American Husbands Really Need to Manage Their Annoying Mothers Better

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I am in a dilemma with my mother-in-law. Our relationship has always been troubled. She’s always told me what to do, starting with our wedding, where I had no say because she was the one who paid and I was too young to realize what she was up to. Now that we have kids, she undermines me (for example, telling my kids to have two pieces of cake when I’ve told them they can have one) or makes me out to be the bad guy (I say I’m just tired and don’t want people over; she says I’m keeping her from her grandkids). She often guilt-trips me, or threatens that if I don’t do what she wants, she won’t watch my kids while I’m at work.

So, I invited her to church almost a year ago, and didn’t think anything of it when she asked to ride with us. I just thought she was uncomfortable going by herself. But every Sunday morning she comes over early, rides with us, and then hangs out for two hours after. It makes me so anxious having her tagging along while I’m trying to get my kids ready in the morning. How can I navigate this situation and tell her I’d just like to meet her at church, then go home afterward with her—without hurting her feelings?

—She’s So Underfoot!

Dear Underfoot,

In a family where a daughter and her mother-in-law weren’t already on each other’s last nerve, it would be a relatively simple request to say, “Hey, it’s so chaotic around here on Sunday mornings—can we just meet you at church, and then we’d love to have you come over after?” On the scale of In-Law Conflict, that’s like a 1.2 out of 10. But given how toxic your relationship with each other seems, it’s totally possible that her feelings will be hurt by this polite request. But oh well! You should make it anyway.

Or … and I’m just spitballing here … your husband could make the request. I could not help but notice, in fact, that you did not once mention your husband in this cri de coeur about your mother-in-law, even though she is his mother, not yours. Why is this? Why are you the one who has to deal with your mother-in-law, and who she asks about coming to church, or coming over to your house? Why is it you who has to deal with her saying the kids can have two pieces of cake? Why is the interface between your family and her not being managed by her actual blood relative, her son?!

Sorry to shout. But this should not be your job! It should be his! Hmm, I’m shouting again.  Maybe it’s because every advice columnist gets some variation on this question almost every week, and these letters often take it as a given that a wife with plenty on her plate already must by default also be the one who handles all in-law negotiations.

Let’s just go ahead and establish a basic Advice Column Law: Your Annoying Mother-in-Law Is Not Your Problem. She Is Your Husband’s Problem. He should be the primary person who deals with her. He should be her point person in family interaction. When someone needs to say something to her, he is the one who should say it.

(This is, of course, true across genders: Your parent, your problem. But notably it is not the husbands who are writing in to advice columns about this. It is the wives. The husbands are the ones holding up their hands and saying, “Whoa, you ladies sure yell at each other a lot!”)

So anyway: It will be totally fine if your mother-in-law does not come over before church. Your husband should tell her so.

Submit your questions to Care and Feeding here. It’s anonymous! (Questions may be edited for publication.)

Dear Care and Feeding,

My 8-year-old son is obsessed with toy guns—Nerf guns, water blasters, laser tag, you name it. I’ve allowed a couple in the house because other boys have them and they use them to play, but they also make me deeply uncomfortable. My son knows I don’t like them because “they are used to hurt people,” but he doesn’t quite get why I dislike them so much, and he always wants a new one that I don’t want him to have, even if it’s for his birthday, or if he uses his own money. He’s also an anxious kid, so I do not want to tell him where my loathing comes from—and how it’s related to all of those active shooter drills they do at school (without fully comprehending why). So, how do I manage this? I can’t tell him the absolute truth but I’m also tired of bickering about this. What do I do?

—He’s Only 8!

Dear Only 8,

Plenty of parents have made, and stuck to, the decision that toy guns are simply not allowed in their homes. You have every right, as the adult in this household, to enforce that policy. When he asks why, you certainly can tell him the truth! There are too many guns in America, guns kill lots of people (accidentally or on purpose), and guns make you sick. You do not want them in your house. I don’t think you need to dwell on the dangers of school shootings—though no doubt he already does understand, in some fashion, what those lockdown drills are all about, and it wouldn’t hurt to be straight with him about that, too.

Can you stop him from playing with guns at other boys’ houses? No. But you don’t have to deal with them in yours. You hate these toys, right? So get rid of them!

