Travel & Food: My Husband Wants to Take Our Kids on a Two-Month-Long Road Trip. Oh Boy.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband and I have two kids, an 8-year-old and a 6-year-old. My husband has always liked road trips (and traveling in general), and I joined him a few times before we had kids, even though it’s not really my thing. Since we’ve had our kids, he’s gone on a week-long road trip every summer with one of his friends from college, and I take the opportunity to have my childfree best friend stay with me and the kids for the week—so everybody wins. Now he has been working at his company long enough that he can take a two-month sabbatical this summer, one month paid and an extra month unpaid, for which he negotiated. What he wanted to do was go on a two-month-long (!!!) family road trip.

I do not have the PTO for this, I dislike road trips anyway, and I don’t think the kids are old enough to enjoy it. When I said this, his response was that of course they are, and that he’d be OK with giving me a “two-month vacation” and taking the kids himself. I don’t want to infantilize my husband or imply that he’s a bad father, but I know I wouldn’t want to wrangle two kids alone for two months on the road, and I do about 70 percent of the child care. I think he is VASTLY underestimating how much work it will be to drive two small children around the country. He is set on it though, and our argument about it has now escalated to him claiming I think he’s an unfit parent and that I’m a helicopter mom. Part of me wants to just be like, “Godspeed” and hope I’m pleasantly surprised but expect them to all come back in tears after a week, but that feels mean to my husband, and I also don’t want my kids to have horrible memories of the only real solo time they’d have spent with their dad. How do I convince him this is a terrible idea? SHOULD I try to convince him?? If he puts his foot down, is there any way I can set him up for success here?? Please help!

—I Want to Stay Home

Dear Home,

Really, what’s the worst that can happen if he takes the kids on this trip? Nobody has fun and they turn around and come home? (I wouldn’t worry about the kids having “horrible memories” if this happens. And I would make sure this is not the “only solo time” they ever spend with their dad in any case. This is something you and your husband can start working on right now.) Your husband is determined to stick to the plan even if it’s not going exactly the way he’d hoped, and the trip is less than perfect? So what?

You can’t control everything. Trust me when I tell you that I know this is hard to hear—hard to hear that not everything can be controlled, and hard to hear that you may be a bit of what people meanly call a “control freak”—because I too have struggled with this. (If you were to ask my husband, he’d laugh at the past tense.) Especially when it comes to parenting—and especially when we’re doing the lion’s share of it—it’s very difficult for some of us to let go, knowing that things will not be done the way we like them done (the way we’re sure is the only right way). Is it possible that you’re right, and your husband won’t be able to “wrangle” the two kids? Of course. Then he’ll have to deal with that and decide what to do about it. But he’s their parent too, and as painful as I can see you’re going to find it, you really must say, “Godspeed.” And why not try, for everyone’s sake, not to expect them back in tears in a week? (Though I wouldn’t make plans to go to Maui while they’re gone, just in case.) In the meantime, enjoy your break, for however long it lasts. You won’t get another for a very long time.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

During the pandemic, my in-laws moved from across the country to a 15-minute drive from my home… without asking us! They initially made it sound as though they wanted a change of scenery and would stay for a while in our general area of the country, which made sense at the time. We tried to steer them toward locations that were closer to us than they had been, but a bit farther than they ended up. (As a reference point, our relationship before this current situation was that we would on average see them once a year for a very short period.) The issue is that my mother-in-law tells George Santos-level lies (that she has serious illnesses that she doesn’t actually have, that she has medical training that she doesn’t have, that she lived in different countries, etc.) and is generally exhausting to be around. My spouse is aware of this but also values being generous and welcoming, so he invites them over and visits them regularly, and they are now a part of all of our holiday gatherings.

In an ideal world, I’d prefer if we could go back to our annual obligatory visit, but obviously, that can’t happen given their proximity now. I feel as though their decision to move nearby is part of their generally delusional relationship to reality, so it feels crazy-making to be forced to spend time with them on their own terms in this way. What suggestions do you have about how to engage with them? What obligations do we have to entertain them? Can we address their decision to live so close to us? In general, how should we respond when we are subject to obvious dishonesty, and how should we discuss this with our child, who is young and seems to enjoy their company thus far?

—Forced to Live in Fantasyland

Dear Forced,

If your mother-in-law is sanguinely lying all the time, either in the deluded belief that what she says is true or, George Santos-style, for personal gain (imagining that she will never be found out), she needs professional help. Ask your husband to nudge her in that direction.

But it sounds like you are the only one who’s exhausted by your MIL—it would seem that your husband is OK with her behavior. You use the plural pronoun “we” when you ask your questions about how to cope, but you haven’t said that your husband is in the least troubled by having his parents nearby, only that he’s “aware” of his mother’s lies and how “generally exhausting” she is. Whether he enjoys spending time with his parents (which he may, even if you don’t), grins and bears it for their sake—because he’s generous and welcoming—or because he wants them to have a relationship with their grandchild (which a brief annual visit will not nurture), or is just resigned to their living nearby and making the best if it, if you can’t bear being around them so often, don’t. Tell your husband how much you feel you can tolerate—once a week, once a month, only on holidays, whatever—and excuse yourself from all other socializing with them. Take that time for yourself and try to think of it as a gift. If your in-laws ask their son where you are, he can tell them whatever you both feel comfortable with (you’re busy, you need time for yourself, he needs time alone with them and their grandchild). I’m afraid it’s unreasonable to refuse to see them at all, and I wouldn’t hold out any hope that they’ll move away. What’s done is done. But you don’t have to torture yourself. (And if I’m reading this wrong, and your husband is every bit as miserable as you are, then let him set boundaries with his parents.)

