Dear Carolyn: My mother’s boyfriend of seven years, “Steve,” is not a horrible person, but he is difficult. He is a classic know-it-all, and regularly changes the subject mid-conversation to tell random stories about himself. My mother acts like his personal hype-man: “Oh, Steve is the best,” about absolutely everything. The best driver, best at talking to people, best handyman, etc.
I think the constant compliments are an attempt at getting us to like him, but it’s done the opposite: My sister and I are frustrated by him and her behavior with him.
On top of this, my mother is incredibly defensive about any sort of critique; if you didn’t care for her favorite food, for example, she would take it personally.
All of that is challenging, but not intolerable.
However, I have an 18-month-old and my sister has an 8-month-old. Our mother frequently refers to Steve as “Grandpa” — except he’s not their grandfather, and also not our father figure since we were adults when they met.
During a recent two-day visit, she called him Grandpa (“Give Grandpa a hug!” “Go say hi to Grandpa!”) no fewer than 50 times; that’s where we stopped counting.
My son also has two living grandfathers, and it feels disrespectful to them.
My sister hates it, but she handles it better. My husband cannot stand it, either. Steve makes it clear he thinks I’m uptight and high-strung; in his defense, he’s not totally wrong, because I am uptight and high-strung in Steve’s presence.
Is it wrong to want him no longer referred to as Grandpa? Is there a way to bring it up without upsetting anyone too much?
Carolyn says: Right, the magical non-upsetting way to tell people you don’t like them.
That’s really all this is.
And it’s not wrong; you’re entitled to your dislikes, which sound well-earned here. It isn’t wrong specifically to want Steve not to be “Grandpa” and your mom to stop pathetically pushing the sale.
But it’s not useful, either. Refusing won’t make Steve any more charming, will it? Plus, your mom is already needy and obsessive about Steve’s approval rating among her kids. Imagine how she’ll respond to such an explicit, symbolic rejection.
Imagine “Hug Grandpa!!” times 100. I can’t do it bearably, and I don’t even have to be there.
So, recognize your problem is with your mom. Steve’s just collateral damage.
Drop the Grandpa war as unwinnable. “Grandpa Steve.” Whatever. Besides, he is/could be the kids’ grandpa figure — with no disrespect to you or others, since caring isn’t finite.
Develop your own multifaceted sanity kit for the Mom Show. Indulge her a little, when it doesn’t cost you much emotionally; push back a little, when you need to on principle; make nice to her and/or Steve a little, leave the room a little.
Concentrate a lot on seeing the good. Difficult people are great at teaching us to be resourceful.
Trust the littles to mispronounce “Grandpa Steve” — then, especially if the kids love him and/or he’s good to them, welcome “Goopy”/“Skeezy”/”Pesky” as your blue sky after Mom’s self-inflicted storm. She is, after all, far more at fault here than Steve is. Remaining mindful of that can help you not lose your mind.
E-mail Carolyn Hax at firstname.lastname@example.org.