Q. I'm really anxious about the upcoming birth of my first child and the help I know we'll need for the first couple of weeks after the birth.

My mother can't come because she lives too far away, so my husband's mother wants to help, but I'm very ambivalent. Her love sometimes comes across as a desire to manipulate and control.

I want someone who will encourage and support my husband and me as new parents; someone who will boost our confidence and instinctive knowledge.

Should I ask my mother-in-law to delay her visit until the baby is about 4 weeks old? Should I try to talk to her about my fears ahead of time?

A. You're right on target.

As a new mother -- especially a first-time mother -- you'll be more vulnerable, physically and emotionally, than you will ever be again. You'll need to be swaddled and coddled almost as much as your baby and to be told you're doing a great job. Most of all, you and your husband will need a lot of time together so you can get to know your baby and figure out how it feels to be a family.

Your mother-in-law sounds too domineering to give you that sort of help, but you don't have to have a scene to get the message across.

Tell her, firmly and gently, that she is just too competent to have around the house in the first few weeks. She needs to know that you would inevitably compare yourself to her and feel so inept that you couldn't do your best.

It's hard enough to be true to your own instincts at first; it's much harder when someone wants you to follow their lead. In the early weeks your hormones will be crashing around you, your husband will be overwhelmed by his new father-of-the-family responsibility and the baby will be trying to figure out how to eat and sleep on the outside while being bombarded with light and color and smells and sounds.

You'll need a helper who will create a feeling of peace and harmony, and give the three of you the chance to connect. Your own mother would probably be your best helper.

Perhaps she could afford it if you bought her ticket a month in advance of your due date -- to get a good rate -- and you paid half the fare. If she arrived before the birth, you'd have a very special visit with her, and if the baby arrived first, you and your husband could always muddle along.

Actually, the muddle-through school of motherhood is all any of us ever attend -- even your mother-in-law. That's all right. If you get too anxious, you can turn to your pediatrician, your advice books, your La Leche adviser or your old classmates from Lamaze.

If your mom can't visit, perhaps your husband could take off for a week to be with you and to take care of household chores. But he'll be very relieved if you also arrange to have a housekeeper or a college student help for a few hours a day, and to continue this schedule the following week, after he's gone back to work.

Your husband still might feel put upon when you turn down his mother's immediate help but this is the only time in your life you will have a firstborn child. You don't want to give the experience away for the sake of good manners or a free nursemaid.

Even your mother-in-law should accept your position with grace, if you don't find fault with her when you explain your needs; if you ask her to see the baby right after the birth; if you rent a video camera to send her a tape of the baby and if you make her feel very welcome when she visits three to four weeks later.

By then you should feel secure enough to ask her advice, which may make her feel secure enough to keep most of it to herself. Questions may be sent to P.O. Box 15310, Washington, D.C. 20003.