This week: my mother has the key to our flat When Hugh was ill he gave his mother the key, and 10 years later she still pops in endlessly on his wife and 18-month-old baby. Hugh's wife is getting really stressed, but Hugh knows his mother will be terribly hurt if he asks for the key back.
Virginia Ironside

I'm ashamed to count the number of times I've advised both readers and friends to indulge in that frightful thing called the "frank chat", because whenever I've tried the frank chat myself it's always gone disastrously wrong. Instant offence taken. Tears. Masses of backtracking on my part. And the result is usually that the status quo remains.

Yes, of course getting something into the open works, but it's how you get it into the open that counts, and it's a great mistake to plunge in head first. It surprises and horrifies the other person, as if they were suddenly pushed into the deep end of a freezing swimming-pool. What is needed for the frank chat to happen is, in my experience, an extremely devious chat to start it off.

First, Hugh has to get his locks changed. To say he'd had an intruder might be going a bit far - and anyway might encourage his mother to spend her entire days guarding their home like an Alsatian. No, he must claim to have been on a bus and lost his keys and his wallet with his name and address in it. The top-whack locksmith he employs to change the locks, he must say, gives out only two keys and it's a great palaver to get another. It needs code words and security checks, and he just hasn't the time, and in the meantime she'll just have to ring before she comes round.

Now, by this time his mother is metaphorically sitting in her swimsuit on the edge of the pool, and over the few weeks that follow it may dawn on her that if she plunges in she'll have to face "frank chat" time. Indeed, she may just do nothing but think about plunging in and then, realising what unpleasantness awaits her, quietly get the message and decide to go back into the changing-room: to say no more about it, in other words.

Alternatively, if Hugh keeps completely quiet and his mum doesn't get the message, the poor woman may be forced to initiate the frank chat herself, with a "Hey, what's with this delay on the extra key? Don't you want me coming round?" But then at least Hugh can say, with total justification, that he really didn't want to hurt her and devised this scheme to avoid her pain.

Before she knows where she is she will be saying things like, "But I would far rather you'd told me the truth straightaway and openly", and Hugh can apologise, adding that the system whereby she rings up before coming and gives his wife a chance to say whether it's an appropriate moment or not is far more suitable for them.

This strategy, where his mother has to initiate the frank chat, will make his mother feel more powerful and less hurt.

But the lesson Hugh must learn is that if you give anybody an inch they'll take a mile, and it's much better with unwanted visitors to set tight limits to start with, which you can then relax later. As with salt in a stew, it's easy to add, virtually impossible to take awayn

What readers say

Don't antagonise her. You may need her

There is nothing in Hugh's letter about his mother or her situation. Is she on her own? Is she lonely? Perhaps Hugh should think ahead five years to when his wife will want to return to work, when they will need a reliable child-minder or baby-sitter, a doting grandmother to take the child off their hands.

We rather excluded my wife's mother after our first child was born. I resented her being in the way, always fussing and talking, shopping and cooking. Playing silly games, we let the answering machine take our calls in case it was her on the phone. There were even times when we did not answer the doorbell for fear it was her.

She died quite suddenly when our child was four. My wife and I now miss her terribly and I feel dreadful about shutting my mother-in-law out of our lives. I remember at the funeral talking with her neighbours, all of whom were saying how kind and generous she had been, and how they would miss her dreadfully. A part of me died with her then.

Jacob Smalley, London E1

A security alarm solved our problem

We had a similar experience with my father-in-law letting himself into our house, sometimes two or three times a day. The answer to the problem was discovered accidentally when we had a security alarm fitted. After he had set it off a couple of times and found he couldn't remember the number - it was a long one, which we refused to write down, for obvious reasons - he stopped coming in uninvited.


Tell her straight. It's the best way

I am about to celebrate my 25th wedding anniversary, but after 12 years of mother-in-law misery, with my marriage on the verge of collapse, I had to ask my husband to decide whose feelings were more important to him, his mother's or his wife's.

Focus on your priorities. You are a grown man now, not a small boy, and you must make your mother realise this. Your wife's wishes must be paramount, your mother's hurt feelings secondary by a long way. Tell her straight. It's the best way. Hopefully she won't be too hurt, but if she is for a short while, accept that this is her problem. She'll come round eventually, but you and your wife must live your life on terms arranged by the two of you, without the guilty feelings induced by your mother, whose life is obviously, but erroneously, revolving round you, her "little boy".

I hope for your wife's and baby's sake that you can sort this out, and that you, too, will one day celebrate your silver wedding.

A wiser, and hopefully better, future mother-in-law

Join up with another young mother

Your mother is not unusual in trying to lengthen her apron strings, especially if she's been widowed during the decade of the spare key.

Both women need friends of their own ages and circumstances. I suggest your wife should start by inviting another young mum with toddler, and exchange visits. She and your child could have several companionable afternoons each week when Granny would find no one there, or younger friends there; and would realise she's not the only pebble on the beach. Be a little less predictable.

In the long term, you're most likely to want to move house for more space and a garden; or even your work might indicate a relocation. These possibilities can be mentioned to your mother but not discussed with her. And let's hope she twigs that they involve "by invitation" and not "spare key".

Make sure that your wife's mother/sister/best friend comes to stay and needs the spare key for a bit. You are a considerate son, but, paterfamilias has to be a considerate husband and father. If these new habits do not stop your thoughtlessly attentive mother in her tracks and find a few more appropriate interests for herself, then you really will have to have a quiet word with her. Good luck.

Anne S Crocker, Bath

PS My mother-in-law used to come and do the ironing so that I could go out with other young mums and toddlers. She was an ally whom I loved and appreciated so much that I feel really sorry for your wife, whom you must protect by stronger means if hints don't work.

Next week's problem: should I go on holiday with my ex?

Dear Virginia,

I'm going on holiday to Majorca with my two children aged 9 and 10 in the summer. My ex-husband and I get on reasonably well and we both love our children to bits. He's suggested we make a family holiday of it - though obviously we'd sleep in separate rooms - because he says it would be nice for the children. For some reason I feel ill at ease, though the children are enthusiastic about the idea. What do you think?

Yours sincerely, Prue

Comments are welcome. Everyone who has a suggestion quoted will be sent a bouquet from Interflora. Send letters to me at the Features Department, The Independent,

1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL (fax 0171-293 2182) by Tuesday morning. If you have any dilemmas of your own you would like to share, please let me know.