A reader writes: My mother and my sister have never gotten along and most of the family believes that it stems from my father's death 20 years ago. I was two and my sister was nine. Since then, things have been rocky between them, and I, the only other member of the family, have always been caught in the middle. Recently my sister had a baby, and my mom, always the optimist, hoped that her first grandchild would bring them closer. After a ten-hour conversation, the two talked their issues out and came to a consensus, both realizing the importance my mother would have now in my sister's life.
But now, my brother-in-law has decided to interfere, believing that because his son is involved he should start calling the shots. All hell has broken loose and now my mother and sister aren't even talking, my mom hasn't seen the baby in five months, is not invited to his first birthday party and my brother-in-law is trying to get my sister to disown her. I would love to not-so-politely say something to my brother-in-law and knock some sense into my sister, but my mother and stepfather have both told me to stay quiet because it's none of my own concern.
I, however, disagree. This my family. What happens at Christmas? Birthdays? I'd like to be able to celebrate important events and holidays with two very important people in my life. This is literally tearing me apart. Any advice?
Answer: I think it's a telling sign that my online surfing to find an expert on resolving problems with in-laws came up dry, but in the meantime, I came across hundreds of horror stories. I even found a web page called "I hate my brother-in-law," something you should check out to at least get your vent on.
Your question involves more factors than an advanced calculus problem, and I won't be able to cover them all, but I want to start with the one that recently transformed the situation - the baby. Now, I'm the last person to suggest going to a lawyer to solve family problems, but your offhand comment about your bully-in-law threatening to disown your mother makes me think he might not share my view. And, anyhow, I find the law can be a useful gauge to measure where society as a whole stands on ethical questions. So I contacted Nicola Savin, a Toronto lawyer specializing in family law.
According to Ms. Savin, your parents likely have a legal right to see their grandchild and could sue to make that happen. "The court looks at what's in the best interest of the child, and most people would assume it's in the
best interest for the child to have a relationship with the grandparent," she says. Ms. Savin says there are factors that could stop court-ordered visitations, including the grandparents being convicted of drinking and driving or having dementia. And then there's something she calls "alienation," which she notes is the most pertinent to your family's situation. "If the parent of the grandchild doesn't have a relationship with their parent and doesn't want the grandchild to see their parent, they may not have to give access. The parents can say that the grandparents will poison their child by saying disparaging things about the parent."
Well, it is true that your sister and your mother have been alienated (to some extent)from each other for a long time, but you say they'd worked it out. Why your brother-in-law isn't going along with this is the unknown variable here. From what you've observed, it seems obvious he's simply overstepping his bounds. But are you sure your sister and your mother worked things out? Are you sure she isn't going home still upset and saying otherwise to her husband? Maybe he's just a flying-off-the-handle kind of guy, but his position seems a drastic one to take with no real cause.
In any case, even if he's got cause, I don't think he should be the sole arbiter of justice for your family. Cutting off your mother hurts the entire family, including your baby nephew. It's true that your role in all this is minimal, as your mom suggests, but your family is too small for anyone to be considered not affected. You are a victim of this conflict, if an innocently bystanding one.
So, yes, it's time for you to take action. I think your first move is a one-on-one visit with your sister, during which you should make a point of looking in her closet and under her bed, then turn to her and ask if she's seen her backbone anywhere. I don't mean to be harsh, but if it's a matter of her husband refusing to let her heal her relationship with your mother, someone needs to call her on this and as you're somewhat on the outside, you're in a good position to do it.
Speaking directly to your brother-in-law would be a bad idea as it only gives him more undeserved power. By sidestepping your sister, you'd be saying that she has no influence in the matter anyway, which may be true, but that's something that needs to change. Now, if bully-in-law starts complaining about your mother with you present in the room, that's a good time to take him on directly. Be clear and strong, but do this as civilly as you can. This is someone who might be in your life a long time, and at some point, you may even have to try to like him.
On that note, I also asked Ms. Savin about what happens if there is a separation of the parents, because frankly, based on what you've told me, I'm not super confident in this couple's longevity. Ms. Savin says that your brother-in-law "will have control over who the child sees only during his time." So he can not stop your sister from passing the child over to your mom while she's taking care of him, and the implication of this legal point, although obvious, needs to be underlined to your sister. Her opinion cannot be outright ignored and she has just as much a right as him to call the
I'm sure there's a even web page out there somewhere to help her on the way. Try this: "Only I Am Allowed To Hate My Family."
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