Q: My partner’s parents live close by and are keen on stopping by often to see their new granddaughter. I appreciate their enthusiasm (and willingness to babysit!) but also feel the need to set boundaries, so we can have some evenings just the three of us, without unexpected visitors. How can we encourage them to be involved while also giving us a bit of space?
A: It may help you to know that many grandparents ask those same types of questions: How can I be helpful without being overbearing? How can I be available without butting in? When a baby enters a family network, everything shifts and rearranges. Your partner’s parents probably wouldn’t drop in several times a week before you were parents to see the new sofa you bought, but when there’s a baby involved, everyone’s emotions and desires get amped up.
The best advice from experienced grandparents to new grandparents is to follow the new parents’ lead. To ask, not assume. To refrain from overdoing, over-saying and over-expecting. But not all grandparents heed that advice, so you might need to be more proactive. You deserve time and space to settle in as a new family.
Start by assuming the grandparents have good intentions and don’t know exactly how their tendency to pop over unexpectedly is affecting you. Second, have a heart-to-heart with your partner to make sure the two of you agree and can avoid the in-law/outlaw scenario where you react differently because it’s your parents or not your parents.
Once you and your partner are on the same page, you can get in the right frame of mind for the conversation with the grandparents by switching from thinking about “boundaries” to “opportunities.” You can say something like, “Mom and Dad (or Jennie and Chris), as you know we’re trying to go with the flow these days while still putting some order into life. We love that you and (baby) are getting to know each other well right from the start. If you don’t mind staying a little flexible, how about if we set up some opportunities for you to spend time with (her/him)? Then we have something to aim for anyway. Thursday evenings look pretty reliable. Would you like to set some time for regular visits on Thursdays?”
Everyone can relax a little when there’s a road map. By having this kind of conversation, you’re showing them you’re on the same page: They want to have a close relationship with their granddaughter, and you want that, too.
In the new dynamics around a baby, everyone has to employ forgiveness and give each other the benefit of the doubt. You don’t have to do everything perfectly, but if there’s mutual respect, that will go a long way.
—Cheryl Harbour, author of Good to Be Grand: Making the Most of Your Grandchild’s First Year