Family life

How to handle an overstepping mother-in-law

Does your MIL drive you up the wall with her advice and unexpected visits? Here's how to deal.

When Linda James was pregnant with her first baby, a boy who is now four, her mother-in-law, who lives in the United States, seemed benevolent and excited. By the time she and her husband arrived in Toronto to meet the newborn—the baby who made her a grandmother—she had morphed into a judgy, argumentative interrogator who seemed determined to second-guess every parenting decision James and her husband made.

“There was so much drama over the warmth of the bottle, and they kept insisting the baby needed not just formula but tea to stay hydrated,” James recalls. On another visit they added an extra blanket to the baby’s crib even though James had warned them it was hazardous and asked them not to. They made comments about where the baby slept and bickered with her about whether he should be on his back or tummy.

The judgments about James’s parenting decisions continued even when her mother-in-law (MIL) was back at home, where she’d issue her advice via phone and Skype. James realized that if she was going to preserve her in-laws’ relationship with their grandchild, some boundaries had to be created.

While the arrival of a new baby is usually a cause for celebration, many families are caught off guard by just how different the dynamics can be after the arrival of a tiny human. “Everybody is trying to figure out new roles and expectations. It can be a real minefield,” says Andrea Ramsay Speers, a psychotherapist at the Oakville Family Institute in Oakville, Ont. Mothers-in-law, who may feel displaced from the helm of the family by your “new mom” status or who may have preconceived ideas about how they will grandparent—ideas that don’t jive with your parenting style—can be particularly tricky to deal with.

Although setting boundaries with your mother-in-law might seem like the last thing you should have to do in your sleep-deprived, un-showered, spit-upon state, the experts and moms we spoke to agree that the effort pays off. Here’s how to go about it.

Set your goal

Before you start tossing up yellow emergency tape, think about your ultimate endgame. While your interim goal may be to get some space from a mother-in-law who drops by uninvited or who pushes formula when you’re fumbling through the early days of breastfeeding, experts say it’s important to consider what you would like from the relationship in the long term and to implement rules to support that. “If you want to cultivate a close relationship between your kids and your mother-in-law, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have boundaries, but we want to reduce conflict,” says Karen C.L. Anderson, an author and life coach who specializes in mother-daughter relationships. “When not communicated clearly, boundaries can sometimes create conflict rather than reduce it.” Ramsay Speers says it’s important to be super clear on what you’re asking for. “Maybe it’s something like ‘We’d love to have you babysit; we’ve talked about what kind of routine we’re trying to get baby on, and if you’re amenable, we’d like you to be an active part of it,’” she says.

Make it a team effort

Although Linda James and her husband are both research scientists, she did most of the baby-related reading before their son was born. That left her husband, who was most likely to receive suggestions from his mother about how they could improve their parenting, ill-equipped to refute ideas that ran counter to new research. “He’d be like, ‘Sure, that sounds pretty good,’ but I was the one who knew what we were supposed to be doing with the baby,” says James. Ramsay Speers says it is important for both partners to be in agreement about their approach to parenting before boundaries with in-laws are set. From there, they can talk about where they want the lines drawn.

Start early

The best way to avoid hurt feelings is to establish open and honest communication with your mother-in-law early on—meaning before the baby arrives or soon after. If your mother-in-law is visiting for a longer period of time, consider talking beforehand about how the visit will go—give her a heads-up about the sleep-deprived or weepy version of you she might encounter but shouldn’t take personally, so you are both prepared for possible discomfort.

You don’t have to go it alone—in fact, your partner should be involved, or even lead this conversation. But make sure you’re a participant, Ramsay Speers says. “You have an ability to set a tone from the beginning,” she says. “Let your mother-in-law know you can work together to make sure she has a great relationship with her grandchild.”

See it from her side

James was deep into the battle over baby bottle temperatures with her in-laws (her father-in-law had also joined the fray) before she realized their argument was about far more than just milk. “We’re scientists and we rely on research. I had all the actual scientific papers saying this is what you’re supposed to do and she didn’t care,” James recalls. “Finally, she came out and just asked us if we weren’t happy with her parenting.” The idea that James’s decisions as a new parent might make her MIL feel inadequate or judged about her own parenting had never occurred to James.

