Ginny is a wonderful mother to two healthy, happy boys. She has a great relationship with her husband, and couldn’t be more conscientious about her parenting.
But Ginny’s own mother constantly undermines her. When after six weeks she was struggling to establish a routine, her mother sniffed and said, “I’m sure I had you sorted by five weeks”. Her mother-in-law wasn’t much better, insisting on putting the baby outside on a freezing day in January, and nagging Ginny to put him on a bottle.
Ginny’s not alone in her experience. I’ve talked to scores of mothers who are at their wits’ end because of their parents and in-laws. I regularly hear about grandparents disapproving of their childcare methods, ignoring their routines or rules, or receiving frequent, unannounced visits. Parents and in-laws can be a source of huge amounts of conflict and resentment. Throw a divorce and some step-parents into the mix and you have the ingredients for a long-term struggle.
Yet at their best, grandparents can be a fantastic source of knowledge, reassurance, support and babysitting. They can mother you when you feel vulnerable and be a much-needed shoulder to cry on when it all gets too much. Learning to get on with parents and in-laws is one of the most valuable lessons of motherhood.
Taking a step back
It’s easy to demonise someone you’re having problems with, but thinking about what might be motivating them can help you to feel more kindly towards them.
Ella had problems with an interfering mother-in-law, and could only see her bad points. When she stopped to think about it, she realised that her mother-in-law was feeling lonely and underappreciated. She started to make an effort, at first through gritted teeth, to show her appreciation when her mother-in-law “helped” her out. It worked dramatically. Now, Ella gets on well enough with her mother-in-law to tell her when she’s gone too far, and finally feels that she’s in control.
People in glass houses
Next, take a deep breath and ask how your own behaviour stands up. Most of us can’t claim to be beyond reproach in our family relations. This isn’t a question of who started it – or of beating yourself up – it’s about looking calmly at how you’ve acted and responded. Have you allowed situations to arise that you could have avoided? Have you failed to set boundaries clearly enough or let things pass when you could have spoken out? Have you been defensive or touchy? Being aware of your own behaviour, and addressing your own issues and motivation can make a huge difference to how you get on with family members.
Identify the flashpoints – times when conflicts are likely to arise – and plan ahead. Common triggers for tension include Christmas, weddings, funerals and children’s birthday parties. If you can work out strategies for avoiding conflict, you may save yourself a lot of pain. Make it clear in advance what your plans are – for example who you’re inviting to the birthday party or where you’re going for Christmas Day – and then everyone knows what to expect. Arguments can sometimes be avoided by meeting on neutral territory or seeing divorced grandparents separately – anything to take the sting out of things.
Taking a stand
The time may come when you have to confront a family member about an issue you have with them. Again, the key is forward planning. Think about the best place to talk – on the telephone, in a café, wherever will make things easiest. Work out what you want to achieve from the conversation. Plan neutral phrases to get your point across without being provocative, and work out what you might say if they respond in a particular way.
Jenny came to me with a problem with a family member. We worked out in advance what she needed to get across to her, and how she should go about it. We drew up a list of ways in which her relative might try to wind her up, so that she could see the warning signs when they came, and wrote a list of words and phrases she should avoid saying. The conversation, when it happened, wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t perfect, but Jenny managed to end a five year stand-off and started to rebuild a damaged relationship.
Life ain’t perfect
Finally, remember that no family is perfect, and tension is an inevitable part of family life. If things are bad, comfort yourself with the knowledge that you’re teaching your children about real life. If your children can see you handling conflict confidently and doing your best to make your relationships with your parents and in-laws the very best they can be, they’ll be learning a lesson for life. You owe them no less.