What New Parents Want Us to Know
Seven rules for grandparents, aunties and friends.
Posted Aug 25, 2020
It all happened so quickly.
What should have been a happy, relaxing day for Susan, her daughter Kim, and newborn granddaughter Kayleigh turned into a heated conflict after Susan offered an abundance of unsolicited advice on baby care.
“It was horrible!” Susan told me later. “My daughter just started screaming at me that I always assumed she couldn’t do anything right and that I had made plenty of mistakes as a mother. It hurt so much. I was just trying to help, and she completely flew off the handle at me.”
It occurred to me as I listened to Susan that we sometimes stir the ire of new parents with the very best of intentions. In my years as a therapist, I’ve heard many clients report conflicts and misunderstandings with their children over the grandchildren or eager aunties finding themselves nose-to-nose with a newly minted mother tigress.
A grandmother I once saw in therapy was often in tears because she lived to spoil her grandchildren, and this was leading to continuing conflicts with her son and daughter and their respective spouses.
Another enthusiastic grandma expressed her outrage at "having to make an appointment to see my grandchildren!" She was hurt and angry about her daughter-in-law's request that she call before coming over.
Of course, we want to spend the maximum of time with little ones we love, to make them feel loved and cherished, to give our daughters or daughters-in-law the child-raising wisdom we've learned through the years, to give our beloved grandchildren, godchildren or nephews and nieces some of the comforts and luxuries that we weren't able to give our own children when we were younger and poorer or that we never enjoyed ourselves when we were children.
And yet, all these good intentions can backfire into confrontations, tears, and resentments if we're not careful.
How can we strengthen loving relationships not only with the newest members of our family but also with their parents? The following are some tips from new parents:
1. No matter how warm your connection, this isn't your baby. The new mom and dad, no matter how inexperienced, rule. Even though you may have the parenting experience, defer to the new parents.
Yes, sometimes the new parents don't know best; make suggestions tactfully. You may feel an eye roll coming on when this inexperienced parent is giving you instructions for care, but this is her child. She needs to be the expert on her own baby to shoulder the new and constant responsibility.
Ask, "How can I help?" instead of rushing in with advice. And when you give advice, try framing it in a non-confrontational way: "Have you thought about...." or "I wonder how it would work if...." Be a collaborator in this much-loved child's care instead of letting the (often insecure) new parent think that you consider her (or him) incapable.
The best-case scenario is to help the new parent feel more capable and confident with your warm, loving support.
2. Don't force closeness. You may have felt intense love the minute you knew this baby was on the way, even from a distance. However, it may take the baby or toddler a little longer to warm up to you if you're not a part of his or her daily life.
If a child sees you only occasionally, he or she may need time to feel comfortable. Don't insist that the child kiss you or sit on your lap. Let the child make a decision about when or whether he or she will come closer.
As eager as you may be to gather this precious child into your arms, let the little one lead the way.
3. Don't make assumptions. This includes assuming that the parents want to be away from the baby. Especially those of us without little ones see the unending responsibility, the constant distractions, the sheer energy it takes to care for a baby or toddler and we assume new parents would like a break. And we assume that a break would mean being totally away from the child for a nice chunk of time.
That may be true for some. But many others would simply find an extra pair of hands useful while still staying close by. So you can give a new mother a break by preparing meals or doing housecleaning so she can relax and continue to bond with her new baby. Or you can give new parents a break by playing quietly with their child or children at home while they catch up on some postponed chores or take a nap.
Unless it's an emergency or unless Grandma plays a major role in their daily lives, babies and toddlers generally do better with parents nearby. Fun sleepovers can come when the child is older.
4. Don't undermine parental rules and beliefs or play out conflicts through the child. There is a joke that children and grandparents are co-conspirators against the parents. But, in real life, while your relationship can be pivotal and incredibly special, it's important not to undermine the parents' rules, wishes, and convictions. Children need to learn to follow rules their parents set, without interference.
This means not being the soft touch when it comes to discipline. If Mom or Dad says, "No," it's not up to you to say, "Yes." And if you're entrusted with the little one's care, even for a few minutes, it's critical to keep parental concerns in mind.
Some extended family and friends may feel that loving a child means being a playmate. Some of the permissiveness and lack of judgment seem to come from personal neediness—feeling, perhaps, that your relationship will suffer if you reinforce parental rules. The opposite is true, of course. Children can have many playmates their own age. But adult relatives and friends who offer fun and the personal safety that comes with limits are treasured indeed.
5. Don't drop in. Call first, and ask if it's convenient to come over. Even if offering help, this is important.
In some families and cultures, dropping in is just fine—but, otherwise, never assume that it's fine. Call and say you'd like to be helpful and ask if this is a good time. If you constantly drop in to play with the baby or to spend a day with baby and parents, you risk wearing out your welcome. Routines can get disrupted. Alone time can be important for the new parents and baby.
"I used to feel so upset and conflicted when my two kids were babies," my friend Jessica told me recently. "People were coming over all the time to see them, give me advice, and hang out just as I was trying to get my babies down for naps and then have some time of my own to take a shower or clean up the house a little. I appreciated their enthusiasm and concern, but it felt impossible to get anything done, even when they wanted to help. I felt guilty for being ungrateful, but I found myself getting mad at so many people I loved for thinking that my 'call first' preferences didn't apply to them."
6. Remember that love isn't a competition. Children flourish with love from family and friends, and all of it is important.
Think about the people in your own childhood who mattered so much, and how each enriched your life in a unique way. If a child is fortunate enough to have two grandmas and a variety of other people who love him or her, it's cause for celebration. Being competitive can drive a wedge between you and the new parents. Both sets of grandparents, all the aunties, and family friends can add immeasurably to a child's life. You will all have your unique relationships with this treasured child; from the child's perspective, it's all good.
7. Don't automatically shower the child with gifts. There is so much more you can give a child besides material gifts. Time and encouragement and unconditional love matter so much. There are times, in fact, when gifts can get in the way of a developing relationship.
I once had a patient named Bea who had spent years buying her two grandchildren lavish gifts. Then she suffered through a late-life divorce and ended up impoverished, living in a trailer on a very tight budget. And, as much as she loved them, her grandchildren didn't seem too interested in knowing her anymore.
Part of the reason was their adolescence when friends were a much greater lure than family. But another part of the problem was that, in the flurry of past gifts, real intimacy had never developed between Bea and her grandkids. Now that gifts were not at the center of their relationship, they had little to share with each other.
Too many gifts, or gifts that upset the parents, can build barriers, not bridges.
Respecting the needs, preferences, and feelings of new parents can mean easier access to the newest members of the family and a new sense of togetherness in helping these very special babies grow up feeling surrounded by love.