Dear Margo: You Do Not Have To Answer Every Question That Is Asked

My husband’s family wants us to have more children. How do I tell them it’s none of their business? Margo Howard’s advice

You Do Not Have To Answer Every Question That Is Asked

Dear Margo: Like many women, I don’t exactly see eye to eye with my husband’s family. He is from a large family where everyone (except him) still lives in the same zip code. Each “branch” of the family has at least four kids, even when there isn’t the financial wherewithal to support them. My husband left at 18 and vowed not to live there.

We will be returning to the “nest” for his youngest brother’s wedding, and I know (from previous experience) that I will be hounded about why we have only one child, because only children are spoiled and we are harming our son by not providing a sibling. The comments range from passive-aggressive snark to direct attacks. It is emotionally exhausting. I resent knowing I’m going to have to explain and justify our decision, because it’s personal and, quite frankly, none of their business. I’m hoping you can give me one or two sentences with which to respond to the judgmental busybodies. — Already Dreading the Trip

Dear Al: What you are calling “passing aggressive” is to me just “aggressive.” Here are your sentences: “I am surprised you would ask such a personal question. Why don’t we talk about your sex life, instead?” Should any of these clods persist, simply stare at them, silently. — Margo, fittingly

“Breaking Up” with a Parent

Dear Margo: I left for college at 17 and had a falling out with my folks, who, in retaliation, withdrew my school funding to get me to return home “where I belonged.” Fortunately, my best friend’s family welcomed me with open arms and got me back on my feet.

Fast-forward 20 years. I am done with my BA and am working on the law degree I always wanted. My frustration is that both parents were mentally and physically abusive during my years at home. (One threat was to send me to “the home for wayward teens” if the dishes weren’t done to Mom’s satisfaction.) My dad and I have been able to talk about my formative years and put the pain behind us. The problem is my mother, who is still trying to raise the 17-year-old who is no longer and is refusing to deal with the 40-something I am. Phone calls with my mother become a barrage of “Why aren’t you married?” and “God wants you to have children!” and “Why can’t you be more like your perfect brother?” (This brother, by the way, can’t hold a job but has five children.)

I recently moved and did not supply my new address or phone number; neither do I answer emails from her, because I wish to have nothing to do with that woman for the rest of my life. I love my dad, but they only have one email address between them. They are so enmeshed that there’s no distinction between where one ends and the other begins. Any letters, phone calls or emails will be read by both and answered by Mom. I know my dad would be hurt if I called to say, “Hey, I like talking to you, but I can’t stand Mom and won’t email or call if she’s around.” What is the best way to break up with a parent? — In a Bind

Dear In: I salute your choice and suggest you phone your father, risk his being hurt and tell him you have, with much thought, chosen to be estranged from your mother. Tell him you’d love to be in touch with him if he understands the boundaries — and that the ones you’ve set do not include your mom. Then the ball’s in his court. My guess is that your father won’t be able to break the pattern of decades and will remain loyal to your crazy mother, which is perhaps as it should be. — Margo, assuredly

* * *

Dear Margo is written by Margo Howard, Ann Landers’ daughter. All letters must be sent via the online form at Due to a high volume of e-mail, not all letters will be answered.


Every Thursday and Friday, you can find “Dear Margo” and her latest words of wisdom on wowOwow

Click here to follow Margo on Twitter

55 Responses so far.

  1. avatar Briana Baran says:

    Re: L#1: I still have a little difficulty understanding why people even write to advice columnists for answers to situations like this. It’s simple: No need for sarcasm or snark, just state your position, “He left because he wanted his freedom from your way of life. We’re doing it our way, not yours, and never will. We’re happy, our child is happy, and you need to butt out“. There isn’t any need to become emotionally exhausted unless you feel you’re doing something wrong…if not, and I don’t think you do…knock the ball into their court and let them purse lips and huff and sigh. Any hint of further comment should be met with, “Subject closed”. Don’t be angry, look them in the eye, be firm, and be strong.
    My first MIL kept whining about our immediate failure to provide her with a grandchild (she had ten kids she couldn’t begin to afford and the birth of which almost killed her…and 20 grandchildren by that time). I told her, “I don’t like kids, he doesn’t like kids, we couldn’t afford them if we wanted them…and your god doesn’t feed them, raise them or pay the bills. Don’t bring it up again”. She had an “asthma attack”. Right. But the subject disappeared.

