Setting boundaries with pushy in-laws


(Hadley Hooper for the Washington Post)
September 25, 2013

Q. I’m delighted to be pregnant with our first child — the first grandchild on either side of our family — but I’m worried about it, too.

I’ve had a fraught relationship with my in-laws for the past decade because they differ from my husband and me in many cultural, religious and political ways, and also because my mother-in-law is inappropriately directive and intrusive with her adult children. This has happened so often that they now hold her at arm’s length.

Although I’m carrying her first, much-yearned-for grandchild, I don’t know how to deal with her natural excitement when I know she will combine it with boundary violations. This situation is complicated by the pleasant and warm relationship I have with my own parents, who are emotionally and geographically much closer to us.

Must I invite my in-laws to be at the hospital when the child is born? Should they expect to stay with us for an extended time in the baby’s first month? Or can I tell them that we think everyone would be more comfortable if they stayed at a hotel?

And how can I encourage them to have a warm relationship with the baby while drawing boundaries with a woman who doesn’t respect the autonomy of her own children — or their spouses?

A. You and your mother-in-law will probably always be at odds with each other, but she really can’t compete with you if you set boundaries before she intrudes, rather than afterward. Otherwise she will run right over you.

Setting boundaries isn’t easy, however, until you know, deep in your bones, that almost all children love and listen to their parents much more than they love and listen to anyone else. This knowledge will give you the self-confidence to stand up to your mother-in-law, but it can take a few years to acquire it.

In the meantime, you and your husband will have to find the nerve to lay down your own rules, but do it on Skype, so your in-laws can see the baby’s latest sonogram, hear what you got at the shower and find out how you’ll be Skyping them from the delivery room when the baby is just a few minutes old. This will be much more sensible — as your husband will tell them kindly, but firmly — than having them spend a lot of money on last-minute plane tickets when you go into labor.

If your mother-in-law objects to this idea (and she probably will), you should tell her, in writing and with many apologies, that you’d love to have them visit right away but the pediatrician won’t allow it. The doctor insists, you should say in your most authoritative voice, that any visitor who comes in the first four weeks (or six weeks, if you prefer) will have to stay at a hotel so the baby can build up immunity; you can regain your strength; and the three of you can bond as a family. If you have to blame someone, always blame the pediatrician, even if you have to put words in his mouth.

Your mother-in-law will probably tell you that she wouldn’t dream of visiting you at such a special time, but she knows what to do, so you should just think of her as your helper when you get home from the hospital. That’s when you draw a line in the cement.

Thank her profusely for her offer, but tell her that you’ve already asked your mother to stay with you — and smile when you say it. You just can’t pussyfoot around when you’re dealing with a boundary-jumper.

You should, however, encourage her love and her attention. The cultural, religious and political views of your in-laws bother you (just as your views must bother them) but unless they are abusive or addictive, your child has the right to have his (or her) own special relationship with them no matter how they talk or what they think.

In the coming years your child will compare the things they say to the things you say, and he may even accept some of their ideas and dismiss some of yours, but that’s okay. This is the way you raise an independent thinker.

It’s also the way you teach your child to stand by and stand fast to the people he loves, even if they’re rude sometimes or have some bad ideas.

Send questions about parenting to advice@margueritekelly.com.

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