I love my mother-in-law. Truly, I do. I also live with her, you see. And I have four children under six, which leaves me at the precipice of a breakdown 80 per cent of the time. So this fact, of my deep affection for her, is my survival strategy. I have to love her. I’m in her house, rent-free, and she helps to look after my kids. I’ve also learned a lot along the way.
My mother-in-law, like my older children, has two Achilles heels: screen time and sugary treats. When my latest newborn haze passed, I looked up and realized that certain treats for the rest of my kids had become an expected routine. They were having chocolate every day, and expecting to watch iPad nursery rhymes for every dinner time while they were being fed. Horrified, I had to clamp down and be the bad guy (again), saying no more of either.
On some exhausting afternoons, I just wanted to go upstairs with my infant and nurse her so we could both get some desperately needed shut eye. Parenting is a marathon, not a sprint, and afternoon naps gave me the boost to help me survive my children until my husband got home from work. But once I came down again, my smile turned upside down when I saw all the guilty faces. My children’s faces were covered in chocolate, my mother-in-law’s wasn’t, but the guilt was all the same.
I’m in her house, rent-free, and she helps to look after my kids.
At the grocery store my husband freaks out when my mother-in-law tosses in chips and ice-cream into the cart while my children’s eyes gleam with anticipation. My husband tosses them back out again and says, “No! That’s processed junk full of sugar,” and my mother-in-law will say dramatic things like, “I don’t know how much time I have left.”
I think about this. She’s in her sixties. If she lives for another twenty years, then each of my children will probably have just as many cavities.
All the peaceful/positive parenting books tell us to set boundaries with children from a calm, centered place. To acknowledge their upset but be firm anyway. I suspect that this is something I’ll have to do with my mother-in-law. Fun times ahead. So instead of, “I know you want to eat chocolate every day, but it’s a treat for the weekends.” I’ll have to say - “I know you want to give your grandchildren chocolate every day, but it’s a treat left for the weekend.” And there’ll be grumbling and whining, from grandmother and grandchildren alike. And that’s okay. I may joke, but this kind of boundary setting really can wear me down. Then I think about the bigger picture. My kids are getting the gift of happy memories with their grandmother. They just won’t see the grey hairs it’s causing my husband and me.
Parenting is relentless. Parenting small children is even more back-breaking – literally, in my case, given how the gifts of my multiple pregnancies include constant muscle aches, occasional sciatica and recurrent diastasis recti. Because of this, I’ve learned to accept my mother-in-law’s help, as imperfect as it may be. I cannot be a hero who does it all because I am literally in pain.
Parenting small children is even more back-breaking – literally
Even if my husband loses his job, we have a roof over our heads, and we are (constantly) being fed. I know that when I leave my kids with my mother-in-law so that I can walk outdoors alone and clear my head, the worst that will happen to them is a sugar and screentime overdose.
I see how hard aging can be when I look at my mother-in-law’s diminishing capacity to be with my kids. When my oldest was born, she could wash him confidently, change his nappy, run around in the garden, and so on. Now that I’m onto my fourth, things are very different. Her desire to be a hands-on grandma hasn’t changed, but her health is slowly deteriorating. She struggles to keep up with my toddler, who literally runs faster than her, often bare-bottomed, and refuses to wear his diaper. She worries she will drop my wriggly infant when she carries her. She no longer has the energy or patience to playfully help my eldest to put away his toys.
Watching her struggles motivates me to take the time and effort to (at least attempt to) look after myself, instead of expending all of me on my children. I’ve scheduled in postnatal pilates, yoga, healthy eating and try to sleep early. I still have my chocolate binges, but overall, I know that one day, if I live long enough to be a grandma, I hope to be relatively intact.
And when it’s my turn to be a grandmother, I can either wreak revenge by stuffing my grandkids with treats and screen time and they will love me for it, or I can choose celery or carrot sticks instead and they’ll scream and run away from me, which certainly gives me food for thought.
Laila Ali* is a pseudonym.