“You’ll never believe what she did this time!” my sister sobbed over the phone. “She put the baby on Facebook. Right after we told her not to!”
It was yet another conversation I was having with my little sister, now a new mom, about her most heated subject: her mother-in-law. There are a number of things about my sister that I am envious of– her shiny hair, her outgoing personality, her ability to laugh off most of life’s worries– but her mother-in-law is not one of them.
And in this moment, my sister was not laughing. She was a hormonal, teary, exhausted mess who felt like her daughter’s image was stolen from her and posted for all the world to see.
When it comes to establishing boundaries for our babies, doing so with the ones we love can often be the most difficult. But establishing these boundaries is the most important. So how do you do it without straining these personal relationships or causing undue stress to those involved? Here are some suggestions.
Make Sure You and Your Partner are On the Same Page
When my first son was two months old (read: not full head control), the five year old boy who lived next door asked to hold him.
“Sure!” said my husband, who proceeded to plop our son like a flour sack into the stick-like arms of the little boy.
Inside, I was horrified, as I saw my son slide down slowly off his lap. It took every ounce of will not to scream before I quickly scooped my son, making an excuse about a diaper change. After the neighbors left and I had calmed down, my husband and I had a much-needed conversation about who gets to hold our son, how, and when. It wasn’t a conversation I had thought we even needed to have, as I just assumed we both saw things the same way.
That experience showed me that it wasn’t my husband’s fault nor mine–it was just a lack of communication. So, learn from my mistakes and prep with your partner about scenarios before your baby comes to decide who you feel comfortable interacting with your child and how:
- Who gets to come to the hospital? (Obviously, this may be a no-brainer these days, with COVID restrictions.)
- Who gets to visit in those first few weeks?
- Who gets to hold baby?
- Where do you stand on social media? Are other people allowed to post images of your baby?
- Who is allowed to be alone with the baby?
There is no wrong answer to these questions as long as you both agree to the answer. And knowing the answers to these questions ahead of time, and the knowledge that you have each other’s backs will make the visits to family functions a less stressful experience for all involved.
Choose Your Battles–and Focus on Who Loves Your Baby
Remember that little sister of mine? She called again a couple weeks later after a visit with her in-laws.
“They got her a bunch of clothes,” she said. “But they all say, ‘Daddy’s Little Princess’ and stuff on it. His mom said she tried looking for things that said ‘Mommy’ on it but I don’t believe her.”
Before my sister could launch into a conspiracy theory about her mother-in-law’s clothing choices for her grandchild, I told her to sit down, get a drink (if not about to nurse), take a breath, and try to see if from her mother-in-law’s point of view. This is her first grandchild. She is excited to buy things for her. She is thrilled her son is now a father. Could she have purposely only bought onesies with “Daddy’s Little This and That” on it? Sure. But I don’t think it was out of vindictiveness to my sister but rather out of love for her son. Once she saw if from a different perspective, she was less hurt by the gift.
Perspective changes things. When you attempt to see things from where someone else is coming from, you are able to have a more holistic view of the situation. In the case of your baby, a lot of people are acting from a place of love. It doesn’t mean that what they do should be accepted. But it can change how you react to it.
Stand Your Ground on the Things that Matter to You
Emily Llazer and her partner of Brooklyn, New York, had an offer of free childcare for their son even before she was born. “My mom wanted to take care of him when I went back to work,” she said.“For where we live, daycare costs are no joke and a nanny is even more. So it was a big deal and a generous offer.”
But there was one issue: Llazer’s mom is a lifelong smoker and the couple didn’t feel comfortable having their son spend so much time in her house.
“We knew she wouldn’t smoke around him, of that I was sure,” Llazer notes. “But we still didn’t want him in her house where she did smoke. It came down to a very hard conversation I had to have with my mom. I had been on her for smoking before but now, with our baby in the picture, it was a whole new ball game. I had to protect my son.”
After a difficult discussion, Llazer and her mom agreed that she would watch her grandchild at her daughter’s house and to make sure her clothes did not have any smoke smell on them.
Whether it’s secondhand smoke or gender-confining clothing, if it’s an issue that rests hard on your heart, it’s an issue that you need to make clear to those around you. For my sister, having her child on social media was a no-go, which also led her to that difficult conversation.
Communicate Clearly and Politely
I am a person who likes to avoid confrontation whenever possible. I side-step issues. I pose things as questions instead of statements, I use the word “maybe” too much–all things you need to avoid when establishing boundaries for your child, especially when someone has crossed them.
- Instead of “Would you mind washing your hands before you hold the baby?” say: “Please wash your hands and then you may hold the baby.”
- Instead of, “I know it’s only a little bite, but can you not serve him ice cream?” It needs to be, “We don’t allow our son to eat ice cream, so don’t give him any, thank you.”
- Instead of, “Do you mind not bouncing her too much? She just ate.” say: “Please don’t bounce her like that; she will throw up all over you and you’ll smell like vomit the rest of the day.”
You get the idea. If it’s important to you, if it’s important for your baby, don’t ask. State. But, you know, politely.
For my sister, that meant sending a courteous but strongly-worded email. She felt more comfortable expressing herself in an email, which is fine–choose the form of communication that will work best for you. She reminded her mother-in-law that she didn’t want any pictures of her child on social media and clearly let her know that the pictures she did have up must be removed immediately. Did it work? Yes. Did she get an apology? Yes. Is their relationship now perfect and free from misunderstanding? No.
But, like most relationships, it’s a work in progress. And, with clear communication and boundaries, it can continue to grow. (Just don’t ask my sister about that princess onesie.)