Advice | Carolyn Hax: Sister-in-law wants time with family — but not with their kids

Adapted from an online discussion.

Hi, Carolyn: My sister-in-law lives 10 minutes away, never visits, shows no interest in our kids and doesn’t return my husband’s calls. That’s fine.

But when my in-laws visit the grandkids one weekend a month, she insists on being consulted and included in all plans. If we do something that doesn’t suit her — junior’s baseball game, dinner at a toddler-friendly hour — then she does not come or comes significantly late and wails that we “are kicking her out of her own family.”

My in-laws are lovely, if conflict-avoidant, people. They now set aside time just for sister-in-law on each trip, and I would like to formally separate the visits going forward. When the in-laws are with us, we’ll invite the sister-in-law when it makes sense but will not change our plans. Same during her time.

My husband worries that we’re being as selfish as his sister and putting his parents in a difficult position. But this is what it means to have boundaries, right? The last visit involved missing much of an event Kid 1 was really excited about, then a massive meltdown from Kid 2 due to a dinner delay, so it’s possible I’ve lost some perspective.

In-Law: I feel like I’m missing something, because there’s an almost ideal solution taking shape here: First, you stick to your schedule during these visits, because going to schedule-disrupting lengths to attempt to please everyone seems over the top when the next visit is just weeks away. There’s no need for the full family holiday treatment.

Second, she has a right to see her own parents her own way without always being at the mercy of your kids. Early dinners and youth sports have their charms, don’t get me wrong, but not when they set the family visit agenda for everyone, all the time. That she doesn’t have much of a relationship with her brother makes her resistance here more rational, not less.

Third, you can keep inviting her in the interest of being inclusive, providing detailed plans, with the understanding that she can come or not come, as she wishes, and there will be no guilt penalty either way.

So what am I not seeing? She wants to spend time with her parents and not (always) your kids. She may be expressing that horribly — passive aggression, wailing, no-showing — but there’s nothing wrong with the underlying preference. If I were the one without kids who was asking for some non-kid-centric time, I would hate to have my parent-siblings take that as “selfish” of me just because my methods need to grow up. That’s a relationship-threatening loss of perspective.

Which brings me to the solution more worthy of the “ideal” tag: for the siblings to have a real conversation about how they feel about what, and why. The sister alone seems to have more baggage than she can comfortably carry around.

Re: Sister-in-law: It seems the child had a meltdown over a late dinner because they waited for the sister-in-law to arrive. Stop that. If dinner is scheduled for 6 p.m., have dinner at 6 p.m. When she walks in at 7, offer to fix her a plate.

Anonymous: Yes. No accommodations, just keep to the schedule, and she’s there on time or she isn’t, no reactions or punishments when she gets there. Just a warmly offered meal. Thanks.

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