Relationship Connection: How do I schedule kid visits with my unpredictable in-laws?

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Question

It’s once again that time of year. The dreaded holiday season, especially with blended families. I have a pre-teen child from a previous marriage and later had a child with my second spouse. Since the divorce, my first child has been switched off every other holiday with my ex-husband, which has allowed us to have every other holiday with our first child. The schedule has been working well for the past number of years. 

My parents are very active grandparents. They are retired and take my kids on a yearly getaway and spend time with them at least twice a week as they live nearby. Then there’s my current spouse’s parents who are “semi-involved to uninvolved” with my kids.

My father-in-law is a truck driver and is on the road most times but will call on the road and show up for activities if he’s home. My mother-in-law works part time but refuses to have a set schedule as she can’t say “no” if she gets called in on her day off to work as she’s afraid to lose her job.

She gets highly offended at me when she calls or texts me things like, “I have the day off, and I want to spend time with the kids,” when I already had plans with my kids, especially if it involves my mom and we are in the middle of an activity. She’ll even demand it when my oldest is with my ex-husband during his scheduled time, which shouldn’t be new to her since she’s been aware of that set schedule for a better part of a decade. She acts surprised and tries to get me to change my plans along with my ex-husband’s plans so she can get her time with my children. 

Also, my oldest prefers not to spend time with the step-grandma. He refers to her as “Hot Mess Grandma” but tags along to help buffer his younger sibling from her. 

So we are at that time of year again of family feasting, Christmas shopping and all things joyous. How do I keep involving my in-laws with their lack of schedule during the holidays without causing hurt feelings and simultaneously placing my oldest in an awkward situation to keep the peace?

Answer

You’re right that expectations for family closeness during the holidays can be stressful in families where relationships are distant the other months of the year. It’s important to stay consistent throughout the year with visitations with family members and not give into additional holiday pressure that you will later regret. Since these patterns exist with your in-laws throughout the year, let’s talk about how you can structure these frustrating demands. 

Like you, your in-laws are making choices about how they prioritize their time. They might believe that work is out of their control, but they have the freedom to choose their occupations. If they want more predictability or flexibility, it’s not your responsibility to upend your schedule (or your children’s schedules, for that matter) to accommodate their other priorities. You may value accommodating other people’s needs occasionally, but when it becomes their way of life to expect you to do all of the adapting, then you have to decide if you’ll enable this pattern. 

I recommend you don’t address their pattern directly because they don’t see a problem with it, and it’s not your job to figure out how they should manage their time. Instead, I recommend you open a conversation about planning time with the grandkids.

If she won’t commit to a time, then you can kindly let her know that you can’t guarantee she’ll be able to spend time with the grandkids on her timetable. You can let her know that there are many schedules to consider and you are willing to include her schedule in the discussion, but her needs can’t overrun others who have already scheduled time with the children. 

Even though this seems obvious and elementary, this can be asking a lot for people who live chaotic lives. Again, this isn’t your job to figure out her schedule. She chooses chaos over order, and that comes with consequences

If she wants to work out a different arrangement, then instead of complaining about your schedule, encourage her to suggest a more suitable arrangement that can work for everyone. Allow her to get creative and committed so her grandchildren can know how much they mean to her. Of course, you’ll have to decide how much unpredictability you can tolerate with her suggestions, but it might open up previously unavailable options. 

Brene Brown reminds that “kind is clear” when communicating expectations to others. These are your children, and you get to decide what schedule works best for them. This schedule will also protect your older son from having to adopt a “parentified” role for his younger sibling when he knows what to expect. It might not help grandma be less chaotic, but it will not leave you and your children feeling bad that they’re causing grandma more suffering.

My recommendations for the holidays are no different than for the other months of the year. Coordination and communication are the ways things get done in busy and complicated family systems. You can do all of this kindly and respectfully. In fact, when you are clear about your expectations, you’ll actually feel less anger and resentment. If she doesn’t want to cooperate with a schedule and work with all of the competing demands, then she is making her choice to miss out. 

Have a relationship question for Geoff to answer? Submit to:

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