As to your child, who is young and “seems to enjoy their company,” why undermine that? Many grandchildren have special, loving relationships with grandparents even when their parents find them difficult. If your child comes home repeating Grandma’s outrageous lies, feel free to gently offer the truth. If the truth bewilders your child (“But why would Grandma lie about that?”), why not say, “I don’t know, sweetheart. You’ll have to ask Grandma.”

Catch Up on Care and Feeding

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I recently had my first child (she is almost 3 months old). I’m on family leave and my spouse works long days, so my mother will occasionally stop by to “help.” It’s a nightmare. She criticizes everything I do, including essential things like giving the baby vitamin D drops and doing tummy time (because she never did them with us as children). Worse than the criticism of my parenting is that she refuses to do what is best for my child. My baby is a finicky eater who will only take a bottle if you walk with her (which my mom refuses to do). She needs to eat, though, I can tell (my mom thinks she should only be fed when she cries even though I’ve patiently explained her hunger cues). I make plans to go out for lunch with a friend for a few hours and then my mother tells me I can’t “because the baby won’t eat.” But the baby takes bottles from me, my spouse, her aunt, and my in-laws because they listen to what she needs. My mom refuses to do that, so I’m not comfortable taking a walk or nap when she’s over. How do I get her to listen?

—Frustrated New Mom

Dear New Mom,

Well, you can’t get her to listen. If she won’t, she won’t. So stop leaving the baby with her. Stop encouraging—or even just allowing—her to come over to “help.” When you make plans for lunch with a friend, hire a sitter (or ask one of the many relatives you do feel good about leaving alone with your child). Don’t take a walk or a nap when your mother is visiting: Invite her to visit only to keep you company—or, if you like, only to help out in ways that don’t involve her taking care of the baby (will she do laundry, cook, take care of the dishes, or tidy up for you?). In other words: Don’t expect your mom to change. Instead, change your expectations of her. (And when it comes to her criticism, steel yourself for it, ignore it, and teach yourself to blithely say, “Thanks, Mom, I’ve got this” every time.)

Dear Care and Feeding,

I struggle with my mother-in-law and it definitely makes my husband’s life more difficult.
She’s the kind of person who thinks being rude and disagreeable is funny. For example, she does things she knows someone dislikes to aggravate them—such as touching my stomach while I was pregnant and then laughing after being asked, then told, not to touch me (I literally had to start swatting her every time)—or constantly commenting on my husband’s ears (she loves to talk about how huge they are and to say, “Uh oh, the baby got YOUR ears”). It was only after I stopped drinking, several years ago, that I realized that alcohol had been what made visits with her bearable. I guess that’s when she started to complain to my husband that I didn’t like her. It started slowly, but over this past year, during which I was pregnant and then had a newborn, she’s convinced herself I hate her and she will not stop talking to my husband about it, but never to me. The thing is, when we announced the birth of our daughter and said we would be taking two weeks to bond as a family before accepting visitors, she went ballistic. She started by not answering when my husband tried to call/FaceTime her, and then she spent several days berating him over text and allowing her friends to berate him over text as well. On top of calling him names, she also used a lot of emotional manipulation, like how she “would rather be homeless than to not be able to pray over [her] granddaughter for two weeks” and declaring that the baby wouldn’t even exist if it weren’t for her. Then, when she called him a couple of weeks later to “make up,” she actually just tried to justify her behavior by “explaining” what she called her side of the story.

That was it for me. I don’t hate her but I don’t respect her and I never will. She will never be able to come back from that with me unless she genuinely takes responsibility for her awful behavior, admits that she was entirely in the wrong, and apologizes sincerely (and not just to my husband but to me as well). I’m cordial when we have to be in the same place, but I do not laugh when she makes fun of my husband and I very politely ignore her eye-rolling about my parenting choices and her unwanted advice instead of telling her I didn’t ask for her opinion. I honestly don’t think I can do more than that, but not being “buddy buddy” with her is making my husband’s life hard because she apparently won’t stop pestering him about this. Maybe I’m wrong here and I should do more just to take the heat off my husband, I don’t know.

—World’s Worst Daughter-in-Law?

Dear World’s Worst,

Your husband needs to take the heat off himself. If his mother is driving him crazy with her complaints about you, let him tell her so. He can do that nicely—he doesn’t have to be rude about it. But is that the problem here? Or is the problem that he’s dumping this on you—telling you she’s making him miserable in the hope that you’ll do something about it (be sweeter to your mother-in-law, or else deal with her yourself: “Listen, I know you think I hate you. You have got to stop bugging your son about it, because you’re making his life a living hell. This is between you and me, OK, and has nothing to do with him”). If that’s what going on, then you have a very different problem on your hands.

You’re far from the world’s worst daughter-in-law. Sure, it would be lovely if the two of you got along, but sometimes that’s just not possible. I think being cordial is just fine (and is one reason you are most assuredly not the world’s worst). If your husband is unhappy, it’s up to him to do something about it. You are not his keeper (or his replacement, nicer mother).


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