Step-grandma's actions merit a confrontation

My husband and I have a 2 1/2-year-old son and we often spend time with my husband's father and stepmother. His stepmother has never had children, she is partially disabled, a very negative, authoritative, low-patience person. They also have a ton of clutter and breakable things in their house that are in my son's reach and she refuses to accommodate us when we come over and will not move anything out of the way. We have told her we do not want him yelled at if he is doing something wrong, but she does anyways. She also makes comments out loud about his actions to my husband's father, loud enough for us to hear but not directly to us. My husband's father tries to (defuse) the situation by laughing it off, but no one will confront this woman. I tell my husband that it is his job to do this.

It is getting to the point where I don't want to go over there, and when we do, my blood is already boiling by the time we walk in the door. When we leave, her bad energy literally stays with me for days and I seethe in anger. What's worse is that Grandpa wants to have my son over for sleepovers and he will be hurt when we tell him no, but I don't want him there unless I am there to see how my son is being treated. Please help. -- C.H., Las Vegas

I'm named after my maternal grandfather, one of the most gentle men I will ever know. He loved me. Was crazy about me. And I'm the better for it.

My grandfather died in El Paso, Texas, on Dec. 31, 1993. At the time, I was the father of two sons, 2 1/2 years old and 8 months old.

My grandfather died before he ever met his great-grandsons. Wanna know why?

Because, God bless him, he smoked like a factory chimney. The running joke in my family was that the only thing keeping my grandpa from being a chain smoker was the incidental fact of him lighting each cigarette separately. To this day I can't hear the "clank" of a Zippo lighter opening without having an intense memory of my grandfather.

Problem was, visiting my granddad at his home, let alone sleeping there overnight was like spending the night in a meat smoker. You might as well hang me right next to the hams, the turkeys, the salmon and the beef jerky. Ugh. My eyes would burn. My sinuses would swell. My throat would be sore. My hair would stink.

I was never going to submit my children to that.

Now, I got lucky, in the sense that the confrontation never happened. As history would have it, I became a father relatively late, only in the last two years of my grandpa's life. He never pushed for me to bring the kids. I didn't have to tell him "no."

But, C.H., I'm trying to encourage you with a little perspective. You think I'm taking a strong stand about air quality vis my sons' well-being? You should see me when the issue on the table is an adult behaving in contentious, disrespectful, bullying or abusive ways to my kids! In those moments, it's not relevant whether you're a stranger, a neighbor, a teacher, a friend or a close relative. Because you and I are gonna have a talk. And you're going to adjust your behavior accordingly, or find that you're spending radically less time with my children. Probably less time with me, too.

You say "no one will confront this woman." Sounds like the sort of woman that has had people walking on eggshells for a long time. You and I agree: this is rightly and justly your husband's job. Together you should agree on minimum expectations of respect for your son. But it is his job to take the lead in talking to his father and stepmom.

In a committed love-relationship thriving in otherwise normal familial circumstances, it is virtually never the case that we should have to choose between our mate and our extended family. In fact, I can think of only one scenario in which it would be completely appropriate to expect my mate to make this terrible choice: if/when the behavior of an extended family member is egregiously, obviously and unjustly contemptuous of my marriage, me or my children.

In that scenario, I can and would say, "You're either standing with me, or against me."

Originally published in View News, Feb. 23, 2010.