The first of many fights between Julia* and her mother-in-law started over how (and whether) to burp the baby. Julia’s mother-in-law had come to stay three weeks after the birth of her son, the family’s first grandchild. “I asked her to give him a good burp after a feed, and she looked at me and said, ‘I am not going to hit my grandson.’ She told me I was hitting my baby!”
When you’re pregnant with your first, grandparents are usually part of the daydream. You imagine they’ll bring frozen meals over when the baby is born, and they’ll happily babysit when you and your partner are ready to sneak out for a date. Everyone will pitch in, harmoniously. After all, it takes a village, right?
But like most everything in parenting, the reality is more complicated. Grandparents and parents often don’t agree on what’s best, and you might not know how far apart your viewpoints are until you’re in the thick of it. Power struggles, undermining and fights are common. It’s a tricky position: Perhaps you depend on the grandparents for child-care help, but you also can’t micromanage the way they do things. It’s especially hard to ignore offhand comments or judgments when you’re sleep-deprived or feeling insecure in your choices as a new mom or dad, figuring things out for the first time.
Of course, there are plenty of grateful young parents with positive stories about their wonderful relationship with their own parents or in-laws. But others report constant arguments, or absent relatives who are the opposite of helpful. This group was more than happy to dish—so long as they could use pseudonyms to conceal their identities.
When Nana and Papa are MIA
Some said their parents, to their surprise, weren’t involved in their children’s lives much at all. Grace*, who lives in Calgary, feels abandoned by her mother, who hasn’t visited from Toronto to see her two-year-old granddaughter yet. Instead, Grace and her toddler fly across the country to visit her, and during their last five-day Toronto trip, they only saw Grandma twice for a couple of hours. Grace says her mother isn’t interested in talking about motherhood or baby-related topics, either. “According to my mom, she did her share when she raised her kids.” Grace’s mother-in-law lives closer, about a 40-minute drive away, but has seen her granddaughter only twice in the last year. “I was hoping to have some sort of guidance. Somebody to phone and ask, ‘How do you bathe the baby? How do you trim her nails?’ Or just to cry or vent—someone who would say, ‘It’s okay, you’ll get through this.’”
Though not all stories are as extreme as Grace’s, many of today’s grandparents aren’t always ready to jump back in to caregiving when their grandchildren are born. Part of that is just geography: Like Grace, we’re much less likely to live in the same city as our parents now. And without the strong pensions the generation before them had, more baby boomers have to work into their golden years, making it harder to engage with the grandkids as much as they might like. (Plus, Grandma is just as likely to be on the job in her 60s as Grandpa is.) Baby boomer grandparents with financial stability, meanwhile, may still feel young and healthy enough to pursue the retirement of their dreams: travelling, indulging in their own hobbies or checking adventures off their bucket lists.
Others, of course, are too involved. Michelle* says her mother-in-law would continuously undermine her in front of her toddler, Clara*. When Michelle entered the room, for example, her mother-in-law would remark, “Uh-oh—Mommy’s coming.” And when Michelle disciplined Clara, Grandma would say things like “Aw, Mommy doesn’t love you.”
“It got to the point where my toddler would ask me if I loved her. It broke my heart,” Michelle says. “I had to confront her.”
Dust-ups with the in-laws certainly aren’t a new phenomenon. But a larger generation gap is adding to the issue. We’re having children later in life, so grandparents are further removed from their parenting years than ours were. Parenting styles have also changed dramatically, from the small stuff (when to start solids, or how to get a baby to sleep through the night) to the larger themes.
“There has been a big move [in parenting advice] from discipline and routine, toward a more nurturing approach,” says Kerry Grier, a patient-education specialist who runs a parenting and child-care class for new grandparents at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre. The class covers the evidence behind current recommendations around breastfeeding, safe sleep (including putting babies to sleep on their back with nothing else in their crib) and the importance of tending to a baby’s needs (such as picking them up when they cry), pushing back against the idea that too much affection spoils a baby.
That shift was the main problem for Ahava Trivedi, a mom in Toronto. She has embraced attachment parenting, a style that came naturally to her, as her Indian-born mother raised her the same way. Her husband’s parents, however, see things differently. “I was feeling out how they raised my husband, and I said, ‘Oh, did you pick him up a lot?’ and his dad said instantly, ‘Oh no, we didn’t want to spoil him.’” If Ahava’s baby cries, her mother-in-law will say, “Well, babies cry.” Ahava has chosen not to leave her son with that side of the family until he’s a bit older, or until they agree to care for him in a way that aligns with her parenting philosophy.
