Dear Wendy
Dear Wendy

“I Was Excluded from My Mother-In-Law’s Birthday Dinner”

Last week I reminded my husband that his mom’s birthday was on Sunday. Then he mentioned that his sister had called and said the adult children were planning on taking her out to dinner. I said that would be great, but he didn’t know any details about time or place. After a few days I asked my husband if he had heard back from his sister yet, and he said no. So I texted her and let her know that we were looking forward to celebrating Mom’s birthday and to let us know the time and place. After no text back, I called and left the same message. By the end of the day, she texted me back and basically said that she had told my husband that it was only the four kids who were taking their mom to dinner, and that’s when I realized that I wasn’t invited.

I was confused. I’ve been married to my husband for 33 years and I always look forward to celebrating with everyone. It’s been years since we’ve all been to dinner. The next morning I told my husband about the text and said I wasn’t invited to his mom’s birthday. He said that wasn’t right and that he wasn’t going either then. On her birthday, we took Mom a beautiful hanging basket and my husband did some yard work for her. I was there for a short while and my husband stayed longer to continue working. Before he left, his mom asked if he was going to the her dinner and he said he wasn’t because I was excluded.

The next day his mom texted me and apologized. I’m not mad, but I’m hurt that my sister-in-law obviously doesn’t value me or my friendship. I’m just so tired of putting myself out there! I’m blessed that my husband stood by me. Even though my mother-in-law apologized, the damage is done. I now feel differently about my sister-in-law and mother-in-law as I don’t feel they value me. Please give me some suggestions on how I should respond to my mother-in-law (I don’t think my sister-in-law even cares). — Left Off The Invite List

Something about your letter seems a little off to me. You’ve been part of this family for 33 years and you were completely caught off-guard to be excluded from your MIL’s birthday dinner? Something like this has NEVER happened before? You are on good terms with your in-laws and didn’t see this coming? Really? You say you are “so tired of putting yourself out there,” which leads me to believe that your relationship with at least your SIL is somewhat shaky, no? But it sounds like things are good with your MIL — good enough that you visited her on her birthday, you would have liked to have had dinner with her, and she apologized to you when she heard that you were excluded. It sounds like at the very least you are mutually respectful, and I suspect there’s mutual affection, too. So, why take out on her what your SIL did? It wasn’t your MIL’s fault! She didn’t even know about your being excluded until your husband told her hours before the dinner.

Are you hurt that she didn’t boycott the dinner, too, like your husband did? Surely you can appreciate how awkward that would have been for her — how much that would have strained her relationships with her other kids? She did what she felt was best — let her kids take her out for a birthday dinner and then apologize to you for their excluding you. You want to know how to respond to her? Tell her: “I’m hurt and confused that I wasn’t included, but it’s not your fault. I appreciate your apology though, and I am grateful to have you as my mother-in-law and happy I was able to spend part of your birthday with you. I hope you had a wonderful dinner, and I hope that in the future we can enjoy more inclusive celebrations as a family.”

A reply like that makes you the good guy. It’s diplomatic, it’s loving, it’s truthful, and it doesn’t put your MIL in the tough position of having to defend her kids or feel worse about seeming like she’s choosing sides. Best of all, it expresses openness to future healing, in whatever way that might come. You may also consider reaching out to the SIL who excluded you and express a similar sentiment. But I wouldn’t do that until you’re able to do so without anger.

From the forums:

Since the election in November, my family has kind of been torn apart. My white Irish mother voted for Trump. My Mexican father did not. My parents are no longer on speaking terms and my three sisters have taken sides. (I’ve tried to stay neutral, but it’s a challenge.)

Anyway, I used to be close with my one sister, but she married a guy who has become a more openly racist and pro-white supremacist lately. My sister loves him and they have a baby together, but I don’t know how long their marriage is going to last. He’s made some really derogatory comments about our family, and it has created a rift between us. I think she’s defending him because she feels obligated to stand by her husband, but I don’t think she’s happy and I want to show her that I’m still there for her.

