Q&A: MIL not taking good care of toddler

Ashley writes:

"I just got a phone call from DH and since I hung up, I've beenasking myself "WWMD?" Instead of wondering, I thought I'd just go straight to the source. Here's the issue:

The background: My MIL has been watching Baby Girl one day a week since I went back to work after her birth. Baby Girl is 13 months old now - almost walking, crawling all over and trying to climb whatever she can find. MIL has always been somewhat ditzy - to the point where we don't feel comfortable letting MIL watch BG at MIL's house, but have been fine with her at our house.

Today, DH got a call at work from MIL asking how to turn on the TV. This is a weekly occurance and he didn't think anything of it. When he didn't hear BG in the background he asked MIL if she was napping. MIL responded that no, she was either in her bedroom or the bathroom, she wasn't sure. DH told MIL that she needed to check and needed to make sure the bathroom door was closed. BG likes to try to grab her bath toys out of the tub and can lean pretty far in. We're worried that she might fall in and hurt her head or neck. MIL agreed and then made a comment about how she was doing something earlier and heard BG scream from the other room like she had hurt herself. When MIL went into the living room, she couldn't find BG. Comment #2 made red flags go up all over the place for DH, so after he got off the phone with MIL, he called me to ask what we should do.

If it MIL was a paid employee, we'd be looking for another caregiver. But she's not. She's our daughter's grandmother, so feelings are involved. We know we (DH, really, it's his mom & he agrees) need to talk to MIL, we just don't know what that convo needs to be. Does it need to be "Thanks for your help thus far, but we've decided to put her in daycare on your day too" or should it be a clear statement of our expectations and a warning? And if it's #2, how do we check to make sure everything is really okay? I hate the idea of worrying about my daugher all day while I'm at work.

So, WWMD? Thanks!"

(I've been so conditioned by US politics that I read "WWMD?" as "What Weapons of Mass Destruction?" Sigh.)

I used to teach and develop materials for standardized tests. One of the sample questions we used involved a clock that chimed the hour. At one point in the question, the clock chimed 13, and that meant that you couldn't trust any of the previous chimes to tell the hour, because the clock was faulty. So "the thirteenth chime" became shorthand for something that called a whole process into question.

To me, the scream and then not being able to find BG is the thirteenth chime. It's clear to me that you can't keep MIL as caregiver for one day a week. If BG was 5, it would be different. Or even 3 and old enough to tell you what was going on. But at 13 months old, she's the perfect storm of old enough to get into a ton of danger but not old enough to either get herself out of danger or tell you what's going on.

It also seems to me that stating expectations and warning her are probably not going to be effective. Since she loves BG, she's probably taking care of her the best she can already. It's not like a paid caregiver who may be slacking off because it's just a paid gig to her, who will step it up if she wants to keep the job.

The issue seems to be how to remove MIL from the situation without tearing apart your relationships with her. I'm going to assume that the direct approach ("We don't feel you are taking competent care of BG") is out of the question because MIL is probably operating at her max already. So now, do you approach it in a more gentle, oblique way? Or do you just rearrange the situation somehow so that MIL can't reasonably care for BG?

If I got the idea that MIL was trying to control you guys, BG, or the situation, it would seem like you needed to draw some definite boundaries. But I don't get that feeling from your email. So I might try to do something that made it impossible for MIL to care for BG anymore, so you could express regret about it but not have her in the situation anymore. I'm thinking about something like working different hours if you can, signing BG up for some kind of classes or program that conflict with MIL's time (or that she can't get BG to), or something like that. It's the same technique you use with a kid--instead of saying "I want you to go to bed" you say "The clock tells us that it's time to go to bed" and then there's no element of control in the interaction and it's not personal.

So what do you guys think? Again, I'm coming at this from the perspective that it seems like they really want to preserve the best relationship possible with MIL and not hurt her feelings in any way or draw any symbolic boundaries, they just don't want her to be sole caregiver for BG anymore.