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posted: 9/8/2013 6:14 AM

Gender surprise first issue with mother-in-law

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By Carolyn Hax

Q. We are expecting our first baby -- a little girl! Just before the tell-all ultrasound, my mother-in-law expressed surprise that we would want to find out the gender and informed my husband that she does not want to know until the birth. We have shared the good news with other people, and there are gender-specific items in the nursery and on our registry. She knows we know, but it's still a secret for her, which she doesn't think is a big deal.

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However, I am stressed about "ruining" the surprise for her; my parents are, too. I also am sad she did not get to share in our excitement about finding out the gender halfway through the pregnancy, and I feel like we are being judged for already making bad parenting decisions -- that finding out the gender was somehow "wrong."

My husband thinks I am making a big deal out of nothing, and I should just ignore her. Should I just bite my tongue and respect her wishes, or should I talk to her about this?

A. You don't just have a baby coming (congrats!); you're also getting a new stage in your relationship with your mother-in-law.

To get things off to a sustainable start, try viewing the gender issue from the following perch:

• You can have different approaches without judging each other.

• If she is judging you, then that's her problem, since it will gain her nothing (seriously -- is there any practical use for smugness?) while compromising her chance at a close relationship with you, her son and her granddaughter.

• You can't make her respect your choices, but you can set the tone by respecting hers. Yes, she "didn't get to share" in this particular excitement, but there will be others. Don't dwell.

• You also can't bear responsibility for her choices beyond respecting them. That means you can remind yourself to watch what you say, but you can't blame yourself if someone slips or brandishes something pink.

• When in doubt on any of the above, act as if adults are actually adults. Bite your tongue, sure, but also treat the possibility of "ruining" her surprise as a mild bummer, not an irreparable tear in the family tapestry.

This isn't just for baby-gender surprises; swap in just about any other issue and it still works. If you think it would help to talk to her, then do, based on the above principles. Maybe, "We will all do our best not to ruin your surprise, though I obviously can't promise anything. That's OK, right? The baby's health is all that matters?"

Q. I'm 31, and I have chronic pain -- every moment of every day. After many years of trial and error, my pain is relatively well managed. While I'd very much prefer to keep this private, there have been times when I had a noticeable limp or other physical symptoms, had to take time off work, or been unable to travel, so co-workers and friends are generally aware.

Pain has taken a lot from my life, and I find it hard to talk about in a matter-of-fact way. I take narcotic pain medication every day. Many people are judgmental about taking these drugs and think I'm headed straight to rehab or secretly wonder if I'm faking the pain just to get the drugs.

So how do I respond to questions about my treatment? ("How do you treat your pain?" "Have you tried massage/chiropractic/supplements/eliminating gluten ... ?") I can't find answers that don't lead to follow-up questions, which leave me close to tears. What I want to say is, "That's a really private topic to me, and while I know you are just trying to be helpful/caring, I'm grieving the loss of a life I loved, and dealing with this has been traumatic and painful. Thanks for your concern, but please don't ask ever again." But I don't want to alienate the question-askers.

A. I'm sorry for all you have lost. You've got the right answer, and every right to say it. Any time you doubt that, remind yourself that your social obligation not to "alienate the question-askers" comes with a matching one: theirs not to alienate you. I do suggest you streamline, though: "I appreciate your concern, but I prefer not to discuss it." Not only is that better suited to daily use, but it also tracks more closely with the basic principle that you don't owe the merely curious any details about your condition. Your version flirts with being both explanation and apology for not feeding them news, neither of which you owe. If they press: (Smile), (deep breath), change subject.

• Email Carolyn at tellme@washpost.com, or chat with her online at 11 a.m. each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.

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