I want to get her a really nice Mother’s Day gift, but I have no idea what. We haven’t talked since shortly after the election. — Missing My Sister

 
Hmm, I appreciate that you want to show your sister that you’re “still there for her,” but I’m not sure that that kind of sentiment and the implicit message behind it would necessarily be welcome. Basically, what you’re saying is: “Your husband’s a douche, and I know you know this, but I also know you feel an obligation to stand by him. I want you to know I have your back.” That might be well and good if your sister had actually explicitly expressed to you that she was unhappy with her racist husband, but that’s pure speculation on your part. I could see her being very offended by your implication that she’s unhappy, and her feeling very defensive of her husband, which would only serve to alienate you and further cement whatever obligation she might feel to stand by him.

I think you’d be better off calling her or even sending a card telling her that you miss her, you’ve been thinking of her, and you’d love to take her out for lunch at her convenience. And then, when you do get together, avoid discussing your feelings about her husband. (If she brings up her feelings, listen to her, but refrain from sharing your thoughts.) I’d also avoid discussing the election and your parents, if possible, and stick to neutral topics like: her baby; your careers; recent movies, books, or tv shows you’ve enjoyed; the weather; maybe your love life; and whatever else might be going on in your life that you’d like to share. Better than a “really nice Mother’s Day gift” will be time spent catching up with you. That alone will let her know you’ve got her back, and that you’re “still there for her,” whether she’s asking for your support or not.

***************

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If you have a relationship/dating question I can help answer, you can send me your letters at wendy@dearwendy.com.

28 comments… add one
  • avatar

    anonymousse April 25, 2017, 10:26 am

    Why is having a birthday dinner with only your biological children such a slap in the face?

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    • bittergaymark

      Bittergaymark April 25, 2017, 10:30 am

      I remain really confused by this as well.

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      dinoceros April 25, 2017, 10:37 am

      Yeah. There are tons of people who would be thrilled to get out of that dinner.

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      • bittergaymark

        Bittergaymark April 25, 2017, 10:44 am

        The real missing link here is were other spouses going? I sounds like no. If so — This really seems like needless drama drama drama to me.

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      artsygirl April 25, 2017, 11:04 am

      I was wondering if the other siblings have spouses. If so, they were also excluded so it was not a slight against the LW specifically. Was the SIL paying for the dinner as her present to her mother? If so, that might mean she would want to keep the dinner party smaller (to 5 people rather than potentially 9) since it could quickly spiral into a very expensive night.

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    • avatar

      ele4phant April 25, 2017, 11:15 am

      I do think it is a norm in some social circles – and maybe its a regional or generational thing – where the expectation is that once you get married and you are your spouse become an indivisible unit. No matter what the occasion, it is seen as a huge slight to exclude one of the spouses. Even for something like this – where its just immediate family invited, these circles consider spouses to now be part of that immediate family.

      Personally, I don’t agree with it and am happy at times to let my husband have family time without me, but I do know its a thing for some, and maybe its how the LW sees things.

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    • avatar

      Janelle April 25, 2017, 11:18 am

      This was weird to me also. If she was the only spouse not invited it would make sense but otherwise so what if the children want to spend time alone with their mother? I never will understand people who think that the moment they enter a relationship with someone that the other person must always have them by their side. I couldn’t handle that. I wouldn’t want my SO to always be with my mother and myself every time we did something. I want time with my mother alone. Would be nice to hear from LW if this was just her or all spouses that did not attend.

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  • avatar

    dinoceros April 25, 2017, 10:37 am

    LW1: I was thinking the same thing as Wendy. But I guess I was also wondering, is your husband the only sibling who has a spouse? I mean, were they for sure excluding you or excluding all the spouses? If there are other spouses, what’s their take on it? Is there a reason that you feel that this is a personal attack against you vs. any other spouses?

