Rigid diet tints mother-in-law’s views

A mother-in-law is openly critical of a reader's eating habits, one of many aggravating factors in a strained relationship. Carolyn Hax responds.



March 1, 2024 - 2:58 PM

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Dear Carolyn: I’ve always found my in-laws stressful — particularly my mother-in-law. She is consistently negative, follows an EXTREMELY rigid diet and is critical about everything we eat if it doesn’t fit her diet.

My husband and I have been doing IVF, part of a grueling multiyear saga. He shared this with his parents, and next time we saw them, I got an interrogation, including her proclamation/diagnosis that my infertility could be due to my (normal, nonrigid) diet. She was extra critical of everything she saw me eating after that.

I kept my mouth shut because I’ve been conditioned to make nice with them. My husband frequently says his parents think I don’t like them — trust me, I try my hardest — and they are very sensitive. But my husband did not understand my frustration AT ALL, which surprised me: “She means well, what’s the big deal? Just ignore her.”

This came up again, so I asked him to let his mom know not to speak to me about my diet, but he thinks that’s stepping in for me inappropriately.

The idea of being that vulnerable with her after what happened is abhorrent to me. I also think it would be a huge mistake, given her extreme sensitivity and conviction that I don’t like them, based on … not visiting enough? I imagine speaking to his parents even less will cause problems, too. I can’t imagine eating in front of them again. What to do?

— Anonymous

Anonymous: It’s based on your not liking them. Well, her.

Feel any better after reading that? I felt unburdened just typing it.

Your mother-in-law has astonishing boundary problems and, I suspect, more than a touch of an eating disorder, and you’re in a raw place with infertility treatments, all complicating your in-law encounters.

But the baseline problem still is that you dislike your mother-in-law and don’t feel empowered to live that honestly, not even in the privacy of your marriage.

It’s a boot on your chest.

And your husband couldn’t fix it by telling Mama to back off, even if he wanted to or had a freaking clue. (Dude — self-embedded-head extraction, stat. Your mom just blamed your wife for not conceiving; do you always sell your wife out like this?) But he did clear your path to step in for yourself appropriately.

You’ll have no peace until your relationship with your mother-in-law is honest, if only Triscuit-deep.

That means standing up for yourself when you’d rather not, poking at sensitivities you don’t want to inflame, just as you feel maximally strung out.

But it’s either that or the fake-smiles-and-food-harassment status quo, which doesn’t sound sustainable for much longer.

Two plans to choose from, when you’re ready: superficial Plan A or go-for-it Plan B.

A. She criticizes your diet. You, immediately: “I know you care, but this is stressful. I won’t discuss my diet.” She reacts. You respond, “Please respect my wishes.” She pushes, you say, “Excuse me, I have to go …” work my spindle or sing with woodland creatures, then leave.

B. You tell your mother-in-law: “I must seem standoffish, and I’m sorry for that — but here’s why. I don’t like to analyze what I eat. Diet is obviously important to you, so I’ve tried to meet you halfway, but I’m afraid my discomfort shows. In fact, especially now, I would deeply appreciate not talking about my body. Deal?”

If she doesn’t cooperate, then use A, which is all you, no one’s cooperation required.

Either way, once you’ve drawn your line, ever after: “Hm, next topic!” As in, never talk diet with her again.

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