Son, daughter-in-law reject ‘circus-like’ family gatherings |
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Son, daughter-in-law reject ‘circus-like’ family gatherings

Carolyn Hax

Dear Carolyn:

My oldest son has informed me he is finished with family gatherings “like a circus” and only wants to visit my husband and me in the future. The “circus” consists of his two brothers, their wives and one granddaughter. The excuse is that he and his wife have traveled 200 miles to see us and are too tired to participate in family get-togethers, such as at Christmas.

He refused a Father’s Day invitation, issued to everyone. His youngest brother and very pregnant wife gave up seeing my husband on the actual day, to accommodate the traveling son’s desired date one month later.

I suspect the real reason for this is my granddaughter and now a coming baby. My oldest son’s wife learned she cannot have children after great medical trials, after which she was devastated. In the past she has complained about us through my son, so this sounds like a rerun. She once told him she never wanted to see us again, but changed — why I don’t know — and now is willing to come here. We are never invited to their home, that excuse being the apartment is too small.

She was an only child and is selfish at times, and self-centered, making many nonmedical dietary demands and acting as she pleases when here. The acting out has been fine with me, I accommodate every wish, but to cut my son off from his brothers and their children is too much. I realize he is colluding with her and also responsible, but what should we as parents say and do? How can we keep our family gatherings together?

— At a Loss

It’s “too much,” meaning … what — you’re not going to stand for it? And if so, what does that not-standing-for-it look like: Do you shun her and your son from now on? Do you send someone to seize them and deliver them to your holiday table?

I’m not saying this to be facetious. This is obviously a painful and regrettable development in an already challenging family history. But one of the least productive ways to act on hard feelings is to make grand pronouncements that can’t reasonably be put to use.

In this case, my guess is this isn’t “too much,” really, because you’ll deal with it; what choice do you have? It’s just a particularly tough development to absorb because it’s a shot to the heart of what matters to you.

I also think it’s an excellent opportunity to look at it as the latest point in a sequence of tensions, and treat the whole tension this time — not just the issue at hand.

From where I sit, I don’t just see a brokenhearted family matriarch; I also see judgy language in your letter, both overt and subtle. There’s “only child and is selfish at times” — have you ever said that one to an only’s face? They’re all suspect in your eyes?

And there’s your reference to “many nonmedical dietary demands,” which could describe … let’s see, Kosher; vegetarian/veganism; thinking X is so gross that it gives you dry heaves when you try to swallow it; and having the genetic quirk that makes cilantro taste like soap. Among others, right? Things we tend to be gracious about with people we like, and eye-rolly with people we don’t?

And, you’ve used “excuse” twice to describe their reasoning, “explanation” zero times, and “reason” once in blowing past a “devastat(ing)” experience with infertility to get to a complaint about her complaints. Wow.

You don’t like her. I get it. Maybe she has earned every fine grain of your loathing. But if your opinion of her works its way into every line here, how much of it do you think you’re keeping from her?

Right. So, that’s where you get to work: Patch this up. Go back to all of the negative judgments you’ve made of your daughter-in-law where there was room for doubt, all of them, and think of ways to give her the benefit of that doubt now. Think of it as a forced recalibration toward sympathy where you’ve reflexively seen her as a threat.

Then, adopt that new view. Be sympathetic to an only child who maybe needed time to adapt to big-family noise, or still needs breaks from it. Be sympathetic to someone who is sensitive to some foods and isn’t sure how to say that without being a jerk.

Be sympathetic to a woman who right now is dying inside around small children, and just wants some room to recover without having her request received like it’s the end of someone else’s world.

Again — maybe some of this sympathy won’t feel warranted. Maybe it’s not.

But you’re not going to get your big happy circus back by demanding it in anger.

If you’re going to get it back — it’s an “if,” of course, unfortunately — then it will be through compassion, patience, flexibility, humility and love. Dig as deeply for these as you must.

Email Carolyn at [email protected], follow her on Facebook or chat with her online at noon each Friday at

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