    To me, this situation in and of itself wouldn’t be that big a deal. Who really looks forward to a Mother’s Day dinner with their MIL that much? I know some people are very close to their in-laws, but it sounds like you aren’t. The only other situation where I’d feel like a person would care this much is if it’s part of a much bigger issue, where they have a lot of resentment toward their in-laws to where they are always looking to see if they are being slighted. That would be a bigger issue than this dinner.

    LW2: I think you’re conflating two separate things. If you want to honor her at Mother’s Day, then do that. I don’t think you have to get her anything or do anything different than you normally would for Mother’s Day. If you want to tell/show her that you support her, then tell her or show her by your actions. Getting flowers for a holiday in which you expect to get flowers (or some other gift) doesn’t really convey anything as deeply as I think you want.

    Also, kudos to you for not taking sides. That’s something I couldn’t do.

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  • avatar

    Essie April 25, 2017, 10:44 am

    Yeah, this is not the first time a LW has wigged out over a bio-children-only dinner. I think it’s kinda sweet.

    Anyway, she wasn’t completely excluded, she had her chance to celebrate with MIL. She has to be invited to *every* celebration?

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  • avatar

    ele4phant April 25, 2017, 11:23 am

    Look LW1 – you can’t get mad at you MIL. She didn’t do anything wrong. She didn’t know the plans for the dinner until the last minute, and she got put between a rock and hard place. She clearly would’ve preferred you have been there. Perhaps you’re thinking she should’ve backed out of the dinner, or she should’ve insisted you get to come, but let her off the hook her. She didn’t create this situation, she clearly knows you were hurt and is sorry about it.

    That said, it’s not clear to me why you feel you should’ve been invited. From my perspective, its entirely reasonable that on occasion children could treat their parents with nobody else invited. No spouses, no partners, no cousins or extended family. That should be okay and not a slight of you or judgement of your relationship.

    Was that what this was? Were other spouses or non-children excluded? If so, you’ve gotta stop taking this personally?

    If you’re the only spouse that wasn’t invited, or if other immediate non-family members were invited, then okay, sure, your SIL was slighting you. But it sounds like after 33 years, you’ve had issues with her for a long time. So again, I’d say let it go. Your husband is in your corner, your MIL cares for you, and after 3 decades, you’re probably not going to turn your SIL’s opinion around.

    So, next time, enjoy some time to yourself and shrug it off. The people that matter love you and care about you.

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    • Guy Friday

      Guy Friday April 25, 2017, 11:39 am

      Amen to your first paragraph (and all of it, really, but especially that.) I mean, pragmatically, she messaged you the very next day to apologize for your exclusion. You don’t mention that your husband TOLD her she HAD to — nor would he really be able to — so that doesn’t sound like the actions of someone who is just trying to save face. That is a perfectly reasonable response. And, presumably, the time you spent with her pre-dinner was time she was happy to see you, right? Why would she fake that when it’s just you and your husband and her there?

      Honestly, just shrug it off. If after 34 years this is the worst thing that’s happened to you, you’re really doing remarkably well.

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  • avatar

    csp April 25, 2017, 11:33 am

    LW1: I have questions about other spouses too. I also want to ask if any of the children were recently divorced or recently lost a job. I know that if someone can’t afford paying for dinner and treating 1/4th of mom, less people cuts the cost and saves embarrassment. Also, a recent divorce can also be painful so they excluded all the spouses.

    However, why your SIL didn’t just pick up the phone is odd . Unless she is the one who has one of the above problems. But for the Mother in law, cut her some slack. If you have been married 33 years that makes you 50+ which makes the MIL 75+. Just cut the old lady some slack. Let the Sister in law be a weirdo and focus your time on the people you care about.

