DEAR CAROLYN: My husband and I have been together for three years. I came in to the relationship with a 2-year-old son. My husband’s family has been extremely accepting of my son, and I’ve felt really lucky to have them.
Now we have a 6-month-old baby and things have changed. My glass bowl of a father-in-law seems to really like the baby and ignores the older one. The now-5-year-old took a nasty spill recently and cut up his knees. My father-in-law made baby-crying noises under his breath at my son. My father-in-law referred to last month’s as my husband’s “first Father’s Day.” My husband mentioned that it wasn’t his first, since he’s been raising my 5-year-old for the last three years. His dad replied with, “Well, I meant your first Father’s Day with your actual DNA.”
We are at a loss of what to do. My son will struggle enough dealing with a biological father that was never there for him so he doesn’t need a miserable step-grandfather. I’d like to cut him out of the children’s lives, but I’m aware it will change my husband’s and his relationship. Any ideas on how to proceed?
DEAR IN-LAWS: You wrote that “we” don’t know what to do, and “I” would like to sever the tie. We need “we” here.
If you banish Glass Bowl Grandpa, then you are coming between father and son. If instead your husband insists, then Grandpa’s behavior is the obstacle. The latter locates the blame outside your marriage, while the former drops it right in the middle. The most important thing is to protect your children, yes, but a healthy marriage is a key element of that protective shell.
Grandparents who buy into the family ethos can be powerful protectors, too, so Fortunately we are not yet at the point where banishing Grandpa is the only option.
Assuming your husband is open to this solution, he can ask his dad not to show any favoritism, with five key points:
“Dad, I understand you feel a special tie to the baby.”
“A 5-year-old, though, won’t understand. Instead he’ll believe he’s not as important a kid.”
“I feel sad as I notice your focus on the baby. I also feel bad for the baby, because favoritism creates conflict and competition between siblings, not mutual support.”
“You have been so good with the older boy all along, I have to think you’re not fully aware you’re doing this.”
“Would you please approach future visits with fairness in mind?”
If he pushes back against even this measured a request, then you’ll need a hard limit.
You actually don’t need your father-in-law to love your older child as much as he loves the younger, or to regard the two as equals among grandchildren. You just need him not to demonstrate his preferences in any way visible to the children.
And when the “why” doesn’t matter – all you need is the “what” – you have one of the rare situations where an ultimatum is appropriate. Equal treatment or no Grandpa. I hope it won’t come to that.
Email Carolyn at firstname.lastname@example.org.