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My 9-year-old son, “Derek,” is really into the idea of sex. He pretends to “hump” people and stuffed animals. He “preps” his stuffed animals by massaging their would-be genital areas. He shows off his erections (at home). At recess, he and his friends talk about who they want to have sex with. I got him the book Sex is a Funny Word. He loved it, and it sparked good discussion, but it doesn’t address these behaviors. I discuss what behavior is appropriate when and where without saying he’s bad or wrong. But I need more guidance. Does he really understand what he’s doing? Should I be concerned? Are there books like Sex is a Funny Word that are more advanced? How on earth should I react? He reminds me of guy friends I had in my 20s, and with them, I just rolled my eyes, but I can’t do that here, right?

—He’s Only 9!

Dear Only 9,

Boys, huh?! No comment about your friends from your 20s, other than to point out that eye-rolls are not the only way to deal with such boys.

Sex Is a Funny Word is in fact the second book in a three-book series by Cory Silverberg and Fiona Smyth, and the third, You Know, Sex, is intended for ages 10 to 14. To me it seems a little dense and complex for a 9-year-old to tackle in toto, but the book does touch on issues of “power, pleasure, and how to be a decent human being,” so you might find it useful to explore certain sections alongside Derek, particularly the parts about bodily autonomy and boundaries starting on page 91.

Does he understand what he’s doing? you ask. In some ways, yes: He’s acting out behaviors he’s heard about—and sees in the media all the time—and is surely getting a big response from those around him, often the skeleton key to understanding 9-year-old behavior. In other ways, of course not: Though I don’t think this behavior suggests any deep dark secrets you must ferret out, he certainly does not yet comprehend how unhappy, for example, someone else might be when they’re on the receiving end of his humpage. As his ideas about consent and kindness develop—with the help of your patient everyday behavior, books like Silverberg’s, and (likely) getting yelled at by a teacher at school at least once—he’ll need guidelines to help simplify these complicated questions.

Establish and enforce a set of rules about sexual display that embraces the notion that what he does with his body in private is his business—yes, that means if he wants to hump his stuffies in his bedroom, have at it, kid—but that what he does in public, and to other people’s bodies, is an entirely different story. And when he breaks those rules, do your best to respond with the calm equanimity with which you’d try to respond to any misbehavior. I expect it can be difficult to respond calmly when a 9-year-old’s waving his boner around, but do your best.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I am on maternity leave. I am not a stay-at-home spouse. I am getting paid in full right now and I make more than my husband. This is not to justify anything, but to provide context. My husband is refusing to help postpartum. He works 40 hours a week, but he won’t help with the baby even on the weekends. I think I should leave. Clearly, he does not respect me as a person or care that I am suffering. I don’t think something like the Fair Play book will help, because he already knows how much I am doing and how little he is contributing. My family says I should go to counseling with him, but I think he’s just showing his true colors. I don’t want to set a bad doormat example for my daughter and get stuck for years in a bad marriage. Counseling won’t change anything. How can it, when he clearly doesn’t see me as an equal? I am tired of the BS. Should I get out sooner rather than later? I don’t want to be a bang maid.

—He Hasn’t Stepped Up!

Dear Stepped,

Basically, my response is: Yeah, get out, trust your instincts, you definitely don’t want to be a bang maid. (I had to look that up.) But I might just ask you to consider: Before you had this baby, what was he like, and what was your housework split? Did he previously possess a commitment to sharing labor that has evaporated now that there’s a baby involved? Or has he always been like this, and this baby is just throwing things into sharp relief? If the latter, then your decision is easy: Yeah, get the hell out. You’re almost certainly right that he’s hopeless.

If the former, though—if you found him to be interested in an equal relationship before this baby was born, but now he is not—then it might be that it’s not his innate sexism that’s causing this change, but anxiety about the baby herself. Now, changing that behavior might be a real slog, and it might not feel worth it to you, but it’s possible that there’s hope, if you wish to seize it. Maybe that means counseling, as down as you are on that idea.

One last thing: I hope you consider checking in with a counselor yourself—not about him, really, but about the entire overwhelming experience of having a new baby. It can really help. Good luck, and if you dump this guy, don’t look back!


My daughter is 7 years old and is about to start third grade. She is a delight—kind, joyful, and she has an incredible imagination. She’s also precocious. She taught herself to read before kindergarten at age 4, and in first grade she figured out multiplication and division on her own. Her second-grade teacher expressed concern to us about how my daughter had a tendency to isolate herself in the classroom all year long. I’ve talked to her about this as best I can, but honestly, I see where she’s coming from. I agree that she needs to get along with her classmates, of course, but the issue is not that she’s being rude or mean to anyone, she just prefers to work alone. I know the teacher is only raising these concerns because she has her best interests at heart. But how can I help her with this?