October 6, 2013

Motherlode: Grandparents cause stress, telling you how to parent

By KJ Dell-Antonia

We posed the question: How did you handle grandparents' unsolicited parenting advice?

Our hope? To collect advice from older parents -- maybe even new grandparents -- describing how they coped when their own parents offered opinions on everything from sleeping arrangements to feeding time, especially after the arrival of that first grandchild, and especially when those "opinions" differed strongly from whatever they as new parents were doing at the time.

We got plenty of commentary, from those who had survived the advice stage with their relationships intact, and from those whose relationships with their parents and in-laws never recovered, and who are determined to do things differently. We also heard from parents in the thick of it, possibly hoping that other grandparents would heed their words and hold their tongues.

One reader, kg, summed up her experience:

I am following the recommendations of the World Health Organization and the American Academy of Pediatrics and breast-feeding my daughter exclusively for the first 6 months. My husband's mother and aunt came to visit and there were many comments about how a bottle of formula at night would make her sleep better, how I should be giving her boiled water (?!?) and hard crusts of bread with butter on them, that she should be eating solid foods by 4 months, that she was malnourished. Goodness knows what else was criticized when I wasn't in the room. I understand that feeding recommendations were different in their day, but I just don't get the obsession that the older generation seems to have with pushing solid foods, and I don't understand why they can't respect my decision, especially when there is a body of scientific research that supports it, and my child is manifestly flourishing.

It was difficult to explain why I wasn't going to follow their well-meaning advice without implicitly criticizing their own choices. In the interest of family harmony I bit my lip and said little, but their judgment stings.

One looks to the older generation for support and reassurance. It is hard to be judged for parenting choices that are not only reasonable but expert-sanctioned.

Another reader, Uly, responded with what I thought was the best advice (and many recommending readers agreed):

There is a technique often called the "pass the bean dip" approach, which basically means "do not engage, and change the subject." As in:

"You're nursing her again? You'll spoil her!"

"We are following the doctor's advice. Can you pass the bean dip? It's really good, what did you put in it?"

"Cloth diapers? Who wants to deal with those!?"

"It's no problem. Hey, did you hear about what happened at the park yesterday? It was really funny."

What is very important is never, ever taking the bait. If you discuss your feeding, or sleeping, or discipline strategies with people you will give the impression that the subject is, in fact, up for discussion. And if it's not, it's not. Don't confuse the matter by getting drawn into an argument with your parents or in-laws or strangers on the bus.

Amid all the agreement about the difficulty of hearing, let alone accepting, the kind of advice that can make a young parent feel judged and unsupported were some powerful suggestions about trying to look at things from the older parent's point of view. That feeling of being judged, some readers reminded new parents, probably comes from your own doubts -- not your parents' or in-laws' intent -- and if we consider what might be behind a member of the older generation's proposal that we "put a hat on that baby!" then it might be easier to take. Shar wrote:

Grandparents or even unrelated others often want to relive the intimacy and tender memories of their own early parenting and their own vanished babies, and the most obvious motivation is being around current new parents. They want to help, they want to share their own hard-earned expertise, and they want to participate. In the case of grandparents, they will (hopefully) be in their grandchildren's lives, and the parents', on a permanent basis.

And for young parents who suspect that something other than good intentions underlies the advice (like Lillith, whose mother-in-law encouraged her to let her new daughter "cry it out," only to sneak into the nursery and rock the child to sleep), some version of the same applies: Try to recognize that your parents' or in-laws' negative words probably aren't about you at all, and then find a way to listen, or a way to remove yourself from the conversation when it gets too hard. That's easier said than done, but sometimes keeping in mind that it's not about you, and it's fine to take care of yourself, is enough to make a difficult situation more bearable.

In describing how her mother made her "nutty" after her babies were born, CJ offered a reminder that we'll look back on that unsolicited advice from a very different perspective one day:

I would snap at her often in frustration, and my 3-year-old old son said to her once, "Grandma, you make mom cwazy!" which made us both feel awful. Looking back, she meant well, and I could've taken the advice and nodded until she left to go back home instead of feeling inferior or insecure as a new mother.

She gave complete unconditional love to my kids, and showered them with time, reading, trips, movies and their favorite foods. One boy loved Chinese food and the other loved pizza, so she got takeout at the two places to make each one happy for dinner.

She died 15 years ago, and is sorely missed. Like the Joni Mitchell song, you don't know what you've got till it's gone.

But after all the advice and hopes about how new parents can take a breath and let the advice pass, I'd like to end with a gentle suggestion for the grandparents among us, from karendavidson61:

Hold your tongue. Write your idea down and keep it for a while. Appreciate how well they do things as new parents. Hold that tongue again.

Even as new parents try to hear the love underneath the advice, many would love it if their older generation would think twice about offering it, and consider replacing even the most well-intentioned suggestion with just some ordinary loving words instead.

Contact KJ Dell-Antonia at:

kj.dellantonia@nytimes.com

 

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