How do I Handle My Bossy Mother-In-Law?

Question: I am a new mom. I love it but I don’t trust anybody with my newborn, not even family members. Lately my mother-in-law is really going overboard with her advice on what to feed our baby, how long our son should sleep, what kind of medicine to give him and other stuff. This is really creating problems between my husband and me because he always gives in to his mother while I stand firm. I tell my husband that we are the ones who should be making decisions for our son but he still lets his mother control him. What can I do?

Answer: I’m sure you’ve heard the old African proverb that “it takes a village to raise a child.” Unless you live on a deserted island, no one parents in isolation and this is as it should be. Children need a lot of people who love them to help them grow. A large group of loving caretakers can provide children with a variety of perspectives on living, utilize a wide array of talent, and give tired parents a much needed break. Thus, while I understand the fears of a first-time parent, I hope you will allow your newborn to experience other caregivers. You can try it out by letting trusted family members and friends care for your newborn while in your presence. Once you feel comfortable with that, maybe you can even leave for a while and get the rest I’m sure you must need.

Another benefit to allowing others to help care for your son is that it may give them a way to feel valued. Most people like to think that their knowledge and experience matters. Thus, by listening to their advice and allowing them to help, you’re demonstrating respect for what they have to give. It also provides a way for them to feel connected to your child and your family.

However, just because you listen to what family and friends have to say doesn’t mean that you need to accept it. Another part of parenting is in knowing when to rely on your own instincts and beliefs about what is right for your child and your family. It sounds like your mother-in-law is really testing your limits with this. And while her constant interference may be difficult, it appears that your real problem is with your parenting partner. His mother can give you all the advice she wants but it is up to the two of you to decide what to do about it.

One of the larger problems many people have with the parents of their partners is in developing boundaries. Boundaries are the rules you have for how people treat you and it sounds like your husband’s boundaries with his mother may be a little weak. As such, he may need some help in figuring out how to figure out things for himself and how to tell his mother about his decisions. A good family counselor could be of assistance in this process. However, if counseling is not an option, you may have to advocate for your family yourself.

One of the best ways to establish a boundary is by doing so via a “sandwich” approach: putting the “meat” of the message between two slices of positive statements. For example, you could thank your mother-in-law for her advice about food (positive) but add that you and your husband know what your son needs to eat (the boundary). You can follow that up with saying how lucky your son is to have such a loving grandmother (positive). Hopefully the softer approach will give your mother-in-law a way to accept your boundary gracefully while still getting the point across. If she does not, then you need to be firm about what you believe will be best for your family. After all, if you don’t advocate for your son, no one else will.

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