From her bedroom, Jane Farrar* could hear her husband and her mother out on the landing, bickering about the benefits of breastfeeding. Farrar was three days postpartum with nipples so cracked that her newborn daughter was spitting up blood.
“My mother just couldn’t understand why I was putting myself through it,” says Farrar. “I also think my choice to breastfeed was undermining her own choice not to do so 30 years ago. The whole thing was very fraught.”
To get away from Grandma’s meddling, Farrar and her husband spent their time huddled up with their newborn in the privacy of their bedroom. Left out, Farrar’s mother felt increasingly useless over the course of her one-week stay. “I knew it was over when she started cleaning the light fixtures,” says Farrar. “It all ended with her in tears because she had barely held the baby.”
Jessica Cherniak, a Toronto birth and postpartum doula, sees a lot of well-intentioned relatives who come to assist new parents in the first few days, but become more of a hindrance than a help. Grandmothers in particular, she says, often have a hard time watching their adult children fumbling through the early weeks with a newborn. “When you see your child in pain, it’s hard not to get involved,” Cherniak admits. “But sometimes you need to step back and let new parents make their own choices and find their own way.” Cherniak says that the support of family and friends is important, but encourages her clients to plan at least one week of postpartum “cocooning” before welcoming live-in house guests.
“Sure, family can drop by with a casserole,” she says, and even stay for an hour or two. “But what I find is that if someone comes to stay too quickly, the mother does not have a chance to build up her own confidence and tap into some of those natural instincts.” The barrage of well-meant advice and opinions coming at all hours can be very overwhelming for a new mom. This is how Sarah Grant* felt when her in-laws came to stay after her son’s birth. Knowing a pre-existing medical condition would make recovery from labour challenging, Grant arranged to have her in-laws there from day one. An unplanned C-section made recovery even harder, and Grant was, at first, grateful for the help. But tensions soon mounted.
“My mother-in-law had her own ideas about how things should be done, and I didn’t always agree,” says Grant, an investment manager in Vancouver. “She expected my husband to run errands with her, buying blankets that we already had and bottles that we didn’t yet need.” In the evenings, Grant says her in-laws would go out for dinner and take her husband with them. “It was like having house guests that needed to be entertained. I would have preferred to have my husband at home.” Grant wishes she had been able to set more boundaries, but she just couldn’t handle the confrontation at the time. Thankfully, Grant’s own mother lives close enough for regular visits and hands-on support. “She made pots of tea, swept the floor, changed my ice packs and held the baby so I could take a shower,” she says.
The best advice? Know yourself, know your relationship with your parents or in-laws — and know what you can expect from them. “They are not going to change just because you have a baby,” says Cherniak. “If they meddled before, they’ll meddle now.” It helps to have a plan in place for those first weeks, and to communicate it to loved ones beforehand, Cherniak says. “Most new mothers are so focused on the birth, they don’t really think about the next stage.” Farrar, who is expecting her second baby this summer, has decided there will be no house guests this time around.
*Names have been changed
This article appeared in our May 2013 issue with the headline “Full House,” p. 58.