Dear Mariella

What can you do if your mother-in-law sends a large plastic toy half way round the world for your baby son? Mariella Frostrup tells a woman to count her blessings – and tell a white lie

The dilemma I live in Australia with my husband and seven-month-old baby boy. My mother-in-law in the UK has sent my son a particularly hideous, large, garish plastic gift that, according to the box, he can’t play with until he is three. I prefer more traditional-looking wooden toys – more sustainable and easier on the eye. Should I say something and risk hurting her feelings, or keep quiet and look forward to similar presents every birthday and Christmas from now on? We have a rather strained relationship as it is, due to her controlling personality and my refusal to take advice.

Mariella replies You don’t say? I’m thinking there’s a boxful of issues between you two that far outweighs the plastic fantastic monstrosity awaiting your son on Christmas Day. Once upon a time, I also imagined a future full of lovely wooden trains, bricks painted in non-toxic paints, Noah’s Ark in sustainable materials, recycled-felt sticky boards, wooden tool kits, cuddly toys handcrafted by Peruvian widows and washable nappies. My husband put a stop to my ordering the organic-cotton reusable nappies seconds before I pressed send and I’m grateful to him to this day. There was no way I was going back to the slave labour my mother was forcibly reduced to with money scarce and disposable nappies a luxury.

When I had my first child, I fantasised about a multi-sensory experience that also involved classical musical playing soothingly in the background, fresh fruit smoothies from the blender and Saturday mornings spent volunteering. Then my hormones sorted themselves out and I fell to earth with a thump.

I’m not against living by your principles, but you have to set realistic goals. As for Handel’s Water Music, it’s given way to a daily battle for the tuning dial between my choice of Radio 4 and my daughter desperately seeking Beyoncé hits on Capital Radio. The fruit shakes, meanwhile, come in biodegradable cartons from the supermarket shelf. I deliver this confessional just to put your aspirations in context and remind you that we are all just human. As the Booker-winning Irish novelist Anne Enright amusingly pointed out in Making Babies, her non-fiction manual about motherhood, with your first-born only the best will do. As a new mother you barely blink at £350 prams and organic-cotton romper suits; by baby number two you’re buying a £20 buggy from a discount warehouse and gratefully accepting hand-me-downs.

It’s understandable that as you are still in the first flush of parenthood your principles remain intact. That doesn’t mean the rest of the world has to abide by your dictates. I’m not even convinced you expect them to. Instead, I think your relationship with your mother-in-law is fraught, punctuated by mini victories and losses and this time you feel you’ve got her cornered. In this modern eco-aspiring world nobody is going to criticise you for taking exception to some garish plastic product. You can count on sympathy from your contemporaries and an easy victory in this latest skirmish with your nemesis. But, as always, we forget to count our blessings. Your mother-in-law is thousands of miles away so if her worst impact on your lives is posting presents you don’t approve of it’s hardly a disaster.

Your baby is seven months old, has no idea what anyone is giving him and will be none the wiser about whether or not his grandma has fulfilled her present-buying obligations. If you loathe the present that much, pass it on. There will be plenty of less-fortunate kids in your vicinity absolutely delighted with it.

I suggest you pop a recent photo of your son in an envelope with a charming note thanking your mother-in-law for her generous gift. Tell her that her grandson will be thrilled, even more so since from next year you’d prefer that, in lieu of a present, she makes a donation to a charity for children, as you are worried about your carbon footprint and the world your boy will inherit. That way not only do you look gracious and grateful, you also score a moral victory by displaying your ethics peacock-style, thereby highlighting her lack of them.

If, on the other hand, you would like to end this silly jostling for position between you I suggest you just say thanks. She has her taste in toys, you have yours and your son is lucky to have both of you showering him with gifts.

If you have a dilemma, send a brief email to To have your say on this week’s column, go to Follow Mariella on Twitter @mariellaf1 © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds



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