Dear Clementine

Seeking life advice for women? Ask Clementine.

Image Credit: Cassie / Veda House

Dear Clementine,

I have mother-in-law issues. And they're not the typical overbearing, over-involved boundary mother-in-law issues. They're kind of the opposite, actually - my mother-in-law is dismissive. My oldest son (he is 7) has a very serious food allergy and, for months, she has completely disregarded our explicit requests to not serve him dairy at family functions. In fact, she's fairly flippant about the entire issue, noting "Oh, he'll be fine," or "Kids should have ice cream! Let him have ice cream!" It's a safety issue, Clementine, and I fear we're moving into the sort of territory that leaves us questioning whether or not we can leave our son alone with his grandmother for afternoon outings or weekend adventures.

But deeper than that, I feel disrespected. I am one of two daughter-in-laws in this family, and my husband's brother's wife (did you follow that?) has a wonderful, respectful, happy relationship with my mother-in-law. She's often invited to get pedicures or massages with my mother-in-law, and I only find out about their time together after they share it on Facebook. In the past, I've confronted the issue and my mother-in-law dismissed my words flippantly, calling me "too sensitive."

My husband is fully supportive of my feelings and notices the difference between my relationship with my mother-in-law and my sister-in-law's relationship with her. And we understand that every family dynamic looks differently. But I can't help but feel hurt when I witness such an open and loving relationship between them - one that I seem to have difficulty accessing.

I suppose what I'm asking is this: Do I swallow my feelings and hold my mother-in-law at arm's length - the same distance she holds me in? Or do I try to shatter that boundary and attempt to create a truly loving and unique relationship with her? And if so, how? How do I try to be open to love in its different forms while protecting myself and my family from future hurts?

-Too Sensitive

Oh, man. Pardon my French, but I want to poinçon your mother-in-law in her visage. (Merçi, Google translate.) I'm so unbelievably torn. Here are the thoughts racing around my head, in no particular order:

I despise her. How dare she, as the family matriarch, make you feel like a zero! Like a muddy puddle alone on a gravel road to nowhere! Like a raisin that fell out of the little red box! Shame on her. I am revoking her woman card. I wonder if that's the same as a citizen's arrest? Your mother-in-law Facebooks this behavior? Is she 14? Does she duck-face-selfie, too? Ugh. She sounds horrid. I wish she liked you more. Should we buy her a present? Two presents? Clean her house? I really wish she liked you more. Your sister-in-law sounds complicit. I bet she smirks. Let's revoke her woman card while we're at it. We like pedicures. Kids do like ice cream. But I've yet to meet anyone who enjoys anaphylactic shock. So there's that. Why the heck doesn't she like us? We're lovely! Ask her son! Oh, I wish she liked us more. Because I despise her. I think I'll send her flowers.


Clearly, I also have mother-in-law issues. But don't most of us? I know I have spent my entire adult life making sure I'm loved by the extra family I've collected along the way.

I tend to sprinkle my love first and most on those who don't know anything but love, like my babies. Then my mate, who would be in first place if not for those babies. Then those who add gorgeous to my life, which is a mix of family and friends. My neighbors. People who smile at me every time I see them. That doll of a barista who always spells my name cuter than it actually is. And Nordstrom customer service. So wonderful. Have I forgotten anyone?

Oh, her. My husband's mother. Who, in terms of the giant efforts I make, often comes before even my babies. Even before her son. And she's not even nice to me! It's not fair, those darn unreciprocated relationships! All that time and energy, with nothing to show for it!

But then one day, it all could change. (Trust me on this one. It did for me.) You start seeing her as the woman who made the man you love, and a feeling that looks like respect and smells an awful lot like roses and love starts to grow. The weeds disappear (most days), and on the rainy days when you do catch sight of them, they're not so offensive when mixed with all that beauty she's added to your world. And perhaps she starts seeing you as the woman who makes her son content, and the one who has truly turned him into the man and father she always dreamed he would become...while still always, the chick who stole her baby away! I mean, come on. We're talking mothers-in-law, right?

See, kindness begets kindness. Love makes more love. And it's got to start somewhere, so why not with you? Usually, that would be my advice. But not today.

There comes a point when safety trumps everything else. I am all about love and will plant a generous garden of it even if I know it's not going to grow, but I am not afraid to dig it up if it's not feeding healthy to my best and my favorites. If it's rotten, it goes. Hopefully, you'll never need to fully experience that point for yourself, but it sounds like you're awfully close. I am truly sorry she doesn't like you more. If she was a stranger, you'd never have to see her again. But she's not. She is family, and that means she's pretty much forever. So we have to figure this one out, don't we?

To answer your question as best and as honestly as I can, I would hold her at arm's length only because she allows danger near your son, no matter how many times you and her son have explained his medical issues. It seriously pisses me off that there's such a needlessly negligent grandmother out there, and it should make you mad, too. Your son definitely did not win the grandma lottery.

And yet. If you ever see a crack in her bad behavior, make yourself as good and tiny as possible and try to slip through it. You just may find a way to her heart. Because even in a plot overgrown with weeds, there's always hope of digging up a carrot. Just try not to get your hands too dirty, okay?

That's the only way I live my days. (Next time, let's chat more about your sister-in-law. Me, you, and Google translate. It's a date.)