Grand expectations

How to handle the sometimes prickly semantics of family relationships.

While you’re eagerly tracking each new development during your pregnancy, you may be missing another transformation taking place. Your parents and in-laws are learning to navigate a new relationship with you. They may even be experiencing grandparenthood for the first time.

Here are a few questions grandparents-to-be may be hesitant—or way too eager!—to ask you. Learn how to have the right conversations to avoid hurt feelings when your newborn arrives.

How soon can I see the baby?
You didn’t realize your mother-in-law intends to be in the delivery room until you overheard her announce, “Of course I’ll be there when my grandbaby is born!” to someone else.

The easiest way to avoid an unwanted audience 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 mom’s support during labor.

Emphasize when you do want grand- parents over. “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.

What kind of help do you expect in 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 percent of grandparents live within 50 miles of grandchildren. Expect those eager family members at your doorstep!

Melissa Blau and Tracy Hogg, authors of Family Whispering: The Baby Whsiperer’s Commonsense Strategies for Communicating and Connecting with the People You Love and Making Your Whole Family Stronger, 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 specific help you need, and include an end time: “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 the birth is to recover and bond with your baby. Your job is not to entertain or cook for family and guests while they snuggle the newborn. If you find yourself on your feet too often, it’s time to thank grandparents for the visit and steer them to the door.

Will babysitting destroy my social life?
In some cases, grandparents-to-be may worry that you’ll expect too much from them. Media depictions of grandparents still concentrate on a gray-haired, cookie-baking stereotype. In fact, the Pew Research Center reports that more than half of U.S. adults between ages 50 and 64 have at least one grandchild.

In Becoming Grandma: The Joys and Science of the New Grandparenting, 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.

If you’re hoping nearby grandparents will be your day care solution, 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.

Why are your parenting rules so different?
When you were a baby, the world was a different place. Infants slept on their tummies. Parents may not have had a computer in the house, let alone Facebook. New parenting rules 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. Granddad won’t hold the baby but loves taking photos? Ask him for a family portrait.
  • Model maturity. It’s easy to fall into old parent-child dynamics that leave you feeling like a kid. 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. Banning bath pics on Facebook may respect your baby’s privacy while still allowing proud grandparents to show off.

How do I handle the ex?
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.

“While step-grandmothers fall for the babies, the parents of the babies rarely make it easy,” Stahl writes. “Step-grans are made to feel ‘less-than,’ the odd grandparent out.”

Babies, unfortunately, don’t magically heal old wounds. They can even inspire jealousy between biological and step-grandparents.

Sensitivity is key to minimize hurt feelings. Good discussions to have in advance might include what baby will call step-and 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 for your baby.

How are the holidays going to change?
The holidays are an especially significant time because they carry so many family and faith 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. If you’re due around the holidays, you and your family may wonder if you’ll make it to a celebration at all!

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 before discussing plans with extended family. Some ideas for a newborn-friendly first holiday might include:

  • Skip large gatherings (where flu or other germs may abound) and focus on quality time with close family.
  • 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 potluck gathering at your place instead of driving hours to a grandparent’s house.

Even the best plans involve compromise. Abbreviating or rescheduling a holiday celebration is a sacrifice, even if you’ll still participate in all or most favorite traditions. You don’t want to dismiss a disappointed grandparent’s feelings, but you’re not responsible for making everyone happy, either. It’s OK to prioritize your needs and your baby’s. Changing traditions often comes with some stress, but you’re working to establish the fairest way for everyone to spend quality time with the newest family member.


By Jessica Sillers


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