They mean well. But sometimes, their insatiable hunger to nurture and protect compels them to completely takeover. Here's how to save the village.
A decade ago I was visiting the maternity ward to congratulate some friends on the birth of their third child, a small, brown-haired puddle of pallor and wrinkles that looked – bizarrely enough – uncannily like me.
The husband was blonde. So were their two older kids. “Haha!” joked my then-girlfriend. “He looks just like you! Should I be worried?”
Everyone laughed: the new parents, a second visiting couple, me; you don’t need to be Seinfeld to generate a giggle under the blessed circumstances of a healthy baby boy.
Everyone except the baby’s grandma, who was perched on the edge of the bed, peering at the baby like it had stolen her wallet.
“Well, Claire,” she asked, alternating her gaze between her grandson and I. “Should she be worried? Should we be worried?”
(The answer: yes. Be worried – your mother-in-law is a lunatic.)
The point is this: not all grandparents are great. Some are a pain in the arse. But that won’t stop them from being drawn to your newborn like a half-naked narcissist to Ninja Warrior – and it definitely won’t stop them from putting their two cents in, whether it’s welcome or not.
And an ill-timed and tin-eared questioning of her new grandson’s provenance is far from the worst thing a supposedly doting grandma can get up to.
What you can expect
“The birth of a baby can wreak havoc on intergenerational relationships,” says Dr. Scott Haltzman, author of the buzzword-busy title The Secrets of Happy Families: Eight Keys to Building a Lifetime of Connection and Contentment.
Want to tear your eyeballs out after reading that sentence? Me too. He’s saying that when you have a baby, you and your parents might not get along so well. No shit dude. He goes on to warn of grandparents who’ll expect unlimited baby time and will finally be able to hand down all that advice they’ve stockpiled.
And they’ll expect you to follow that advice no matter how out of date it is…
He’s crying? He needs leech therapy.
She’s teething? Rub half a dram of single malt on her gums.
– that’s what my mother did, after all, and look at me!
Then there are the grandmas who try to move in to your place literally 10 minutes after the kid comes home. (When my missus was pregnant, my mother-in-law was planning her retirement gap year. We delayed telling her about the baby until she’d booked and paid (we’re not stupid) for her trip away, but she still tried to cancel it all because – in her mind – we’d need her to move in and help. Absolutely not. Off she jetted to Europe.)
Others try to insist on being in the delivery room (just: no).
Or push for a full church baptism, even though your missus grew up Jewish, you’re an atheist, and the touch of holy water scalds your skin like lava.
How to deal with a pushy grandparent
Politely, but firmly, you’ve gotta nip that shit in the bud. (Just don’t be too blunt – you might need their help with babysitting).
First, make it clear that, while their help and desire to be part of your baby’s life is appreciated, you’re making your own family. They’re a part of it, but you, your partner and the kid need to take priority as you establish the group dynamic.
Name a few upcoming events that they will see baby at and make it clear that – while you want them to spend time together – there are some things you and your partner want to do alone with your new babe.
…Like stare at this weird new bundle of meat and emotions, without someone hovering in the house for 13 hours at a stretch, demanding endless cups of tea and cuddles that seem to run right through sleep-time (which my mum tried on day two, driving my missus to retreat with baby into the bedroom for the final 6-hour stretch, muttering something about ‘feed time’ and emerging only when I assured her mum was definitely leaving).
If your mum wants to be at the birth and your expectant partner isn’t keen on having her mother-in-law there (even if she wants her own mum or sister there to celebrate the worst and best day of her life), then you have to tell your mum ‘no’.
No, she’s not allowed to stand around passing judgement on whether your missus has it easier in labour than she did. No, she’s not allowed to see your missus’s vagina – but you can show her your backbone.
Do it. Just don’t use those words I just used.
It’s my way or the highway, granma
Harder to deal with is a grandparent who, while babysitting – a favour you couldn’t live without – ignores your methods because they know best. Your mum might feel she’s a pro because she’s raised bucketloads of kids, or she might have always been a know-it-all.
It doesn’t even matter, necessarily, if her advice is bang-on. Sometimes that makes it worse – net sessions would have sucked for Don Bradman’s son.
So, start off by hearing them out. Consider their advice. Then, if you’re following ‘new research’, let them know:
Sure, you survived lying on your guts, for example, but research now suggests that sleeping on their back gives kids the best chance to avoid SIDS.
You have to start feeding them raw eggs at three months old? Sure ma, but maybe egg-farming is different and the end product more listeria-laden these days than in yours.
A smacked bottom never hurt anyone? Actually, not true, and here’s why.
Some brandy in the bottle (wish I was kidding here) or a bit of chocolate won’t hurt them? Hold that thought, Pusher Gran.
It’s infuriating to be treated like a child by your own parents when you become a dad. So don’t act like one. You’re a big boy now. Put your big boy foot down. Put your big boy voice on. Make the rules.
But don’t be a dick about it.
Don’t fight them for the sake of it
Finally, though, examine yourself and pick your battles. Some new mothers complain that the grandparents, will, for example, call their grandchildren pet names, rather than what you’ve put on their birth certificate.
“A grandma who refuses to address her grandchild by the name you prefer is essentially telling you, ‘My wishes are more important than yours.’ That thinking is disrespectful,” says Debra Gilbert Rosenberg, author of Motherhood Without Guilt.
Really, Deb? Could they just be trying to bond, and creating a little thing that’s just for the two of them? After all, the kid isn’t going to call gran or pop by their full names, and that doesn’t seem problematic.
Let it ride. You’ve got the war on 13-hour visits to focus on.