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My daughter-in-law refuses to have contact with me

The question

For the past six months, our daughter-in-law has refused to have contact with my husband and me. She says we interfere in her parenting style. (Her own parents are hands-off and supportive.) Our son is staying out of it and thinks time will heal the rift. Meanwhile, he brings our grandchildren to see us only for short visits and only one at a time – a huge change from weekly family dinners. We think the longer this situation persists, the more likely it will become the norm. I've gone for counselling and we've offered to go to a mediator, but she is unreceptive to the idea. Yes, I know, we have to stop giving unsolicited advice. We're willing to try, but we're not perfect. Our concern is that if we slip up even once, this will happen again and the relationship will become even more embittered.

The answer

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Funny, I've received numerous questions from the other side of this equation: "My mother-in-law's driving me crazy with her unsolicited parenting advice. What can I do?"

And my answer is usually something to the effect of: "Ask her politely to keep her opinions to herself, but if that doesn't work, keep your encounters with her surgical."

Which sounds like exactly what this couple is doing. So if your son and daughter-in-law are using my advice on you, I apologize most heartily, and promise to do my best to reverse it.

At least you're aware your "helpful tips" might be causing friction. That puts you in the top .0001 percentile of mothers-in-law, I believe. Now you just have to work on getting that impulse under control.

I've said this before, but it never ceases to amaze me the energy civilians have for stuffing unsolicited advice down each other's throats. Movie recommendations, your diet, what floss to use – it never ends.

It's a curious – and potentially extremely annoying – impulse: airing your views on how other people should live their lives, even though they haven't asked.

Believe me, if people didn't write in to ask what I thought, and this newspaper didn't pay me, I'd keep my opinions on other people's problems to myself.

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(In my personal life I never give advice. When people ask my opinion I just say something generic like "I dunno, whatever you think best." Because giving free advice in my free time is a) a real "busman's holiday" for me; b) a no-win situation. If it goes well, you get no credit, and if it doesn't you get all the blame.)

But since you did ask, here's my advice: Why not give it a rest for a bit?

It's a shame, and I sort of hate to hear myself saying it. In Ye Olden Days of Yore, the advice of one's elders was respected, solicited and chewed over. New mothers worked in close consultation with their mothers and mothers-in-law in regards to the minutiae of child-rearing.

At least, so goes the lore. Maybe it's all a myth, like the endless labours of Sisyphus or the epic thirst of Tantalus. In any case, you have to ask yourself: "What's the upside – and downside – of giving my son and daughter-in-law unsolicited advice?"

The upside: It's possible, in a haze of friction and bad blood, they might alter their parenting techniques in some minor way.

The downside: You might wind up so cut off from your grandchildren's lives that you'll have to confine yourself to e-mailing your parenting tips in the future.

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And that's not what you want, is it?

First, I think you need to lower your expectations. Weekly dinners? That might not happen for a while, especially if (as I suspect) your son and daughter-in-law are in full "mother-in-law avoidance/surgical strike" mode. You'll have to ease them into regular, then (possibly) weekly interactions.

Approach your daughter-in-law (not your son – no offence madam, but it sounds like he doesn't wear the pants in the family) and tell her you've seen the error of your ways. Explain that you're going to let her "mom" (hey, if "parent" can be a verb …) however she wants from now on, with zero editorializing from you.

Be sincere. Be humble. Mean it. And do it in person. She needs to look in your eyes and see that you're telling the truth. After that, she'd have to have a heart of stone to deny you access.

To paraphrase (and bowdlerize – this is a family paper) Marsellus Wallace from Pulp Fiction: When you talk to your daughter-in-law, you might feel a slight sting. That's pride messing with you. Don't let it. Pride only hurts. It never helps. You fight through that stuff.

Then, once you've got your foot in the door, be on your best behaviour. Keep it zipped vis-à-vis your daughter-in-law's parenting "style," unless you sense the kids are actually in physical danger.

I realize the above bit of advice (eat humble pie, keep quiet) may be hard to swallow. You may be thinking: "Thanks a lot, Dave. You want me to abase myself before that little control freak my son married just so I can see my own grandkids?"

Sorry, but it's your most practical option, seems to me, if you want to find yourself happily frolicking with your offspring's offspring. Which you do, right?

And don't forget: You asked.

David Eddie is the author of Damage Control, the book.

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