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Grandma wants to follow granddaughter to college

DEAR CAROLYN: My mother-in-law is a dear, sweet woman and very attached to our daughter, "Kristie." They ride horses together — my in-laws bought her a horse and maintain it and everything. Actually, they've both been unbelievably generous to our children and to us. Kristie will be starting college this fall and my mother-in-law is distraught. She had encouraged Kristie to go to the small, nearby college she went to, but Kristie is anxious to try her wings and chose a college almost a thousand miles away. Now my mother-in-law is looking to buy a condo in the same town as Kristie's university and stay there during the school year. She's saying this way they can still ride together and it will be "good for Kristie since she won't gain weight or feel lonely." My father-in-law is furious, my husband is just saying let her do it, she'll get sick of it really soon, and Kristie is in tears to me because she doesn't want to be followed to college but won't tell her grandmother for fear of hurting her feelings. She is looking to me to solve this problem. On one hand I think this is a good chance for Kristie to learn how to set boundaries. On the other, maybe she's too young for this kind of fight? I also feel bad for my mother-in-law. She isn't close to our son, she has no job or hobbies other than riding, she doesn't have many friends, her husband still works a demanding job, and so in a way I understand, even though on the surface it's crazy. What should I do?


ANONYMOUS: I'm typing this around my jaw, which is on my keyboard.

"Good for Kristie since she won't gain weight" is an advice-columnist's jump-scare.

Your mother-in-law is a mess — all the way through, not just on the surface. And yes, Kristie does need to learn to set boundaries, but I'm going with "too young for this kind of fight," because we're not talking about, "Gee, Grandma, I'd love to see you but this weekend isn't good for a visit." This is a grown woman trying to co-opt a newly adult granddaughter to fill the emotional hole that is her life. Yikes.

Unfortunately, your husband is a mess, too, or else he would have stepped in already to protect his daughter.

So you need to tell your husband that if he won't put his foot down here, then you will. Then you count to 10. If he hasn't acted by 10, then you do it: "You're lovely, your affection for Kristie is lovely, but this is Kristie's time to spread her wings," or whatever cliche will give this conversation its best chance of having a rainbows-and-butterflies backdrop to it in your mother-in-law's mind. You can't technically stop her, but you can — after warning Kristie beforehand that you're doing it — tell her Kristie wants this, and chose the faraway school deliberately to test herself.

Again — the "crazy" isn't just "on the surface." This and your husband's unwillingness or inability to intervene suggest a consultation with a family therapist wouldn't go to waste.

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