Setting Healthy Boundaries with Grandparents
What’s better than grandparents? Grandparents who understand and respect boundaries.
Whether you’re counting down the days to your due date or you’re feeling like a zombie going through the motions of new parenthood, you have your hands full. As you do your best to keep up with the demands of your newbie or baby-to-be, you might also be dealing with well-meaning grandparents breathing down your neck, begging for the opportunity to get their hands on their new grandbaby.
With all of the unknowns that come with new parenthood, there also comes the challenge of navigating a new relationship with your and/or your partner’s parents (especially if they’re experiencing grandparenthood for the first time). No matter how close you all are, bringing a new baby into the family can create tension in places you never anticipated, but you can avoid a lot of conflicts (and possibly resentments) by setting boundaries and managing expectations.
What Is a Grandparent’s Responsibility?
Ideally, every grandparent would be deeply invested in their grandchildren’s lives, always willing to lend a helping hand, and ever-eager to step in and babysit so you and your partner can get a much-needed date night. Unfortunately, while this may be the case for some (very) lucky new parents, this isn’t the reality for everyone. Each family looks and operates a little differently, so there isn’t a single definition of a grandparent’s responsibility.
Even though you are the child in this relationship, you are now also a parent, so it is up to you to decide what role your parent will play in their grandchild’s life. Maybe you want as much help and advice from them as you can possibly get. Or maybe there are things you need to work out with them from your own childhood before you feel comfortable allowing them to get involved in your child’s life. Wherever you fall on the spectrum, it’s important to remember that you are the one calling the shots.
Once you decide what “a grandparent’s responsibility” looks like for your family, you’ll need to communicate your wishes—also known as setting boundaries. Depending on your family’s situation, there might be some initial pushback from your or your partner’s parents. At that point, it’s up to you to decide what is and what is not up for negotiation.
6 Healthy Boundaries for Grandparents
If you haven’t given this much thought yet, don’t worry, it’s never too late to get started. Healthy boundaries can be a good thing for even the best grandparents because they keep everyone on the same page when it comes to your baby’s life. So, if you’re wondering where to start, here are a few areas where boundaries can be extremely helpful for new families.
If your baby hasn’t arrived yet, then newborn visitation is the best place to start establishing boundaries. Otherwise, you might be mid-cervical check when your mom or mother-in-law bursts into your labor and delivery room, operating under the assumption that it is her right to be there when her grandchild is born.
The easiest way to avoid an unwanted audience during delivery is to wait until after your baby’s born to call family. If you want your mom to hold your hand but want your mother-in-law to wait until you’ve given birth, showered, and napped, then the situation calls for diplomacy. Enlist your partner to help explain that there’s no favorite grandma, you just need your own mom’s support during labor.
If you’re not interested in having visitors at the hospital, respectfully emphasize when you do want your own parents and your partner’s parents to visit rather than focusing on when they “can’t” come. “We’re so excited for you to meet the baby once we’re settled in at home” might go over better than, “No hospital visits, please.” And do make a point to invite both sets of grandparents as soon as possible. You can agree on a code word with your partner beforehand to signal that it’s time to gracefully end a visit.
Support in the early days
The early days with a newborn can be precious and nerve-wracking, sweet and stressful, all at the same time. New parents may hope for help with cleaning and meal prep, or they may want time to bond alone as a family. The AARP reports that 69% of grandparents live within 50 miles of grandchildren—so if your family is included in the majority, expect those eager family members at your doorstep!
In their book, Family Whispering: The Baby Whisperer’s Commonsense Strategies for Communicating and Connecting with the People You Love and Making Your Whole Family Stronger, authors Melissa Blau and Tracy Hogg write, “Your parents, siblings, and in-laws are your other significant others. You might not think about them that way because they’re the peripheral players. But they are part of your past, and they shape your present.”
In other words, let family in! Ask for the specific help you need, and include an end time to discourage overstaying: “Could you come over for a few hours after work to get dinner started and give us time to shower? We’ll take some time to ourselves after bedtime.” Or, “It would be great to have you stay with us for two weeks.”
It’s important to remember that your job after birth is to recover and bond with your baby. Your job is not to entertain or cook for new grandparents and guests while they snuggle the newborn. If you find yourself on your feet too often, it’s time to thank Mom and Dad for the visit and steer them to the door.
Expectations of babysitting
In some cases, grandparents-to-be may worry that you’ll expect too much from them. In Becoming Grandma: The Joys and Science of the New Grandparenting, author Lesley Stahl points out that “granny nannies” can find themselves in a complex situation. On one hand, it’s rewarding and revitalizing to spend time with the baby. On the other, it can chafe to disagree on child-rearing decisions. Grandmas also get the stink eye if they admit they’d ever choose a pedicure over changing diapers (which is ridiculous because a fresh coat of even the ugliest polish still beats cleaning up a blowout diaper).
This is not to say that Grandma and Grandpa will never want to stay with your child because chances are high that they absolutely will, but you’ll all need to sit down and decide what babysitting will look like for your family. Will there be standing babysitting days? Will a grandparent take on the role of a daycare provider for the first year? What will you need from them so that you feel comfortable while you’re away from your baby?