“Acknowledging that grandparents have valuable experience is important—they need to feel validated,” says Ramsay Speers. “When we were kids, seat belts were optional, you fed baby pablum at two months. So much has changed and that older generation can feel judged or shut out of the process. Meanwhile, from their perspective, they managed to raise their own kids just fine.” Without giving them permission to use dated approaches with your baby, you can validate their experience by acknowledging that they did the best they could with the information available at the time. Instead, ask for their buy-in with new parenting strategies you’re trying out.

Have patience

Even if your mother-in-law agrees to whatever rules or boundaries you’ve put forth, it will likely take time for her to change and you may have to repeat your wishes a few times. “It’s very infrequent that there’s one perfect thing you can say to have the problem never come back,” Ramsay Speers says. “This may be something you have to kindly and firmly reiterate more than once.” If things aren’t working—say, your MIL agrees to your routine but ignores baby’s sleep or feeding schedule once you’re gone—talk to her about the impact on your family when she goes rogue. Try to find out why she does it (maybe she wants more cuddle time with baby and your early bedtime prevents that) and come up with a solution together (MIL arrives an hour earlier and gets the solo time she craves).

When things go wrong

Even the best-laid plans can go awry and this is especially true when a crying/teething/sleep-fighting baby is tossed into the mix. Toronto’s Katherine Irving was in the midst of a month-long visit from her partner’s mom and dealing with her colicky second baby when, one evening, her MIL yelled at her to stop what she was doing for fear she was hurting the boy. (Irving, a massage therapist by training, had been cycling his legs to help him relieve gas.) The accusation landed like a slap to Irving. She stifled her impulse to blow up but still had a frank talk with her MIL about how the tone, comments and second-guessing made her feel. It was something she hadn’t done in the past without her husband present but she felt she couldn’t wait. The outcome was a good discussion where they each shared their views. After, the air felt cleared.

When your mother-in-law pushes you to your limits, “the best thing to do is just take a few deep breaths and level with her,” Ramsay Speers says. “You can say, ‘I know you were trying to help, but it’s really stressing me out. I’m doing my best and I would love for you to be supportive even if you don’t completely agree.’”

If that doesn’t work, you could consider switching gears entirely. For Ramsay Speers, that meant hiring a caregiver who would follow her instructions and allowing Nana to “just be Nana” when she visited with the kids.

Ultimately, while the first few weeks and months with a new baby can be particularly exhausting, your MIL will be around for the long term and you’ll be grateful for that helping hand. Parenting coach Sarah Rosensweet says it can be helpful to remember she’s acting out of love even when she doesn’t seem warm and fuzzy. “It is very easy to assume negative intentions,” Rosensweet says. “But unless you have evidence to the contrary, assume positive intent.”

Remember, your mother-in-law doesn’t need to be just like you to be a good grandparent. Exposing your children to a grandmother who has a different parenting style than yours is not necessarily harmful, Rosensweet says, adding that kids can adapt to different rules and expectations in different settings. “As long as they’re kind and love your kids, you don’t have to try to get them to be just like you,” she says. Pick your battles and roll with the rest.

When all else fails

What to do when nothing else is working

If you’ve put effort into communicating with your in-laws and things aren’t changing, you could be dealing with someone with a narcissistic or self-centring personality, says
Emily Blackmoon, a social worker and psychotherapist in Toronto. “They cannot or will not take the time to decentre their needs and respect the needs of others,” she explains.

In these cases, firmly reinforcing your boundaries is key. If you’ve asked your MIL to visit twice a week but she shows up daily, thank her for visiting and invite her back another time, but don’t let her inside. If that’s too taxing for you or your partner, Blackmoon suggests asking the father-in-law or another family member to help explain the boundary in advance.

If things still aren’t improving, it might be time for the MIL and her child to consider family therapy. This can help parents and children resolve enmeshed dynamics that make boundary-setting difficult. Blackmoon says the new mom can participate but ideally should focus on her newborn and birth recovery, leaving the partner to emotionally manage the MIL relationship.

If therapy isn’t working or the MIL refuses, you and your partner may consider taking space from the relationship. Explain that you both need to take a break interacting with extended family because you don’t feel respected or supported. It’s best (but not necessary) to define the terms of the break, like saying you won’t answer your MIL’s calls nor accept visits. You can also negotiate a different arrangement, like you staying home while your partner and baby visit the MIL.

The length of the break is up to you. When you revisit the relationship, Blackmoon suggests setting ground rules that both you and your MIL agree to, like asking her not to say disrespectful things and agreeing on visiting times. —Arisa Valyear