Voice Your Expectations
Sometimes, of course, you will feel angry when your mother can't figure out what you need, and annoyed when you're forced to spell it out. To minimize the negative feelings, keep the focus on the tasks that need to be done and on making the request in a clear and kind way.
Rikki, of New York City, mother of a 1-year-old boy, discovered that it helped greatly if each grandparent had a special job to do with the baby, which helps her feel her bond is different from anyone else's. "My mom's thing was giving him a bath, and my mother-in-law's was getting him to take a nap," she says. Expect some trial and error before a niche emerges. At first, Lucy, of Springfield, Virginia, mother of a 2-year-old, was driven to distraction by her mother-in-law's hesitancy. "She would say, 'Let me help you,' and then she would ask 10 questions about how." The situation relaxed palpably when it became obvious that her otherwise ill-at-ease mother-in-law had a real knack for holding the baby and singing the old Russian-Jewish songs she had learned from her parents.
When clashes arise, Mary Jane DeWolf-Smith, founder of Family Works in San Rafael, California (and herself a grandmother), encourages a new mother to defuse them by acknowledging that the methods she's chosen do not reflect a judgment of the grandmother's parenting. Grandmas who nag are grandmas who sense they're being ignored or not taken seriously, a condition you can mitigate with what DeWolf-Smith calls "reflective listening." This involves quoting back the grandma's point to make clear that you've heard it and are taking it to heart: "Oh, you're wondering whether the baby would be better off sleeping in the crib."
Another strategy Stoller suggests to make a situation less charged is initiating a conversation about the grandma's own memories of her early days as a mother. "That suggests to the grandmother that her daughter or daughter-in-law is really interested in what she has to say."
Lyon suggests being prepared with your favorite book. If your mother disagrees with a practice to which you're committed, say in a nonconfrontational way, "Can you look at this and tell me what you think?," which will tend to either to shut her up or open her mind a little. It may even be more helpful to look underneath to the more primal struggle.
"Understand that the grandmother often feels this new relationship is a sign of approval or disapproval of her parenting," says DeWolf-Smith. Though she's not likely to show it directly, a new grandmother may be revisiting her own regrets or insecurities as a parent. In other words, she may be taking everything you say personally, she may be unsure about her qualifications, or she may be putting on a good face -- the same very imperfect but very human strategies you may be using yourself.
Looking back at my family's misguided visits, I can now see my contribution to the dynamic: I was indeed oversensitive and humorless with my mother-in-law, and I did expect my mother to read my mind instead of giving her a clue now and then as to how she could help.
But don't be too hard on yourself or the new grandma in your life. Parenthood and grandparenthood are works in progress. If you nailed the role perfectly in the first week, what would be left to learn in the next 20 years?
Originally published in American Baby magazine, January 2005.