Virginia Ironside's Dilemmas: The 'Auntie' problem
Monday 08 October 2007
Dear Virginia, When our son was six years old, we adopted a girl of three. They became a loving brother and sister, and now she is a single mum with a son of 13. But our son has married a girl who won't accept our daughter as family and won't let our grandson call her 'auntie'. My son reluctantly supports his wife (they are childless). How can we maintain a relationship with our son and his wife on this basis? Yours sincerely, Freda
It could be that your daughter-in-law is simply very, very horrid. That's the natural initial reaction to such an unpleasant story. And it would be so easy if that were the case! Then you could just stand up to her and tell her shut up or bugger off, and that would be that.
But it's never so simple. Inside every horrid person, I really do truly believe, at the risk of sounding like a vicar, that there is always an unhappy and insecure person far too frightened to get out. And my reading of the situation is that your son's wife is terribly jealous of her husband's close relationship with his sister. He has known her nearly all his life, after all, and they probably share an intimacy never experienced or even imagined by his wife. When they meet, all together, she almost certainly feels like an outsider, a lonely matchgirl with her face pressed to the window of an easy, loving and spontaneous relationship, one that I'm sure she doesn't have with her own brothers and sisters if she has any.
Then, who knows, perhaps they're trying desperately to have children, and the presence of this boy and his claim to some kind of personal relationship with her just drives her nuts with envy, bringing up all kinds of unmanageable feelings.
Perhaps, of course, she just doesn't like the sister, and this "she's not family" line is a way of rationalising her dislike. Or perhaps she simply hates being called "auntie", and who can blame her? She is not a blood aunt by any stretch of the imagination - not only is the sister adopted, but the daughter-in-law is only related to the boy by marriage. So she's quite correct not to want to be called "auntie". Perhaps she would just prefer to have a more adult relationship with the boy and would like to be called by her Christian name.
Whatever the reason, you and your husband mustn't fall into the same divisive trap as the daughter-in-law. You must set her a good example by accepting her, whatever her weird views are. You should ask all the family over for celebrations just as you would normally, and if the daughter-in-law refuses to come, then that's her business. In the meantime, it would be a good idea to have discussions a deux with all the family. What does the daughter make of all this? Was there some private argument with the daughter-in-law that you know nothing about? Is it in fact her deep jealousy of her sister-in-law that has sparked this off, rather the other way around? Wouldn't it be a good idea to get your son's take on it all? Could he make things better by perhaps reassuring his wife that now she is absolutely No.1 in his life?
Then there's the teenage boy. Is he a secret menace who puts psychic drawing pins on her chair - making her resent him? And finally, what about asking the daughter-in-law herself what is making her feel so hostile? Is there something she knows that you don't?
Tout comprendre c'est tout pardonner - to understand all is to forgive all, as the French say. Try to get to the bottom of this, Freda, with the same determination as you would a crime, and I'm sure you'll find that there is more to this than meets the eye. And remember that by being charitable you will be occupying the dizzy heights of the moral ground - never a bad thing for the ego.
Love and accept her anyway
Your daughter-in-law has a problem accepting something about your daughter. If you allow this to become another "something" that you in turn can't accept about your daughter-in-law, you are in effect reinforcing her idea that difference is intolerable.
It's a delicate situation, but the best thing is to show your daughter-in-law that you love and accept her, while making it clear that you don't agree with her position. This models to her that strong relationships survive difference - almost certainly something that her own family background has left her in doubt about.
Could this be jealousy?
You need to discover what is at the root of your daughter-in-law's problem with your daughter. Surely it is irrelevant that your daughter is adopted? Your daughter-in-law dislikes your daughter - end of story. It sounds like there could be jealousy at play here, particularly if your son and daughter are very close.
Maybe your daughter is jealous that your son has found a partner - or perhaps, rather irrationally, your daughter-in-law finds the fact that your children are not blood-related threatening? Maybe your daughter could shed more light on the problem?
Your main objective is to keep communication open throughout the family. Invite your son and his wife to dinner to discuss the situation? For everyone's sake, your daughter-in-law should respect you and at least be civil to your daughter in your presence, particularly if her young son is affected.
Ask her why
Has anyone asked your daughter-in-law why she will not accept your daughter as part of the family? Please talk to your daughter-in-law and find out her true feelings and thoughts. In return, you can explain how you felt at the time of adopting and how you feel now.
Remind her that one day she may not be able to conceive a child. How would she feel and what would she do? Additionally, reassure her that you think of her as a daughter in the same way as you think of your own daughter. Good luck.
Pressure to adopt
Freda needs to ask herself why her daughter-in-law is behaving like this. It must have a lot to do with her own inability to have children.
For me, there are two possible reasons why the daughter-in-law would refuse to acknowledge the status of an adopted child as a true member of the family. First, her husband's family had a happy experience of adoption, so she may be under pressure to adopt, but she doesn't want to and is resisting by using the argument that an adopted child is not a real member of the family.
A less savoury reason may be that she fears losing out when her in-laws die. By insisting that an adopted child is not a true family member, she may prevent the inheritance going to her sister-in-law or even in trust to the sole grandchild.
Caroline St Leger-Davey
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