My wife’s mother is in her 70s and is constantly bouncing between hospitals, inpatient facilities, and various rooms-for-rent. She only seems to be able to stay sober for a month at a time. My wife is in her 40s and has been affected by her mom’s addictions for almost her entire life. She has somehow managed to become a responsible adult and loving parent. And not an addict. Her mother has stayed with us a few times since our four year marriage. It always starts with her sober and us having strict rules, but it always ends badly and explosively, except for once when mom just disappeared for a few weeks. My wife wants her kids to have a loving grandmother, but knows that her mom isn’t the answer. Obviously, this is very hard for her to reconcile. Now, her mom has exhausted all of her resources. She’s got no place to live and is basically homeless. She called at 3 AM last night and was definitely NOT sober. My wife is wracked with guilt, torn between the natural instinct to help her mother versus the knowledge that there’s no chance that bringing her back into our home will end well. It would be a nightmare for the kids, especially. I love my wife and I can see the damage her mother does so it’s easy for me to say that we should cut her mom out once and for all. If she lets her mom come back to our home, I won’t try to stop it, but I feel like I should at least advise against it. How do you handle a situation like this? Am I right that keeping her mom away is the healthiest thing?
This is a tough situation and sorry you and your wife are going through it. On one hand, there is the natural desire to help your parents but on the other hand, you don’t want a toxic or negative environment for your children. I’m sure your wife’s heart strings are pulled by guilt in a lot of directions.
The first thing I thought when I read it was the word “boundaries”. It’s healthy and absolutely necessary to have boundaries with your loved ones. A struggling parent is one of the most difficult situations because there is often a (rational and correct) feeling of obligation to help them out. But if the parents aren’t helping themselves and bringing negativity and drama into life, the child can feel used and resentful that his/her parents don’t “have their stuff together” at this point in life.
Since there are kids in the picture, you and your wife have every right to assert any boundaries you think are necessary to protect your children. So in that respect, you don’t have to put her up in your house. Remember, it’s your house too. However, when you marry someone you are marrying their family too.
In my opinion, the primary focus needs to be that you and your wife are on the same page. If you say “Throw that drunk out on the streets!” and she thinks “How dare you? That’s my mother!” then you are going to have much bigger issues. However, if you both tackle the problem together and have your plan set before speaking to her mother, then you can be supportive and there for your wife in whatever decision you make.
Another thing I would suggest is that you communicate openly with your kids. I don’t know how old they are but don’t try to shelter them from the truth. Kids are much more intuitive than we give them credit for and when they understand situations, they aren’t as likely to get tied up themselves into an emotional problem. Just telling them something like “We love grandma but sometimes she drinks too much and we don’t like that in our house” is enough. That way, the kids will know that when grandma is putting away too many, she’s the one causing the stress. It helps them sort out what’s happening and it keeps a strong and open communication going between parent and child.
As far as options for your mother-in-law, it depends on your available resources. As she is in her mid-70’s, she may be comfortable in an elderly care home. There are a lot of excellent companies out there who work hard to try to make golden years fun and social and usually alcohol is not allowed in the facilities. This is very important because it can be very difficult for the elderly to find things to continually give their life meaning. They worked just like you and raised a family just like you and now they aren’t working and their kids are grown and their friends are starting to die. It can be very upsetting. Typically grandchildren are the next step to a fulfilling life at age 70 and beyond. If you can help her have that, you are giving her a great gift. Of course, she has to earn the right to be trusted around your kids.
You should look at all available options and resources before having a direct conversation with your mother in law. Then you can have an intervention-type conversation and deliver an ultimatum in a very sane and rational manner. Have everything written down. It can go something like this: “Grandma, we love you and we want you to be able to have a relationship with our kids, but we have to deal with this drinking issue. We have decided that in this house there is no alcohol allowed. If you are going to live here OR visit here, you cannot drink. We love you and want to see you but you have to be sober. If you can’t do that then you can’t be here at all. It’s your life and can choose what you want to do, but we can also choose what is best for our lives and family. We have looked around and found a few places where we can help put you. You tell us what you want to do, but just know that your only choices are:
- Live here (or visit here) and be sober. Do not bring alcohol into this house. We will support your doing treatment/therapy/meetings/etc as long as you are doing this.
- Move out and do what you want. We love you and will try to help you through these resources and places we have researched. You can stay there and they will take care of you and we will visit you. You will make friends and you can stay busy and we can pick you up for the kids’ sports or plays. But if you blow that, you’re literally on your own.
Don’t allow the mother to play the victim or fill your wife with guilt. She has chosen this path in life and she’s a big girl. She may get angry and yell, or stomp out of the house. Don’t give in, you have every right to live your life and raise your kids how you want. Or she may have a breakdown and realize that you are serious and ask for help with a detox or another program. You should be prepared to help her at that point to the best of your ability, but making it clear that things are going to be different. You are laying the groundwork for the rules for the rest of her life, and she needs to understand that.
By the way, if she is going to live there, you absolutely need to get rid of all alcohol in the house. Even if she’s just going to visit, lock everything up out of sight and be mindful. Don’t “accidentally” have a beer in front of her. There’s nothing worse than a non-alcoholic thinking that he can have beer or wine with dinner while the alcoholic can’t. That’s just cruel and so you have to be hyper-aware of it.
Regardless of her choice, she must accept and respect your decision. At that point, you and your wife are freed of the guilty and stressful “what do I do” situation. You’ve made a rational and firm decision and you are going to stick to it no matter what. Now it’s up to your mother-in-law to make it happen. The kids will understand this as well and be on your team, which is very important. Then you as a family are united forever on how to deal with (and ultimately help) grandma.
I hope this helps. Stay strong, it’s not easy but you have every right to make your home a healthy environment.
Elevate Addiction Services President