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David Eddie's Damage Control

Help! My mother-in-law's taken over my home Add to ...

The question

My wife and I are in our mid-40s with three children, ages 14, 10, and 7. We both work and are successful in our chosen careers. My kids attended an after-school program until this year, but to minimize the costs associated with the program, my wife asked her parents, who live on the other side of the city, to pick up the kids after school. The original deal was for them to come a couple of days a week. They are now there every day. When my mother-in-law is over, she treats my house as though it were her own. She cooks, does our laundry, makes our beds, cleans the house, empties trash cans (after going through the trash first), cleans the garage and so on. Now I know most guys would wish they had this problem, but I have always been an independent person who feels my privacy has been violated. I have told my wife to talk to her parents, and that I would like to put my kids back in the after-school program. She feels guilty asking her parents not to come. How can I get out of this sticky situation without rocking the boat?

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The answer

I know you anticipated this, but I can't help but say: We should all have such problems! A mother-in-law who not only cooks, cleans, makes the bed, and empties trash - but on top of it all cleans out the garage? And free?

If it happened to me, I'd be pinching myself and trying to wake up or looking around for angels and Mother Teresa because I'd obviously died and gone to heaven.

Though it should be said I am very lucky with my own mother, whom my wife Pam and I exploit mercilessly and without a scintilla of remorse. She comes over two, three, sometimes four times a week, looks after our not one, not two, but three kids, has done so for fully 13 years now, and also cooks and does a little light cleaning. Free of charge! (Though she hasn't been out in the garage - mom, you might want to think about that on your next visit. It's getting kinda messy out there.) The kids get a lot out of it. A little up-close-and-personal history, for one thing, courtesy of her stories of growing up in rural Minnesota, way back in the mists of time.

How she didn't have electricity until she was 6. How she and her eight brothers and sisters had to take "showers" from a hole-filled bucket affixed to the outside of the house. How, when she babysat, during a time when they were being plagued by chicken thieves, her father instructed her, as part of her babysitting duties - at age 13 - to grab the family blunderbuss if she saw one of them cotton-pickin', thievin' varmits, and shoot him in the leg! She gets a lot out of it, too, I know. Belly laughs. Funny stories. The kids hand her a lot of happiness, it's clear. She and they have a beautiful relationship. And she always says, and I believe her, "I love doing it."

But I also know she does it out of the goodness of her heart and her retired-nurse's sense of duty and service. Pam and I are "two people doing the job of three people," she says, so she steps in (along with our part-time caregiver Shahnaz) to be that third person.

Therefore, although Pam and I have, as I say, no guilt for treating my mother like some kind of septuagenarian serf, we are awash in gratitude for everything she does for us.

And that, sir, is where I suggest you begin your campaign of damage control: by bowing down humbly in gratitude to your mother-in-law for all her efforts and acknowledging the tremendous service she is doing you.

At the same time, having said all of the above, I do understand, perhaps better than anyone, your yearning for privacy. I'm the same way myself: I get very squirrelly whenever anyone penetrates the perimeter of my domicile, especially those who attempt to do so without my specific say-so.

Why not return to your idea of a part-time arrangement?

I don't know if your local daycare or "after-school program" has part-time spots. If not, how about sharing a nanny with a neighbour, friend or relative for one or two or three days a week? Then have your in-laws look after the kids on the days they're not in daycare or with a nanny.

That would be the best of all possible worlds, I believe, for all concerned. Your children can still get to know their grandparents and form memories that they can carry with them throughout their lifetimes.

Your in-laws will have freed-up schedules but they'll still get all the freshness, surprise and unvarnished joy children bring to the table.

And you, sir, well, you get a break on your child-care fees, a clean house and leftover lasagna in the fridge.

Then on the days your in-laws aren't there, you can puff on your pipe and read the paper in peace, in front of the fire. Is there any more a man can ask? Balance, son: Life is all about balance.

And if your mother-in-law finds she has too much energy to burn on this part-time regimen, send her on over to my house.

My mother may not have a chance to get around to it, and that garage isn't going to clean itself.

David Eddie is the author of Chump Change and Housebroken: Confessions of a Stay-at-Home Dad. Damage Control, the book, will be published in March.

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