Carolyn Hax: Dealing with veiled – and gendered – criticism of her stepmother

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Dear Caroline: What’s the best way to handle passive-aggressive comments? My mother-in-law makes them for me constantly, especially when my husband is not around. A quick sample: “Are you eating ANOTHER cookie?” “I can’t believe you’ve considered sending your child on a sleight of hand when it’s raining!” “There are definitely a lot of dirty dishes in your sink. Have you ever had a bug issue? “That skirt is so short. I wish I had your confidence to wear clothes like that at your age.

I address them in the moment with as much compassion and patience as possible. The problem is, she’s moving to our area, and I can’t handle those comments on a regular basis.

Sorry, not sorry: In fact, you can, because you have to — you can’t make her go away, and you can’t make yourself go away without consequences for your marriage. Unless your husband supports you, of course, which he apparently doesn’t, which is an answer in itself; Otherwise, why note that she takes her photos “when my husband is not there”.

But above all. Your own attitude is a source of energy that you always control, so always use it to your advantage: you box manage these comments. You can handle your mother-in-law. Why? Pick one based on your preferred level of cuteness — because you’re much more emotionally competent than you realize, or because she’s too emotionally stunted to justify the power you’ve bestowed on her. Both work.

Once you have defined your attitude, shape your responses. Short version: If you take every point of her slanted criticism as a compliment — unless and until she finally spits out what she really means — then our job is done here. “Damn yes, another cookie. Want one?” “Less competition, more candy.” (Alternate: “It’s just rain.”) “No, the bugs are too well fed to complain.” (Okay, that’s a bit cocky: “We’re not worried,” will do.) “Thanks!” But give yourself credit, you still look great.

These can look aggressive all grouped together. However, spaced at the normal intervals of her sails… sightings, each answer will have a softer but more meaningful impact: showing her that you intend to eat, feed, dress and live on your own terms, thank you very much.

Which brings us to what your mother-in-law “can’t handle”: someone who can’t live on her own terms, carp cookie — someone who can’t even trust their own position to say what they mean — is actually more to be pitied than hated. Your mother-in-law seems so ingrained in all notions of what a woman, especially a mother, is “supposed” to be, based on all the societal nonsense she’s been fed to keep her in check while she was coming of age, that she can’t even declare a simple opinion…to the point of hiding it from her own son when she tries. Forget how boring it is – it’s terribly tragic.

Look at the sample answers through this lens now. Yes to more cookies, yes in the rain, yes to sometimes postpone household chores, yes to show a leg.

It’s a world I can commit myself to, and if it’s yours, then own it. Perhaps his oblique criticisms are really compliments, in the form of envy. Maybe instead of shackling you, she will take inspiration from your optimistic example to free herself.

Or you will be. His scams can go on, in which case honesty and living on your own terms and all that good stuff requires that you also be able to voice a simple opinion: “That seems like a veiled criticism to me. Is that what you meant?” If it’s her game, name it and make sure she plays it alone.

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