    • avatar wendykh says:

      Don’t even do that much. The second you start to justify, argue, defend, or explain it becomes something they think they have a vote it. “We’re having one. It’s our decision. We live here because we want to. We’re adults and make our own decisions. You choose where you live and how many kids you have. We choose ours. If you persist in these constant criticisms, we won’t visit anymore because it’s not pleasant for either of us I think.” 

      Thing is…your husband needs to be the one doing this LW1. Not you. It’s his family. And somehow I suspect his solution is to ignore them and let them yammer, making life miserable for you. :-/ 

  2. avatar JCF4612 says:

    LW1: “We were lucky with our first wonderful child. But given the way you all behave in this family it’s too scary to take any further gene pool risk in breeding some sort of meddling fool … like you.”

    LW2: Lay it out. “Pops, I care for you and like being in touch, but I’m cutting it off for good with mom. I’ll call from time to time, but we’ll talk only if she’s not around. Take it or leave it.”   

    • avatar Cindy Marek says:

      Lol!! I like both your replies, and especially to L #1 made me chuckle out loud. 😀

  3. avatar Cindy Marek says:

    L #1: Excellent comeback, Margo! Being curt and direct seems the only answer. Her in-laws must have a real stone-aged mentality. And yes: It is NONE OF THEIR BUSINESS. Memorize Margo’s comeback and USE IT.

    L #2: I agree with JCF4612’s reply (above). You’re going to have to lay it out to your father.

  4. avatar mmht says:

    LW#1:  How about “Because we only wanted 1 and I can’t possibly understand why you people breed like rabbits.”  If they are going to be rude and obnoxious be just as rude and obnoxious back to them.

  5. avatar martina says:

    LW1 – When people ask me how many children I have I always answer one, two if you count my husband.

    • avatar Pinky35 says:

      I can relate to your response. I have a 17 year old step son as well as my 5 year old. So, when people ask me how many kids I have, I always say I have my son, a step-son, and my husband. So, three! :)

  6. avatar Amanda ECW says:

    My MIL used to ask me every time we saw each other when, exactly, we were going to make her a grandmother. I finally told her that sure, we’d go ahead and have a baby for her-as long as she paid all the costs and raised it herself, because we didn’t want one for US yet. If that doesn’t work, look ’em dead in the eyes and say “We don’t believe in having children we can’t afford.” Then change the subject or walk away.

  7. avatar Pinky35 says:

    Because I only have 1 child of my own (a son), not counting my step-son (and my husband!), I get asked a lot when I’m going to have another. I usually just tell people kids are expensive and right now is not a good time for us to have another. Yet, my mom usually persists giving me promises of moving out to where we live to help us take care of a new grandchild (particularly if it’s a girl). However, she will never do that (and deep down I really don’t want her to!). And my in-laws, as wonderful as they are for helping to take care of my son now, just don’t have the energy to help me with another. So, I would rather just stick with the family I have and be happy. After all, it’s a lot of work raising three kids!

  8. avatar David Bolton says:

    LW1: Try this scenario:

    Nosy Relative: “When will you two have a second child?”

    You: “We already did.” (bursts into hysterical sobbing)

    • avatar ann penn says:

      Look very sad and stricken and say

      “I’m sorry, but that subject is very painful for me; I just can’t discuss it”

      • avatar David Bolton says:

        The only drawback is the possibility that then they’ll want to know all the details.

        The other option is to say that “we’re adopting HIV-positive twins from sub-Saharan Africa—when would you like to babysit for us?”

        • avatar JCF4612 says:

          LOL … Triplets with full-blown AIDS and a side complication of Hepatitus C might add more urgency to the need for sitters. And don’t forget to ask for financial help!   

    • avatar Lym BO says:

      Been there, done that. Not really funny.  Plus, some gal will want to share and compare stories.

      Maybe: “We don’t want to have to choose a favorite.”    


  9. avatar Marze35 says:

    LW1: Try this scenario:
    Nosy Relative:”When will you two have a second child?”
    You:”You never know what the future holds . . . How’s Johnny doing in 6th grade – is he a cub scout? does he like it? Do you have a summer vacation planned? Are you going camping again? . . .”
    These are people you’ll be associated with all your life and wouldn’t it be better to have a pleasant relationship with them? You can always say something non-committal and ask them a question about themselves or their children – they are like everyone else and will enjoy talking about themselves, given an opportunity. They’ll probably start thinking how nice you are to be showing an interest in them.

    • avatar David Bolton says:

      Oh, come on.

      It was a joke—I seriously doubt anyone would actually do such a thing.

