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How To Set Boundaries With In-Laws After Your Baby's Birth

Britta Bushnell, Ph.D.
Contributing writer By Britta Bushnell, Ph.D.
Contributing writer
Britta Bushnell, PhD, is an award-winning childbirth educator, celebrated speaker, and specialist who has guided audiences to revolutionary new approaches to childbirth, relationship, and parenting for over 20 years.
Mom Holding Newborn At Hospital

Navigating relationships with extended family is one of the most common topics brought up by couples when they come to me for guidance before and after the birth of a baby. Dealing with in-laws can be an added stress on the relationship between new parents. This is especially true when grandparents have opinions that differ from those of the parents and attempt to get their child to agree with them. (For example, when my little sister gave birth for the first time, my stepmom balked at the new mom's insistence that everyone wash their hands carefully before holding my newborn nephew.)

If your parents and/or your partner's parents are still alive, chances are you're having conversations about what happens after the birth of your baby. And when parents are becoming grandparents for the first time, the intensity is generally heightened. Complex shifts are underway as children become parents and parents become grandparents. As you birth yourself into parenthood, huge tectonic shifts occur in the bedrock of your relationship with your parents. Your relationship with each other has developed over years and decades—solidifying your roles as parent and child. They are used to being the parent with all that that involves, including decision-making rights over parenting styles.

Identity transformation happens on all fronts. This transition turns the archetypal wheel of a family, reorienting who falls into each identity—your baby becomes the child, you become the parent, your new family becomes the family, and your parents become the grandparents.

This is big, and it's often disorienting while the shift happens and new roles settle into place. It is normal for this reorientation to cause friction, upset, and conflict. It is unfamiliar territory for everyone involved, and no one yet knows how to behave toward and around each other in their new identity.

How to set healthy boundaries.

Setting boundaries that support your new family is a huge and sometimes difficult part of new parenthood. Doing so helps everyone shift into their new identity on the family wheel, including you, and also helps establish which relationships are primary. New parents can feel overwhelmed and unsettled by having to tell their parents—the new grandparents—what is and isn't allowed. As difficult as these conversations can be at times, they're part of the maturation process necessary in parenthood.

This change in decision-making power extends to parenting styles. As the parents, it's your choice whether or not you accept the opinions, advice, or guidance from the new grandparents, and it's also your right to ask them to withhold certain opinions or judgments that you don't want to hear. It's normal to reflect on your own upbringing and what you would like to keep and change about the way you were raised, while at the same time exploring new parenting concepts and learning new information that may not have been available to your parents when they were raising you. Sometimes, it isn't a matter of style but one of memory!

No parenting is perfect since perfection is an unattainable illusion. But it is your right to do the best job you can according to what you and your partner think is best. Turning toward the relationship helps develop a stronger partnership between parents in the co-parenting process. Make supporting your partner a higher priority than pleasing your parents or other well-meaning advice-givers. Your relationship will benefit from actions that place your partner and your relationship closer to the center of importance.

What's more, you have the right to screw up parenting in your own unique way. In fact, you will screw it up in your own way. You get to make mistakes just like your parents did. Everyone makes mistakes in parenting. Even if you do the absolute best job you can, there will be times when you or your children reflect back on their childhood and wish you had done something differently. What's more, remember that it is not your responsibility to make other people, including family, comfortable with your parenting decisions.

With extended family, practice building a bridge of shared positive intention whenever possible. Here are four suggestions on how to build a bridge of understanding:

  1. Listen for their concern. Let's say your mom makes a negative comment about sleeping with your baby but co-sleeping has been your go-to sanity saver.
  2. Listen for the positive intention beneath their strategy or suggestion. 
  3. Speak it back to them and check it out. Start building a bridge by mirroring her positive intention and then get curious. This might sound something like, "You're worried about the welfare of our baby and are concerned that co-sleeping might not be what's best for him. Is that right?" 
  4. Stick with the place where you meet: concern for the welfare of your baby. You might have differing strategies for addressing that concern, but it is helpful to meet in the place where you share a common purpose. Battles focused entirely on conflicting strategies are rarely productive. 

Through all the highs and lows with extended family, remember that new grandparents are going through an identity transformation as well. As much as possible, give them space to change and adjust, just as you desire the same from them. Still, when needed, hold your boundaries and parent in the way that is best suited to you, your family, and your values.

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