Dear Dr. Faizal,
We finally told my mother-in-law that my husband and I are not going to have kids. She seemed to take it much better than we expected but she hasn’t been the same since. She and I were very close before we broke the news but something is very different now. I think she blames me for the decision we made together, as a couple. How do I make her understand that this is our choice? I miss our friendship.
– No Kids Mom
Dear No Kids Mom,
Most couples nowadays accept that they have options besides the conventional family structure, with a father, mother, and children. Today, some married partners prefer to nurture a family with only each other – an arrangement that allows them obvious benefits like more time for and with each other, more money saved for vacations (and other luxuries), etc. One downside of not having children is that it could be a loss.
Grieving a loss of not having children can be experienced by not only the married couple but by their family members as well. And your mother-in-law, from what you’ve described, may be mourning the loss of not being able to become a grandmother – perhaps a role that she has looked forward to for some time. So, if my professional hunch is correct, your mother-in-law – and friend – is not blaming you for your and your husband’s decision; she’s just sad that it’s not the news she wanted to hear (and that’s okay).
It’s okay for your mother-in-law to be sad or even angry (with the situation) at times. That is her right, and you must allow her to feel what she’s feeling. At the same time, you must understand that you are not responsible for her feelings. She needs to own her emotions and deal with her pain.
There are ways to help your mother-in-law through the grieving process. Sit her down when you both feel relaxed and bring up the topic of you not having children and let her know that you realize that your mother-in-law not being able to have grandchildren is a loss for her. Tell her that you value your friendship with her and that you’d like to help her if you can. Ask her if it’s okay with her to discuss this with you.
Once you get your mother-in-law’s permission to talk about this topic, you’d like to get to a place with her where she can experience (almost live out) what being a grandmother would have been like for her. Ask her to visualize what it would have been like to see her grandchildren for the first time, what it would have been like to play with them, what it would have been like to tell stories to them, etc..
We heal by expressing emotions, so as your mother-in-law visualizes these thoughts, ask her, “What are you feeling right now as you are talking?” Remember that helping someone grieve is not just about relating experiences; it’s about experiencing the feelings of grief that are associated with the thoughts. Now, ask her, “What does it feel like not being able to have grandchildren to do all these things with?” At this point, your mother-in-law may burst into tears. This is a good thing; it means that she is finally getting in touch with her pain. If she cries, you could say, “It’s okay to cry. Just allow yourself to feel whatever you’re feeling right now. It takes courage to face the pain.”
Sharing the loss of dreams would help your mother-in-law to release her painful feelings and, once released, she would then be able to look at the future with more hope and be able to approach the future with a healthier perspective, for herself and in her relationship with you.