Virginia Ironside's Dilemmas

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I cannot believe I am writing with such a hackneyed problem but although I used to get on with my mother-in-law when we were first married, now I've had my first baby, I find her constant presence intrusive and irritating. Sometimes I could lose my temper completely. She's always round "trying to help" and sometimes I feel she's competing with me to be the mother of our baby. It's her first grandchild so I try to be understanding and I do love her, basically, but I want to tell her to back off without upsetting her. How can I do it? Yours sincerely, Jo

Virginia says...When something's bugging you it's very difficult not to either push it away completely, or explode in fury. You can't push this one away, so I can see that exploding appears to be your only option – something you don't want to do. And something you shouldn't do, either.

I had a similar problem recently, though obviously not about my mother-in-law. I had had some bad service from a person I've used regularly all my life. I was so upset I felt like never going back, particularly as the service has been slipping over the years. But the problem was that the person in charge was a very nice and rather old man, who I've become quite friendly with over the years. I didn't want to hurt him. So I asked a friend what to do. Leave him without giving a reason or have it out, and threaten legal action if I didn't get a refund?

"I can't see what the problem is," she said, rather puzzled. "Why don't you just say you like him very much, he's a charming old man and you don't want to upset him because you go back a long way, but the last transaction didn't work out and you wonder how he can sort it out for you?"

This deceptively simple answer came as a revelation to me. I had been too angry and upset to be able to see clearly. But it's exactly the same answer that I'm going to give you. Tell the truth.

Explain to your mother-in-law that you love her very much. You can say you really appreciate her help. But you can also say that you want to experience being a mother first time fully, and could do with a little less help. As long as you make your complaint in the context of love, appreciation and affection, you will ruffle no feathers and I wouldn't be surprised if your mother-in-law didn't back off considerably. Of course she'll be a little bit hurt – she was probably enjoying being a surrogate mum to her new grandchild – but she will certainly understand and couldn't possibly be upset.

If you feel you can't do this without losing your temper – looking after a small baby makes it very hard, with lack of sleep and whirling hormones, to remain cool and collected – then ask your partner to have a word.

But whatever you do, don't either seethe in silence or throw some horrible wobbly. That ghastly expression "clearing the air" in a one-off eruption very rarely does what it says. It can leave endless clouds of dust behind, which can take years to settle.

Readers say...

Let her help you

It's normal to feel a bit pressured by the presence of grandmas who have done it before. I was forever explaining to my own mother that it wasn't the done thing now to put tiny babies onto their tummies to sleep, or give them a bottle of water on top of breastfeeding them.

Grandmas can't help it, they love your baby, and it's a very special, worthwhile relationship. The way I eventually dealt with it was to accept help, but on my own terms. Have a think about what you would like some help with, then ask. Could she watch your baby for an hour or two while you get some time to yourself? Every time she appears, ask her to do a specific thing to help. It will make her feel wanted and it will get you some welcome help.

Christine Edinburgh

Understand her

I felt the same. Then I read a book by the psychologist Terri Apter that completely changed my view of my mother-in-law. That book is out of print, but she recently published another, What Do You Want From Me?, about getting on with your in-laws.

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Next week's dilemma

Dear Virginia, My friend suffers from depression and I feel very sorry for her. But recently I have got to the end of my tether. I arrange to meet her and then, at the last minute, she cancels, either making excuses or saying she's being pursued by the "black dog". Over the last six months we've made five plans to meet and on three occasions she's cried off. Last night was the worst as I'd asked other people round to meet her specially, then got a text saying "something's come up". I feel so sorry for her but get fed up being so often disappointed.

Yours sincerely, Hattie

What would you advise Hattie to do?

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