The very early stages with a newborn are a common point of tension, especially as the exhausted new moms or dads try to learn who they are as parents—there’s a tendency for grandparents to try to take over. But new parents will only find their groove by spending time with their infants and making a few mistakes, and grandparents have to give them the room to do so. This could mean Nana needs to bite her tongue and only offer advice when directly asked, or it could mean setting clear rules that limit visits with relatives to only a few hours a day, or no more than once a week. If Grandma and Grandpa are happiest when they’re busy, ask for laundry or meal help instead of baby care.
As an infant gets older, fresh points of contention inevitably come up, like bottles versus breast, or whether you’re OK with cry-it-out sleep training—perhaps two of the most emotionally charged minefields. Differing diet and discipline choices also cause rifts.
Lynette*, a grandmother with a PhD in cognitive and educational psychology, keeps on top of the latest child-rearing research. She’d read about some of the dangers of bed-sharing (also called co-sleeping) before her daughter chose to share her bed with her first baby. When a friend who’s an obstetrics nurse told her about infants falling out of hospital beds as a result of co-sleeping, Lynette grew concerned enough to bring it up with her daughter. “But she showed me some books that said it might be OK and said, ‘Mom, these authors say it’s fine.’ Unfortunately, I had bought the books for her,” she says with a laugh. “She is just determined to co-sleep.”
Her daughter has two kids now, and Lynette is still trying to convince her. “I give her any stories or information I come across: It’s a constant flow of information,” she says. “Most of the time, we haven’t been too at odds, but co-sleeping has been a tough one. I’ve realized that there are some things we do differently, and I just have to trust her.”
When Grier asks new parents to share what would be more helpful during the early bonding period, a common theme emerges: “Please step away from the baby.”
“New parents feel like, ‘We appreciate your help, and that you love your grandchild, but this is not your baby. You’ve had your turn.’”
It’s not you, it’s me
It may help new parents to know that this is an emotionally sensitive time for new grandparents, too, and that watching their children go through the rites of parenthood can bring up old wounds or regrets. “Sometimes grandmothers cry in my class,” says Grier. “They say, ‘Oh, I wish I’d breastfed. My mother-in-law said it was a disgusting thing to do, and there wasn’t the support around breastfeeding that exists now, so I stopped.’ They’re feeling emotions they haven’t felt in a long time. And a lot of grandfathers are very enthusiastic to participate, because they feel they missed out as dads the first time around.”
She’s also found that the grandparents she teaches are eager to learn. “At the pilot stage, a lot of people were puzzled as to why we would offer this course. They said, ‘Who’s going to come to that?’ It implies they need to learn how to raise children, but they already have. And yet the classes are very popular and my students are receptive. I hear comments like, ‘My mother-in-law showed up when I had a new baby and it was a nightmare.’” Some are becoming grandparents to twins or premature babies and feel unprepared for their needs.
Our choices to parent differently than our moms and dads did may also be seen as an implied criticism of their approach when we were kids. Jennifer Kolari, a child and family therapist and the author of Connected Parenting, says she sees two types of battles—one where, for example, the grandparents want to give the kids sugar and let them stay up watching TV until they pass out, and the other where the grandparents want to set stricter limits than what the parents are comfortable with. Surprisingly, she says the second scenario is more common.
Often, she says, the grandparents are on to something: Kids thrive with clearer boundaries and a less-permissive parenting style. That concept went viral last year after Leonard Sax’s controversial book, The Collapse of Parenting: How We Hurt Our Kids When We Treat Them Like Grown-Ups, came out. Sax, seeming to echo what some grandparents have said for years, suggests ceding too much power to our children results in behaviour issues. “Sometimes it’s the parents who don’t have a grip on the boundaries. And the grandparents are like, ‘This isn’t working.’ Those boundaries are hugely important,” says Kolari.
But no matter the type of conflict, Kolari advises that most parents are better off taking a step back and letting go. It’s perfectly fine for grandparents to make their own rules in their homes, she says. “There’s no consistency in life,” she says. “Kids are going to have different teachers, or different rules at camp. It’s great for them to see how to be in different situations, to learn what works and what doesn’t in different environments.”
Of course, there will be situations when you need to stand your ground: Bedtime can’t be pushed to midnight, dietary restrictions have to be respected, and anything around safety is non-negotiable. If you have to discuss a conflict, Kolari says, make sure to do it away from the kids, and start by reflecting the other person’s position. “Say, ‘I know you raised me, and you know how to do this, and I know that we have to set limits with our kids. But this is our style of doing that,’” she says.
Above all, agree the experts, make sure you appreciate the importance—and good fortune—of having loving and engaged grandparents. Your child will have an independent relationship with them, separate from your own, especially as she grows older. “Even if she’s only a baby, it’s important to see the child as a person in her own right, with her own relationship,” says Grier. “Try not to interrupt that connection.”
* Names have been changed.