At the weekend I got a call from a friend crying so loudly down the phone that I thought a tragedy had occurred. When she had calmed down enough to speak in-between having sobs, it turned out that she had just had a run in with her husbands family over her three-week-old baby. As she had been picking up her crying baby to breastfeed him, he was plucked out of her arms by her mother in law who loudly said “come here my baby, I’ll make it all better”.
This had been the straw that broke the camels back for my friend. After years of her mother in law interfering with everything ranging from what colour to paint the kitchen in her first home to wanting to be in the delivery room during labour, swooping in and pulling her tiny baby from her grasp as she was about to latch him on to her nipple was what sent her over the edge. Not wanting to cause a scene, she said nothing as the rest of the family looked on completely oblivious to what was happening.
No body stepped in and her husband looked on with a smile on his face as he proceeded to take photos of his mother holding the now inconsolably hungry baby.
This story is nothing new. I have had many friends over the years who have been either left upset or apocalyptic with rage after family members have swooped in, taken over or undermined their parenting, marriage and other relationships. Of course, all family members can be equally likely to turn into hideously unsupportive creatures but the most common source of irritation in friends of mine is their relationship with their Mother in law.
I will be the first to admit that I am extremely lucky with my own mother in law. She is kind, helpful, never interferes with how I bring up my children or run my home and is actually my greatest ally in my marriage; it’s her I turn to for relationship advice, as she is totally impartial despite me being married to her son. She listens to me moan about him and gives me advice as after all, she has known him his entire life and knows what makes him tick. I have great respect for her as a person and she is also great fun to be around. In fact, I sometimes wish I had married her instead of her son. When I eventually become a mother in law myself, it’s her I will model myself on and I hope my future daughter in law feels as comfortable around me as I do around her. Despite this great relationship, I can sympathise with friends who have a hard time, as this pretty amazing woman is actually the second mother in law that I have had.
My first mother in law was a woman to rival the Wicked Witch of the West. Hard, manipulative, negative, judgmental and critical of everything I did and said. She thought of herself as a strong-minded person, as someone who told the truth, didn’t pull punches and who commanded respect. In reality, that kind of thinking usually makes a person come across bullish and rude and someone to be avoided at all costs. She was the woman who burst into hysterical tears of horror when we announced I was expecting a baby and the woman who told her own son after an all clear during a scare mid pregnancy “don’t get too excited darling, babies often die in the womb, there is still time.” She was also the woman who thought it fit to tell her son that “he could still die of cot death” when we brought him home from hospital and who told me, with a huge grin on her face that “she probably will die this evening” when my beloved Grandmother had a heart attack when my baby was only four weeks old and I was on the floor with post natal depression. She was, and still is an evil old bag and was the major factor in the breakdown of my first marriage.
The similarity in all the stories I have heard about night mare in laws, weather it be the mother in law, sister in law, aunts or uncles is the fact that there is never any back up in setting boundaries from husbands or partners.
If your partner does not back you up when his family are overstepping the mark, then he has some serious issues of his own. Of course, it’s natural for a father to want his own mother to be involved with his children, but when it is to the detriment to the health and well being of the mother of his own children, this is when he should be the one to step in and lay down firm boundaries.
Unfortunately, I have met few men who are willing to do this. Weather they are afraid of rocking the boat and making their mother (or whichever family member it is) upset or they feel they can’t speak up, or if it’s a case of they don’t feel there is a problem and their mother should take priority, their partner and her feelings always seem to come a poor second – which has been my own experience.
My husband actually wanted his parents present at my planned caesarian section – scrape your jaws from the floor and I will continue. When I pointed out that birth isn’t a spectator sport, he then insisted that they were in the waiting room, so as soon as our daughter was born he could take her out to meet them. It took a lot of explaining to him that a) life isn’t like the movies and there is no waiting area where you can run out waving the baby in the air and a cigar in your mouth, b) no hospital in this country allows the baby to be removed from the mother right after birth for security reasons and c) even a planned caesarian can be a horrible experience and you really don’t want anyone but your partner seeing you in the state you are in right afterwards. His reaction was to say, “I need them there to support me”. The fact that he still has his manhood intact is a testament to my good nature.
Of course, the woman could also stick up for herself but sometimes, the worst cases of family overstepping the mark come when the woman is at her lowest ebb during stressful times, such as wedding planning, moving house, pregnancy, childbirth and the first months of parenthood. Sometimes you are so tired, stressed and stretched to your limits that you don’t feel you can stand up to anyone. In an ideal world, this is when your partner would step in, see that boundaries need to be set and will do that for you – in an even more idealistic utopia, we would all have more respect for each other than to step on each others toes!
I once heard the phrase “No is a complete sentence” and never does it ring more true than in stations where women should be feeling empowered over being a new mother. As women we need to remember that we don’t actually owe anybody anything and certainly do not need to have our boundaries trampled all over by in laws, especially during pregnancy and post birth where we are at our most vulnerable.
It really should be as simple as that one little, two-letter word. If you don’t want your baby to be passed around like a toy, fed by other people, or held by someone else when all you want to do in the early days is cuddle and bond, it’s your prerogative to say no. Your mother in law might not like it, but so what. You can’t control the feelings of others.
The most important thing I will remember when I am a mother in law myself is that I have had my time as a mother. I’ve had the newborn cuddles, a say over the nursery, how the baby is fed, clothed and disciplined with my own children and when my time as a grandparent comes, I hope I will have the good grace to let another woman experience all those things without my interference.