Dealing with Interfering In-Laws

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Reader’s Question

I am a first-time mom and I love it, but I don’t trust anybody with my newborn — not even family members. Lately, my boyfriend’s father, who is sort of a hippie, and doesn’t believe in medicine, started telling us not to use medicines. This is stressing me out, because I know doctors are there to help, and it’s causing friction in my relationship with the baby’s father.

My baby’s grandfather is always coming up with stuff like this, and he basically controls his younger sons. I am one who will stand up for what I believe, but I take every hit. I want to tell him off but, out of respect for my boyfriend, I stay quiet. I try to tell my boyfriend that we have our own lives with our new born son, but still, his father controls him.

I need help because I don’t want to lose my little family.

Psychologist’s Reply

I’m sure you’ve heard the old African proverb that “it takes a village to raise a child.” Unless you live on a deserted island, no one parents in isolation. And this is just as it should be. Children need a lot of people who love them to help them grow. A large group of loving caretakers can provide children with a variety of perspectives on living, utilize a wide array of talent, and give tired parents a much needed break. Thus, while I understand some of your fears as a first-time parent, I hope you will allow your newborn to experience other caregivers too. You can try it out by letting trusted family members and friends care for your newborn while in your presence. Once you feel comfortable with that, maybe you can even leave for a while and get the rest I’m sure you must need.

Another benefit of allowing others to help care for your son is that it may give them a way to feel valued. Most people like to think that their knowledge and experience matters. Thus, by listening to their advice and allowing them to help, you’re demonstrating respect for what they have to give. It also provides a way for them to feel connected to your child and your family.

However, just because you listen to what family and friends have to say doesn’t mean that you need to accept it. Another part of parenting is knowing when to rely on your own instincts and beliefs about what is right for your child and your family. It sounds like your son’s grandfather is really testing your limits with this. And while his constant interference may be difficult, it appears that your real problem is with your parenting partner. His father can give you all the advice he wants, but it is up to the two of you to decide what to do about it.

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One of the larger problems many people have with the parents of their partners is developing boundaries. Boundaries are the rules you have for how people treat you, and it sounds like your boyfriend’s boundaries with his father may be a little weak. As such, he may need some help in figuring out how to think things through for himself, and how to tell his father about his decisions. A good family counselor could be of assistance in this process. However, if counseling is not an option, you may have to advocate for your family yourself.

One of the best ways to establish a boundary is via a ‘sandwich’ approach: putting the ‘meat’ of the message between two slices of positive statements. For example, you could thank your boyfriend’s father for his anti-medicine advice (positive), but add that, since you and your boyfriend believe in the value of medicine, you will use it when needed (the boundary). You can follow that up with saying how lucky your son is to have such a loving grandfather (positive). Hopefully, the softer approach will give your boyfriend’s father a way to accept your boundary gracefully, while still getting the point across. If he does not, then you need to be firm about what you believe will be best for your family. After all, if you don’t advocate for your son, no one else will.

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