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Surviving The In-Laws

By Pinky McKay, IBCLC

You: It’s quite important for us to co-sleep. We learned about child-led weaning and love the idea of it. We are not letting our baby cry it out. Baby will have solids later so there is less chance of allergies. It is very easy for me to use cloth diapers and much better for the environment, too.

In-law: We never slept with our children. Formula is easier and you’ll love having the freedom. One thing you should buy for the baby is a pacifier—it’ll keep her quiet. Let her cry it out at night so she won’t become spoiled. All of our kids were colicky and very cranky, so we fed them rice cereal to help. Disposables are much easier than those cloth things you bought.

You may have heard a million jokes about mothers-in-law, but when it comes to dealing with your own, up close and personal—especially when you become a parent—it isn’t easy to see the funny side. Unfortunately, we can’t choose our in-laws—they come as part of the package along with the person we fall in love with. And here lies the root cause of most problems: The difference in upbringing between ourselves and our partners. Each family has its own values and traditions, as well as ways of behaving as a family—some families talk to each other every day, while others go weeks between phone calls; one family might tell each other everything, while another may have clear boundaries about what issues are private, even between family members; some families will be outspoken and not at all shy about offering advice, while others may express disapproval in more subtle, but nonetheless intrusive, ways.

To deal more calmly with interference, it can help to try and see the other person’s perspective. If your mother-in-law seems all too ready to undermine you, it might be a sign that she needs to increase her own self-worth (albeit at your expense). After all, she brought up the partner you love and have a child with, so she probably feels some credit is due. At some level, your mother in-law might be feeling that she has to compete with you for her own child’s love and respect; your different parenting style may also be a threat to the way she brought up your partner (or to how she raised you, if it is your own mother who is being critical).

On the other hand, Grandma may be genuinely trying to make things easier by sharing her hard-earned knowledge, or she may simply want to be more involved with her grandchild. Ultimately, the issue here is not who “wins,” but encouraging a positive relationship between your children and their grandparents. It’s not always easy, so here are some tips to achieve that goal.

Find common ground: Because your relationship with your children’s grandparents will be an ongoing one, it is important to try and find some common ground. Try asking for Grandma’s opinion on a fairly neutral topic, or invite her to be more involved and give her positive feedback. For instance, “Would you like to give him his bath?” Or, “He loves it when you take him to feed the ducks!”

Stay calm: If you are confronted by unwanted advice, no matter how well-meaning, you can tell your mother in- law honestly, but politely, that you feel undermined by her advice…or you can simply stay calm. Take a deep breath and respond, “This works well for us,” or that your baby feels happy when you do whatever she is advising against. Another option is to thank Grandma for her tips and say, enthusiastically, “I’ll remember that.” Then choose what information suits you and your little one and discard the rest.

Share new information: You might like to share some up-to-date information with your mother-in-law (or mother) by commenting enthusiastically about a new book you have discovered or perhaps some written information or research that reinforces what you are doing. It will work better to do this proactively, before she bombards you with out-of-date information. That way she won’t be put in a situation where she feels defensive.

Maintain a united front: If your partner starts to side with his mother against you, it is only natural that you’ll want to cut the apron strings between them—with a very sharp pair of scissors! But again, the best advice is to remain calm. Enlist your partner’s support by telling him how you feel without becoming angry or putting him in a situation that makes him feel he must “choose” between you and his mother. It is also important to tell your man how much you value his parenting efforts (“You are a great dad! I love the way you…”), then help him see how vulnerable his mother’s criticism makes you feel, and how much you need his support so you can be a confident, competent mother.

Agree on what really matters: It can be difficult to stand up to your parents, but if you and your partner can agree on what really matters and you can support each other, you are more likely to succeed in setting boundaries. Sit down together and make a list of what bothers you about each other’s families, and decide which issues are worth standing firm on. What you feed your baby or how you choose to discipline your child may be priorities that you won’t compromise, for instance. But if your mother-in-law wants to iron your husband’s shirts “properly” or complains about how you mow the lawn (or don’t), perhaps you could let this one go, or share it as a mother-in-law joke.

You and your in-laws won’t agree on everything— nobody ever does. But that doesn’t mean that your relationship can’t be harmonious and fulfilling. You, your partner and your child are a family now, and it is time to establish your own values and traditions.