      That said, I think it’s important to consider the whole of paragraph 2 of LW’1 letter which pretty much details the impossibility of establishing a pleasant relationship with these people, not to mention the fact that the husband MOVED TO GET AWAY FROM THEM. In my opinion most people try the “pleasant” approach first, and then they write a letter to Margo. I imagine these people have an established pattern of “dig in and don’t let up”—and are a little too busy being nosy and controlling to “start thinking how nice [LW1] is to start showing an interest in them.” While it’s true that sometimes a fire can be put out by a simple breath—sometimes it takes something dramatic, like an explosion or a bucket of water. 

      • avatar Marze35 says:

        The last part is probably a little too “Pollyannaish”, but as a childless married woman living 2700 miles from my family and in-laws, I’ve had good responses to the “change the subject” approach. Sometimes with some families, once you leave, anything you’ve said is going to be repeated, dissected, embellished, misconstrued, and blown up into something you’ve never intended. If you’ve given them nothing negative to start with, there are fewer ways it can come back to bite you. And if the unexpected happens and there is another child, you’ve avoided all the comments that would entail.  The “too personal” a question works with outsiders, but should harder to use with family – not that I’m saying she needs to explain everything or anthing to them, but just that they might feel they are closer to her husband as family than a rude stranger.
        It’s easy to read into the tone of LW1 comments, and depending on your background, see it in a whole different way. I’d love to be able to live near my family, but can’t – LW1 seems to thing living where you grew up is is a bad thing. Her husband vowed to leave at age 18 and not live there — how mature are most 18 year olds? People can change – both her husband and his family – and the dynamic that made him want to leave could be different later in life. If you go back anticipating a dreadful time with dreadful people and you just want to leave, it’s possible that they can tell and react to that. The LW1 herself appears to pass judgement on how many children her in-laws should have.

        • avatar srob813 says:

          Coming from a very small (and small minded) community I can completely see where the letter writer and her husband are coming from.  In a lot of these places the only thing that measures a person’s accomplishments is how many kids they manage to have.  Uhm, there are 7 billion of us now, we aren’t exactly in short supply!  It’s not that the husband thinks that living where you grow up is bad, it’s that living where HE grew up is not what he wants out of life.  And well, clearly he has a point since they are bombarded with these questions EVERY time he returns home.  And as far as LW passing judgement, I can’t tell you how many people I graduated with who brag about all the kids they have and CAN’T AFFORD.  So yes, I’d say she hit the nail on the head thinking they have poor judgement.

    • avatar Nikki Sunset says:

      I like your solution, Marze 35. ust because someone asks a question does not mean that I will answer it or discuss it. I often change the subject to talk about them instead, just like you suggest. 

  10. avatar Lila says:

    Ugh, one of my biggest peeves: other people telling you how many kids you should have.  LW1 says “The comments range from passive-aggressive snark to direct attacks. It is emotionally exhausting.”  It’s harassment, plain and simple. 
    So each of the family has 4+ kids, and some can’t afford it?  I think maybe they want her to be as stupid and miserable as they are, and there might be some element of thinking that people who actually… you know… plan their families with some thought to their resources are snobs, or something.  Well, no thanks, maybe LW1 doesn’t want to live on the set of Deliverance.
    Margo and the commenters here have some good responses, but unfortunately in my experience, none of them will work.  When some no-account buttinsky wants so badly for you to have kids, there is NO good answer to put them off.  Miscarriage?  Oh, you can try again, honey.  Infertile?  Oh, they have treatments for that now.  You can’t carry a child?  Well, honey, you could adopt.  Career concerns?  Oh, you can get day care.  Can’t afford more kids?  Oh, the Lord will provide, Hallelujah.  There, see how easy that is?  
    As for any form of “It’s none of your damn business, so butt out,” that might dampen the frontal assaults, but I doubt it would have any impact on the low-level snark.  There are lots of ways to make snide remarks and then deny that any offense was meant, but it’s still harassment.

    • avatar Briana Baran says:

