I hear it all the time from my baby-raising clients. Whether they are a brand new mom or a veteran parent, they often report challenges with their in-laws, specifically their mother-in-law. The complaints range from mom-in-laws being too involved to not involved enough. Sometimes the mother-in-law criticizes the mom's parenting style or ignores it all together. The most frequent complaint I hear: Grandma is spoiling my kids -- too many toys, too much sugar, not enough sleep.
(Sidenote: I also come across parents who have discovered new best friends in their in-laws. This is a beautiful scenario and one to definitely be grateful for. For many moms and dads however, the relationship is not so easy.)
My two young boys already claim to have girlfriends (Eeek! 2nd and 5th grade. Really people?) This has caused me to face the music. One day, in what I hope is the not-so-near future, I too will probably be a mother-in-law. Which leads me to explore the reasons why the mother-in-law/mother relationship is so notoriously challenging:
Reason #1: There are no in-laws in nature. Think about it. Humans are one of a kind when it comes to the layers of family members who love on a little baby. Due to the lack of precedence in the animal kingdom, it makes sense that it is a tricky relationship for humans to sort out.
Reason #2: Generation gap. My kids are 10 and 7 and I am already amazed at how infant care trends have changed since I gave birth a decade ago. What was the norm for a mother 30 or 40 years ago may be very old news when a grandchild enters the world. Breastfeeding, baby food, sleep methods, parenting and discipline philosophies -- everything in this era of modern parenting changes so much more rapidly than it did 100 years ago.
Reason #3: Different families and backgrounds. A mother-in-law and a daughter-in-law come from two completely different upbringings and personal histories, especially in this age in which people don't just marry the kid that lives down the block from them. We partner up with people from different cities, states and even countries. It makes sense that the way you and your mother-in-law approach the tasks of cooking, homemaking and parenting might be slightly, if not totally, different.
Reason #4: Power struggle. Whether it is subtle or overt, it's normal for there to be a mild tug-o-war over influence and control when a new grandchild is brought into the world. A mother-in-law was a mother, first and foremost. She gave birth, raised babies and sent them off into the world. She's been there, done that and has the stretch marks and worry lines to show for it. Now she gets to watch someone else nurture her kin as a daughter-in-law takes the maternal helm of her own family. Letting go of control is key. This transition can be a beautiful process that brings everyone closer. It can also cause tension if this subtle transfer of power is met with resistance or bitterness.
So now that you understand the possible reasons for the "in-law challenges", you are probably thinking, what the heck do I do about it? How can my in-laws and I get on the same page?
Here are my 4 Tips for Falling In Love with Your In-Laws:
Tip #1: Look for the intentions behind the actions. Nine times out of ten, your in-laws are trying as hard as they can to express as much love as possible for their grandchildren. This may come in different forms -- two scoops of ice cream right before bed, 10 flashy, new toys every time they come for a visit, or 5 sets of unsolicited advice regarding how to care for a baby. Remember that their gestures of love will not veto or replace the consistent routines you are establishing in your home. A little excess love, spoiling and even advice (whether heeded or not) won't hurt in the long run.
Tip #2: Set clear expectations with the grandparents. Together with your partner, decide on boundary issues that you both feel strongly about. These rules and guidelines will probable revolve around topics like safety, discipline, visiting, feeding, bedtime, and TV/movie/technology guidelines. Communicate these guidelines to the grandparents so that everyone is on the same page. Allow leeway and variation when you feel comfortable.
Tip #3: Express concerns and frustrations when needed. If you have a beef with how your in-law's are handling something, don't let your frustrations stew! Keep your cool and voice your concerns, in a tactful and non-confrontational manner. Get your partner's buy in and involve him/her in the conversation if possible. Explain to your in-laws that you know they have done the parenting thing before, but that you have to sort it out on your own. Add in that you'd love their respect and cooperation as you and your partner learn how to raise little people in your own, customized way. We're talking about your kid and your little family, right? So in the end, you get to call the shots.
Tip #4: Know when to let go. My mother-in-law was a strong, intelligent and inspirational woman who lost her life to cancer 7 years ago. Before she passed away, she would watch my infant son on a regular basis -- eating up every second of her time with him. I'd be lying if I said she and I didn't experience a few power struggles over baby food, TV viewing and sleep routines. Looking back, I now see that she was coming from a place of absolute and unconditional love. I feel sadness when I know that my 7-year-old will never get a chance to meet her.
When you're experiencing challenges with your in-laws, step back and take a long view of the struggles. Most kids benefit from as much love as they can get, even if it doesn't look and feel exactly the same between the parents and the grandparents. Speak up when you need to... but step back and let go when you can. And if they're offering babysitting, take them up on it. You and your partner can use a date night - counselor's orders!
Kirsten Brunner, MA, LPC is a Licensed Professional Counselor and married mother of two rambunctious boys in Austin, TX. She provides sanity-saving tips and private workshops for expectant and new parents at Baby Proofed Parents. Follow BPP on Facebook or Twitter for real-time tips and humor to help you "bring sane to baby brain."