Therefore putting aside hurt feelings, your understandable sense of injustice and pride is essential. That and patience.
At 75, I want something just for me
I have been married for 59 years, but have not been happy for most of them.
I was 16, pregnant, determined to make it work. My husband is an alcoholic, but has been sober for 40 years so I cannot now say that is the cause of my unhappiness.
We have four great children who are all doing well and are in stable marriages with families, and we are about to have our first great-grandchild.
More from Bel Mooney for the Daily Mail…
I have always done what was best for everyone including my husband. We’re fortunate that our family all get on and are very good to both of us.
Now I am 75 I feel I have never thought about myself first — even made a decision just for me. As a result, I have a house full of things my husband collects. Nowhere is the way I would like it. I keep it clean but seem to have lost interest in anything else.
We get on well enough and I know he loves me and I should be grateful for that. It would destroy him if I left and I cannot bring myself to do that.
I worry I might die before him and my poor family will be left with all the mess to clear and find myself thinking about him going first so as I can get rid of it all. Then feel guilty for those thoughts. My husband has no idea how I feel.
Sometimes I feel like ending it but that would destroy my family, especially my daughter. We are very close. I know I am going to stick around and see it through to the end but I just had to offload to you.
Thank you for ‘offloading’, because your low-level sadness is very common, and I know there will be many readers saying: ‘That’s just how I feel.’
Many people spend their lives doing their best for the family, tolerating a partner’s foibles but feeling frustrated at the same time, and reach the threshold of old age wondering what it was all for.
This is what the poet A.E. Housman identified as ‘the land of lost content’.
Yet in your email you describe what you have achieved. And it blazes with light.
Four happily married children, grandchildren and soon a great-grandchild; a wonderful family which shares love and takes care of you.
Oh Lena, if I congratulate you on being so blessed it doesn’t mean I don’t understand your sadness.
Thought of the Day
We stumble,’ said Dr Macgregor.
‘We try our best in this life, but we stumble. Then we pick ourselves up again, and the dance continues.’
From Bertie’s Guide To Life And Mothers by Alexander McCall Smith (b 1948, British novelist
These emotions can certainly co-exist, bitter-sweet within the heart — especially as we reach this age (I’ll be 75 in October) and reflect on all we didn’t do in life, knowing it’s almost certainly too late.
But let’s look at the problem you present. This crowded house and a man who has clearly become a bit of a hoarder.
First, I assure you that you shouldn’t let what happens later worry you. My husband and I have just cleared my parents’ house, and because my dad kept every birthday card they ever received, I’ve had to deal with the lot.
We still have a mess of stuff to dispose of, but you know what? I don’t mind. I regard it as both a chore and a loving duty (two emotions again) and so will your family. That’s how it is; don’t make it more of a problem.
Now I strongly advise you to choose a room (a box room or bedroom, possibly) and claim it. No discussion. It will be yours.
Tell your husband he must help you clear it and get a son along to help. If it needs painting, see that it’s done. Put in a few items of furniture you love, comfy chair, CDs, things you have treasured. This is your sanctuary.
Go in there each morning, switch on lovely music, do some stretches (very important), read, knit — do whatever keeps you calm. Buy new cushions.
If there is a hobby you once loved, start it again in your personal, sacred space. This creative project will make all the difference to you, I promise.
And finally… Life’s tough — so let’s toughen up
Do you mind if I get something off my chest? I’m no paragon of virtue and sometimes become frustrated by the self-indulgence that’s allowed in the name of ‘mental health issues’.
This has been Mental Health Awareness Week 2021, with ‘nature’ as the theme. I’ll start by saying that such awareness is vital, that we should talk to each other more, and so on.
What sparked irritation was two newspaper items.
Bel answers readers’ questions on emotional and relationship problems each week.
Write to Bel Mooney, Daily Mail, 2 Derry Street, London W8 5TT, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Bel reads all letters but regrets she cannot enter into personal correspondence.
The first was a big article about the ‘perimenopause’ (the period before the menopause), which is now such a Big Thing that celebrities are banging on about it, books are written and women look back in horror to ‘when the unpleasant business was taboo’.
I went through the menopause more than 20 years ago and it wasn’t ‘taboo’ then. Nor was miscarriage — another forbidden subject and source of ‘shame’ — as famous women say it is even now. Why do they overdramatise every human experience?
Then I read about Prince Harry asserting that most of us are carrying ‘some form of unresolved trauma, loss or grief’.
Well, yes, but does it have to be put quite like that?
How many people read those words and immediately interpret their ‘everyday sadness’ (see my reply to today’s second letter) as ‘trauma’.
I once knew a young woman who was having therapy for her stillborn baby even after she had subsequently given birth to a healthy child. How long, I wondered, do you continue treating such a grief (one that will always be with you, as I know myself) as a form of mental illness?
Publicising his new TV series on mental health, called The Me You Can’t See, Prince Harry claims, ‘there is power in vulnerability’. It’s hard to imagine our swashbuckling soldier-prince coming up with a phrase like that.
It does makes me reflect on tough times I’ve had and riposte that the ‘power’ comes with forgetting the ‘Me’, dealing with the s*** and getting on with life.
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