When she handed her precious newborn over to her parents to look after for the first time, Kate Rope, a mother of two from Atlanta, didn’t just give them the baby. She also gave them a list. Or perhaps a more appropriate term would be an instruction manual on how they should look after their granddaughter.
“I gave them a typed, single-spaced, three-page document that was, as I look back on it now, embarrassingly detailed and patronizing,” she said. “I even told them to wash their hands before preparing her food. I basically treated them like people who could not take care of themselves, let alone a baby. Thank goodness they love me.”
Despite knowing that our parents and in-laws have years of experience looking after their own families, so much has changed over the last few decades that it’s not surprising some parents feel as if they need to include instructions when leaving babies with grandparents. From back-to-sleep to crib bumpers to feeding practices, there is a long list of topics that parents need to go over with caregivers, including well-meaning grandparents. But dealing with relatives is different from hiring a sitter, because parents want to avoid offending grandparents or making them feel judged. This is particularly true when it comes to health and safety, where research has shown that the way things were done 40 years ago differs from what we now know is best.
So how can parents approach this topic in a sensitive way with grandparents without creating a rift?
Discussing these concerns, and clarifying which ones are the real dealbreakers, is important when parents leave their grandchildren with their own parents, according to Shona Gore, a grandparent expert and associate editor of the International Journal of Birth and Parent Education. But Gore, who has worked as a childbirth educator for 30 years and is launching grandparenting classes in London later this year, said these conversations can be awkward, as parents try to strike a balance between expressing their safety concerns and hurting the grandparents’ feelings.
Gore’s one-day course, Grandparents Now, will include new research and advice, and will focus on how to navigate the relationship between parents and grandparents. Trying to impose your ways of doing things on your parents or in-laws can cause quarrels that could last for years and ultimately have a detrimental effect on your child’s life. So the course advises families to tackle these matters up front but tactfully.
“I have friends who ring up to say ‘I’m really worried about this. … what’s the current thinking about things like sleeping bags, or how a baby should be put down to sleep,’ ” Gore said. “My advice is to have an open discussion about the way you are trying to bring up your children with your own parents and in-laws, even talking about things like not smacking your child. It’s better to have that conversation now rather than when it’s too late.
“But I would also advise you to pick your battles and only insist on those things that really matter,” she added.
Part of a grandparent’s role is to spoil their grandchildren, and, of course, the occasional indulgence isn’t going to harm anyone. But first-time parents can be hypersensitive and their judgment can be clouded by the newness of it all. This sometimes leads to advice or restrictions that may seem over-the-top.
Rope — the author of “Strong as a Mother: How to Stay Healthy, Happy, and (Most Importantly) Sane from Pregnancy to Parenthood” — said she instructed her parents to be careful of anything that might fall on the floor, not to eat nuts in the house at all, to always stay close to her newly mobile daughter in case she fell over, and even to keep a hand on her on the changing table “at all times.”
From Rope’s point of view, this probably all seemed sensible. But what did her parents think?
“My first reaction to Kate’s rigorous instruction was amusement,” Priscilla Rope, Kate’s mom, said. But she wanted to make her little granddaughter feel comfortable and happy, and agreed that having a similar approach to food and sleep was a good way to do this.
“She had written very detailed thoughts and requirements, but all were written in a very calm and respectful way,” she added. “That said, Kate’s instructions were a bit too detailed but better than vague ‘suggestions.’ I was by no means insulted.”
She did, for the most part, follow her daughter’s guidelines. But she also admitted to the occasional deviation — including breaking the “no television” rule by allowing the baby to be in the room with her while she watched PBS news. She also confessed to cutting a few corners when it came to getting her granddaughter to sleep.
“I remember thinking that the entire down-to-sleep process was a bit too complicated and time-consuming,” Priscilla Rope said. “I didn’t believe I needed to sing so long or rock so long. Kate’s instructions were precise, but I didn’t feel I had to follow them precisely.”
She also acknowledged that some of the instructions covered issues that had changed since her own parenting days, and she found those directives useful. This included the importance of “tummy time,” having no bumper in the crib, and being careful about blankets and other coverings in the crib with the baby.
Another option is to be one of those laid-back parents who goes with the flow. Chelsie Washington, who lives in Dallas with her 15-month-old son and her in-laws, has taken this approach. Although she gave them instructions the first time she left her baby, she felt confident that he was well-looked-after and became more trusting and less “uptight” about how he should be cared for.
“My mom did follow my instructions,” she said of leaving her son with her own mother. “When I got back, I felt my instructions were adhered to, and I felt more at ease. He’s my first child, and that was my first time being away from him for a while. So coming back and seeing that he was okay, I felt better able to leave him with more family with my instructions.
“They’d been parents before, so this wasn’t their first rodeo,” she added. “The more I understood that, the more at ease I felt.”
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