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  • bittergaymark

    Bittergaymark April 25, 2017, 12:45 pm

    LW1) Way to make your elderly, Mother in Law’s birthday all about you! Gee… I simply can’t imagine why they possibly didn’t want you there…

    LW2) Your mom is a real piece of work. Nothing is MORE fucked up that a closet racist being married to a minority. Oh wait — no, make that a minority married to a loud and proud racist! (HellooOOO, fucked up sister!)
    .
    Eh… Honestly? I’d send your sister the most vile, evil, racist pro Trump bumpersticker I could find… but she’s obviously so fucking dim she’d fail to get the message and instead only proudly put it on her car..

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    • avatar

      Kate April 25, 2017, 12:59 pm

      I have some Trump bumper stickers from last year. We were going to do something with them but were too afraid of karma. If anyone needs one…

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  • avatar

    Ashley April 25, 2017, 2:12 pm

    LW 1. Get a hobby. Volunteer. You obviously have too much time on your hands.

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    Telegrammar April 25, 2017, 2:15 pm

    for LW1- I personally don’t think it’s that weird for only the (biological) kids to have a bday lunch with their mom. I mean, if it was specifically meant to exclude LW herself (and other spouses were invited) then yeah, that’s an issue…but I sometimes encourage my bf and his brother (who is married) to do things without the significant others and his brother’s wife does likewise. Obviously not all the time, we like being included too. But sometimes? It’s really not that weird to me.

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    Telegrammar April 25, 2017, 2:16 pm

    and to make a scene of it? That’s really embarrassing. The I “I feel left out!!” whine is really childish to me.

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  • avatar

    MoeP April 25, 2017, 5:32 pm

    LW1: I agree that this letter seems…”off”. It IS strange for someone to invite all their grown children and ONLY the grown children to a birthday dinner unless: 1: One or more spouses was VERY difficult or 2: The mother has a habit of feeling possessive of her grown kids and wants to ignore spouses, but also, LW handled this strangely too. As Wendy pointed out, she has been close to the family for decades, so this is either something normal for them, in which case she would have KNOWN she might not be invited, or ir WASN’T in which one would wonder why. It sounds very strange, though, that the LW was being so pushy about the dinner, sort of trying to take over. If it were me, unless there is WAY more to this story, I would have shrugged it off, let mom have dinner with just her kids and not thought about it again. I agree that it is rare to be SUPER excited about bringing MIL to dinner for her birthday and mostly it is done out of support and to see everyone.

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    • avatar

      ele4phant April 25, 2017, 6:31 pm

      Eh – here’s where I disagree with you:

      It IS strange for someone to invite all their grown children and ONLY the grown children to a birthday dinner

      In my circles, its not that weird on occasion for some things to be done with parents and there biological children only. It’s just not weird for every family, even if it’s weird for yours.

      Also – not that it matters, but sounds like the SIL planned this, not the MIL…

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  • avatar

    Brise April 26, 2017, 3:18 am

    LW1: back off! This isn’t your task to organise a dinner party for your MIL’s birthday. Let your husband and his family have a life, and get one too. You seem so pushy and bossy, just take care of your own business.
    You just spoiled the joy of this birthday for your MIL and you sound like a teenager.

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  • Skyblossom

    Skyblossom April 26, 2017, 5:53 am

    I grew up in a place where once you were married you were assumed to be treated like an equal member of the family and I see that where I now live. Two totally different states, one community very rural and one much more suburban. To exclude the spouse of a child/sibling from a celebration, which is what a birthday dinner is, would be incredibly rude in either place. It would be a strong statement that you aren’t actually a member of the family.

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  • avatar

    Morecoffeeplease April 26, 2017, 5:56 am

    There is nothing wrong with your MIL having a birthday dinner with only her kids. Stop taking things so personally. That could have been a nice evening to yourself…or a night to to out and do something with a friend. I personally find it really odd that you were so hurt and put out by this. I’m so glad my husband and I are not like this…you sound needy and codependent. Don’t you and your husband do things without each other?

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    • Skyblossom

      Skyblossom April 26, 2017, 6:02 am

      I think it is a huge jump to assume that if someone feels hurt by being excluded from a birthday celebration that they expect to be joined at the hip. The expectation that you will be included at certain important events doesn’t mean that you expect you and your spouse to do everything together. They really are two different things and it doesn’t make her codependent.

