Many years ago, when my first child was a tiny baby, I was sitting around my mother-in-law’s kitchen table having an honest discussion about how difficult this baby thing was. My mother-in-law is generally someone who is easy to talk to and empathetic.
I was feeling open and comfortable, speaking candidly about how relentless it all was — the sleepless nights, the never-ending demands of my sweet baby, how difficult it was to keep up with housework and grocery shopping … and that feeling that my sense of self had somehow been lost along the way.
All was going well until I mentioned money. Soon after my son was born, I realized that going back to work didn’t make sense for us — the cost of childcare was close to what I brought in at my old job, and I was feeling so exhausted that I couldn’t imagine balancing commuting, working, and caring for my baby. But not working certainly had its cost, and the financial strain was adding to the overall stress of raising a newborn.
As soon as I brought this up, my mother-in-law’s tone shifted. Instead of compassion and concern, she became judgmental, suggesting that I should go back to work as soon as possible, coming up with a plan for me to work evenings, after my husband (her son) returned home from work. “If money is stressing you out, you should be contributing more,” she said. “It will be good for you both.”
I remember my stomach turning in that moment. Leaving my job was already such a fraught decision. I felt so vulnerable and scared about what it meant for me as a professional, and what it would mean for our bank account. My husband was supportive of the decision, but both of us felt unsure about the future and what our lives were going to look like going forward.
Her comment shouldn’t have hurt me, but it did, especially because I was feeling fragile to begin with. Here was someone who had more experience in the parenting work/life balance realm than I did, telling me that the difficult financial decision my husband and I had just made was wrong. Worse yet, she branded me as “not contributing enough” after I had just listed the many endless tasks I was doing all day, 24/7 for our family.
This wasn’t the first time my mother-in-law would make a less-than-considerate remark about my husband and my finances, nor would it be the last.
A year or so later, when my son was a toddler, my mother-in-law was asking if my husband and his siblings could contribute to some of the upkeep of her summer home, which they all frequented often. My husband said that we were stretched too thin at the moment and couldn’t contribute. But a few hours later, my mother-in-law overheard us talking about an upcoming trip we were going to take, and said, rolling her eyes, “You have money for a vacation? I thought you were ‘stretched thin?'”
I should have learned after this incident to never, ever talk about any sort of spending in front of her. And I did … to some extent. Still, when someone is family and you feel generally relaxed enough to talk with them about other subjects, it’s easy to forget how important certain boundaries are.
Just a few weeks ago — over a decade after these two incidents — my mother-in-law was visiting the new home my husband and I had just moved into. I was again stressed to the max, managing my children, the move, and all the work and decisions that went along with that. As I shared some of that angst with my mother-in-law, I realized that things had taken a turn.
Suddenly, I was hearing all kinds of opinions and judgments coming from her: “No, don’t spend that much,” and “You can’t really afford that,” and “Why would you install carpet when you could just get a few area rugs from my attic?”
None of the suggestions were particularly offensive — definitely not compared to some other things she’d said over the years — but I realized in that moment that this was the end of anything like this. My husband’s and my decisions about how to spend our money is none of her freaking business. Actually, it’s none of anyone’s business.
Same goes for how much money we make, what we choose to spend it on, how much we work, how much we save, and where we go on vacation. These are no one’s choices but ours, and our opinions are the only ones that matter.
I realize that when it comes to my mother-in-law, I can simply ignore what she says. And I do, to some extent. She’s allowed to have her opinions, and it’s my choice whether to take them to heart. At the same time, I’m realizing that I need to maintain major boundaries with her when it comes to divulging any spending habits.
I think in general — not just with her — I am too trusting of people, especially when it comes to money. For too long, I have treated my personal financial situation as something that can be openly discussed like any other life circumstance I might consider sharing with someone I’m close to. But more often than not, it leads to uncomfortable feelings, lack of understanding, and judgment.
The way a family chooses to spend their money, and the financial strains they may face, is a very personal thing. You can’t fully understand it unless you are in their shoes, experiencing the day-to-day of their lives. And there are nuances to it all, emotions that are complicated and private.
It’s totally okay to withhold as much information about your financial picture with anyone, including family. Yes, they may press you for info, and they may butt in even if you try to hold a boundary. But you have every right to keep this info guarded. Frankly, if they don’t get it, and still want to pry and suggest and judge, that’s on them. And you have every right to tell them that their opinions simply aren’t welcome.
As for me, I’m hoping that just making a very conscious choice not share this stuff so much anymore will eliminate the reoccurrence of those icky, infuriating incidents that have happened in the past with my mother-in-law … or at least decrease them substantially. Here’s hoping.
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