Also, remember that respect is a two-way street, so if you’re hoping nearby grandparents will be game to provide childcare and host sleepovers, make sure to ask well in advance. As much as they love your baby, they may also have work, friendships, and activities in their schedule that they need you to consider, too.
The world was a different place when we were babies. Infants slept on their tummies. Teething pain was relieved with a little rub of whiskey on the gums. The car seats our parents put us in are unrecognizable by today’s standards. Babyproofing wasn’t even a concept yet. And parents may not have had a computer in the house, let alone social media beckoning from a phone. Needless to say, the new parenting styles and rules of today can feel like a rebuke to the previous generation.
When it comes to safety, avoid making a big deal about how dangerous the old method is. You’ll only set yourself up to hear, “But you turned out fine!”
A neutral, fact-based approach takes out the judgment. Try saying, “New guidelines say putting babies on their backs to sleep reduces the chance of SIDS. Please put her on her back, in her crib, every time.” Invite grandparents to babysit at your house, instead of dropping your little one off at their place, until you’re confident that you’re on the same page about safety.
Have a good relationship with the grandparents? Share your reasons for parenting choices. I had my heart set on baking my baby a homemade birthday cake as her first taste of sugar and capturing her delighted expression on camera. Sharing my daydream was much more effective than not offering any reason for my no-sugar policy.
If you’re butting heads, Blau and Hogg recommend redirecting your efforts: “Instead of putting energy into trying to change the other person, work on bettering the relationship.” Try this:
- Focus on the good. Grandpa won’t hold the grandkids but loves taking photos? Ask him for a family portrait.
- Model maturity. It’s easy to fall into old parent-child dynamics that can leave adult children feeling like kids again. Use “I” statements, like “I feel embarrassed when you point out my dirty dishes,” to communicate without accusations.
- Find ways to compromise when you can. Ban bath pics on Facebook to respect your baby’s privacy, but give the OK to post pictures of them smiling and fully clothed to allow proud grandparents to show off.
Family relationships and new roles
There are many kinds of family relationships. Some new parents may find themselves co-parents but not partners. Some grandparents may worry about their place as a “step-grandparent,” or feel uneasy about seeing their own ex at the same time as the new baby.
Babies, unfortunately, don’t magically heal old wounds. They can even inspire jealousy between biological and step-grandparents. Sensitivity is key to minimizing hurt feelings. Good discussions to have in advance might include what baby will call step-grandparents, and how you can best handle visits between former family members. This can be difficult, but it’s a worthwhile part of fostering a loving community and healthy relationships for your baby.
The holidays are an especially significant time because they carry so many family and religious traditions. Even if you’ve successfully alternated celebrations in past years, both sides of the family may be anxious to celebrate your baby’s first holiday in person.
Start by talking over plans with your partner. What new traditions do you hope to create as a family of three? How much travel are you willing to do to see family? Get on the same page first, then share your plans with extended family. Some ideas for a newborn-friendly first holiday might include:
- Skip large gatherings (where viruses or other germs may abound) and focus on quality time with close family. The risk presented by the ongoing pandemic has made it much more common for families with young children to steer clear of large groups.
- Ask to shift a holiday celebration to a different day.
- If you’ll be visiting family, decide which room you’ll be able to use as a quiet space for feedings, diaper changes, and naps.
- Host a small potluck gathering at your place instead of driving hours to a grandparent’s house.
Even the best plans involve compromise. You don’t want to dismiss a disappointed grandparent’s feelings, but you’re not responsible for making everyone happy, either. Changing traditions often comes with some stress, but remember, you’re doing a good thing—you’re working to establish the fairest way for everyone to spend quality time with the newest family member.
When Grandparents Overstep Their Boundaries
You can communicate to the best of your ability, make all kinds of plans, and minimize any opportunity for conflict or tension, and you still run the risk of your or your partner’s parents overstepping boundaries. When this happens, it can be extremely frustrating, but how you respond can directly affect your relationship with your/your partner’s parents and the future relationship between your child and their grandparents. When deciding your next steps, here are some things to consider.
- Was this a first-time error, or is this repeat behavior?
- Were your boundaries clearly communicated and understood, or was there room for interpretation/miscommunication?
- How important is this boundary to you, and what would be a proportionate response (or consequence)?
Before addressing the situation with your or your partner’s parents, it’s important that you and your partner are on the same page. Determine what you think the appropriate course of action is, and then go into it united.
If this isn’t the first offense, work with your partner to determine when you will draw a hard line, and what the response will look like if that time comes. This can be a very difficult thing to do with your own parents, so having your partner there to offer support and backup can help you stand firm in what you are requiring of them (because if you reach this point, it’s no longer a request).
Setting boundaries for the first year of your baby’s life with grandparents will set you all up for success down the road. No matter what, though, remember that you’re all learning your new roles together, so there are bound to be missteps along the way. Show each other grace and assume good intentions because you all share the same goal: to provide your baby with unconditional love (and lots and lots of snuggles).
This article was originally published in 2017 and has been updated by Ashley Ziegler.