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    • avatar

      dinoceros April 26, 2017, 6:46 am

      I personally don’t think having a siblings-only dinner is a bad thing. But I think it’s a strange assumption that wanting to attend a celebratory family dinner means that she’s codependent and doesn’t do anything without her husband. We’re not talking about her begging to go on his run, hang out with his friends, and follow him to work. It’s a special occasion with family, which spouses are typically a part of.

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  • Skyblossom

    Skyblossom April 26, 2017, 7:28 am

    LW1 I wouldn’t hold this against your MIL. She isn’t the one who made the plans but she is the one who apologized. It was your SIL who excluded you, not your MIL. Who knows what was told to your MIL about who was invited to dinner and why.

    I find the dinner odd. At your MIL’s age most people want everyone included. They want their children and children’s spouses and grandchildren and grandchildren’s spouses. Are there any grandchildren? Are there other spouses? I can’t think of any grandparents who wouldn’t want their grandchildren at their birthday dinner. If anything, your SIL excluding you and maybe more family members, was rude to your MIL because it probably lessened or ruined the dinner for her thinking about how everyone wasn’t there and that there were hurt feelings.

    Next year have your husband make plans before his sister can. Or if she makes plans that exclude you then you and your husband take your MIL to do something special to celebrate her birthday on a different day. Think of something she has always wanted to do and make it happen. Your SIL is trying to come between you and your MIL and maybe between you and your husband. She is trying to create strife. Don’t let her succeed.

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  • bittergaymark

    Bittergaymark April 26, 2017, 10:53 am

    Really? Some old people get overwhelmed by large groups. Especially if they have hearing issues. I think everybody is filling in the blanks as they see fit. But I can easily think of a dozen reason why the LW wasn’t included. None of them personal. But then — lord knows half the western world nowadays just LIVES to be slighted and disrespected.

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  • avatar

    S April 26, 2017, 11:34 am

    To OP#1 – Why is being excluded such a big deal in the first place? If you were specifically excluded (but other spouses were not) then yeah, obviously that’s rude. But wanting to have dinner just your siblings and your mom… that seems reasonably normal? I mean, sure, it would be more ntypical to have a more-the-merrier everyone is invited dinner, but definitely not rude to be siblings only no spouses. Obviously the relationships you have with your nuclear family are entirely different than relationships you have with other people, so wanting to spend some time with just your nuclear family from your childhood for a change isn’t exactly a crazy idea. And this is for ONE meal! We’re not talking a week vacation or anything, just ONE meal!

    Also, if you all live close enough to have dinner together on a Sunday evening, why has it been ‘years’ since you’ve all gotten together as a big group? And if that’s what you want, then why not plan a big get-together yourself? If there’s too many people (kids? grandkids?) to fit comfortably in anyone’s house, then wait another month or so and plan an outdoor bbq/picnic thing (lots of public parks have pavilions for rent/free to reserve so a slight rainy day wouldn’t require a cancelation). Or if it’s the siblings+spouses+mom dinner you want, maybe plan that for your husband’s birthday? Or just, you know, make plans for the weekend after next because honestly eating dinner together is not a ridiculous thing to plan just because.

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  • avatar

    ele4phant April 26, 2017, 1:52 pm

    I do see there is disagreement about whether its normal to consider spouses as immediate family or not, but regardless of each of our own stances on the issue – I do think its fair that if this woman has been married for three decades and her expectation was that she would be included, the mindset of include inlaws as immediate family is true for her/this family. Particularly if her husband was immediately on the same page as her. This is her family’s truth, even if it isn’t mine.

    So yeah, for her, its fair to take this as a pretty clear cut snub on the part of the SIL (although – perhaps all the in-laws were getting snubbed? That’s still not clear). And, I still think its unfair to put any of the blame on the MIL. Sounds like she had nothing to do with it and felt awful about it.

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