      I almost inundated my keyboard. I’m picturing a child whose parents were very closely related before marriage, from the shallow, murky end of the gene pool playing a banjo at the family reunion…while Maw and Paw ask, “When ya gonna build a little nest, heh?” and everyone yucks it up…especially the cousins eye-balling the husband’s ‘mighty purty mouth’…
      Cruel, Lila, but to the point. My Number 1 MIL had ten children in twelve years. She asked her priest for a dispensation after #8 because the doctor said she’d die if she had another. Golly, he said “No, God Will Provide”. She lived, barely, through #9, and the didn’t have the strength to even brush her hair. Another request for mercy from the white collar, and another resounding “No. be fruitful and multiply”. #10 put her in the hospital, and the Voice of the Lord did finally grant the dispensation…for there was no room at the orphanage, and no one to take care of the ten hapless babes (dad worked ore boats, logging, iron mines…hence was only home to…you got it…make more babies…and the other siblings had a minimum of 6 darlings each…going up to 13). Living on beans and potatoes, uneducated, running wild, and encouraging her children to produce as many “gifts” as she did.
      One of them cost the state of Illinois in excess of $700,000 for neo-natal care for her premature cocaine babies…all four of them (one set of twins)…all by the same dead-beat, drug dealer, addict boyfriend. He married her in the seventh month of her third pregnancy, and she divorced him six months after giving birth about six weeks early. Everyone else raised her kids. Mama was just fine with it all…because the babies were baptized…and the Lord did provide (in the shape of the State).
      Everybody who got married in that family got a crucifix and a Bible for a present from holy Aunt Margaret. I got a soup pot…I think to boil myself in hell. For fainting from anxiety during every pre-canna church service. Heh.

    • avatar srob813 says:

      When people ask me when I’m going to have kids….I’m not even married!…I tell them as soon as science develops the ability for me to give birth to an 18 year old.

  11. avatar JC Dill says:

    LW#2, Use technology for your problem!  Get a Google Voice number and give it to your dad.  Tell him that it is ONLY for him to use, and ONLY when your mom isn’t around.  Tell him that if your mom calls the number for anything other than an emergency (e.g. your father is in the hospital!) you will have it disconnected.
    This allows you to give your dad a way to communicate with you, that you can shut off if he won’t follow the rules.
    You can also create a gmail address for your dad, and explain to him how he can login to gmail and get email from you.  Again, if he lets your mom use it, then you will simply filter all email from that address to the trash and it won’t reach you anymore. 
    Set the gmail password to something like: donotletmomhaveaccesstothisaccount and tell him to NOT save the password in the browser (so mom can’t just go to gmail and be automatically logged in), and to remember to ALWAYS logout when he’s done.
    Your dad may not be willing to follow these rules, but at least you will have given him an option, and if he’s not willing to follow the rules for YOUR mental state, then you know that he’s made his choice and it’s not your fault, you didn’t cut him off, he cut himself off.

  12. avatar JoyJennings says:

    For LW1, why get into their life choices or respond with a cutting remark about their sex life if you haven’t seen these people in years? Just pat the asker on the forearm and say, Those are very personal decisions, and we don’t want to discuss them. Then smile kindly and step away to freshen your drink or use the restroom. Repeat as needed. You don’t have to return obnoxious behavior in kind.

    • avatar David Bolton says:

      Honestly I think you and Lila have hit this on the head between you. 

      • avatar Lila says:

        David, I’m in favor of a flame thrower. Joy seems to favor a classy response. So between us, perhaps a well-placed polite phrase that singes their eyebrows?

  13. avatar MariaPalatine says:

    Can’t you just say: “One child is our choice.”  You don’t have to make excuses, which they will just try to overcome.  My mom’s irrefutable response to all attempts to overcome her way of thinking was always, “I don’t know why.  I just do.”  

  14. avatar Katharine Gray says:

    Re LW #1, I’m inclined to agree with Joy and those suggesting that a polite but firm response suggesting the topic is not open for discussion and a change of subject is the best way to handle this although I cracked up at David’s responses (and knew he was joking).  Its clear LW#1 thinks her husband’s family are subpar so I’m at a bit of a loss why she even lets their comments bother her. Obviously, she is happy with her choice so why be concerned about what others say or think about it? 

    Re LW#2, good suggestions about using technology to get around the mother and still communicate with the dad but my guess is the dad won’t follow the rules… either because he is too browbeaten by his wife or because he holds out a desperate and unrealistic hope that LW#2 and her mother will reconcile.  But its certainly worth a try.  I congratulate LW#2 on getting on with her life and letting the toxic mom go.      

    • avatar Mandy says:

      ” Its clear LW#1 thinks her husband’s family are subpar so I’m at a bit of a loss why she even lets their comments bother her.”
      If you get pestered and hounded enough it will bother you eventually.  Putting up with nosy questions and snarky comments for years will eventually break most people.

  15. avatar Margo Farr says:

    I had one child and was asked all the time by my ex hubs family when we were going to have a second.  My normal response was with humor…..Ummmm, we figured how not to have another, so we’ll just stick to the one we have.  I never cared if they were shocked, this is our life, our choice, etc. 

  16. avatar kjholly says:

    LW2: here’s one you can use, especially when a group of the hometown crowd have yo