When you welcome a new baby into your life, you may also be welcoming a grandma or two into your guest room. With all your energy focused on the coming baby, it's easy to forget that the extended postpartum visit is in itself a rite of passage. For those new mothers who are close to their own mother and their partner's mother, the visits can be a godsend -- a time to soak up the older women's affection and experience and to take advantage of an extra set of hands.
But what if, like many of us, your relationship with the mothers in your life is more complicated? What if you don't communicate well or harbor old resentments? In other words, what if you suspect their presence is likely to add to the stress of those heady, early days rather than reduce it?
The good news is that with a little advance knowledge of the changes that both generations are going through and the likely hot spots -- which turn out to be surprisingly predictable -- you can take charge of the invitation process, set priorities, and orchestrate the visits so that they're fruitful for everyone.
I wish my husband and I had been so well prepared when we brought our first son home from the hospital and hosted, in turn, my mother and my mother-in-law. We had mixed feelings from the time we extended the invitations. On the one hand, it seemed the thing to do, and we knew we would need help. On the other hand, we weren't used to having them spend the night in our relatively small apartment and felt uneasy at the prospect of so much time together. As we feared, both women made us so uncomfortable, we felt like barricading the door when they left.
I picture my well-meaning but emotionally restrained mother sitting quietly on the sofa, trying so hard not to get in the way that she is, of course, always in the way. She makes herself useful by doing practical work such as changing diapers and washing dishes, which I do appreciate. But oh, how heartbroken I am to see that she's as passive and ill at ease as ever. I had so hoped that her first grandchild would magically break down the emotional barrier that's always been such a source of pain for me.
Exit my mother and enter my mother-in-law. She's cooking complicated gourmet meals and expertly calming our fitful son. She is clearly besotted with him. You might say she's perfect. I, however, would say she's insufferably smug. It's not that my opinion doesn't count, it's just that hers always counts a little more. Whenever I mention any current theory about colic or sleep, she grows dismissive, unwilling to acknowledge that her own methods were clearly rooted in the theories of her time.
The first thing to remember: You are allowed, even encouraged, to be selfish during the first postpartum weeks. You're recovering from the hard work of childbirth, tending to a tyrannically needy little person, and trying to keep a household running, all while under the influence of powerful hormones.
Erica Lyon, an independent maternity educator in New York City, offers this litmus test: "If you have a decent relationship with your mom, it's incredibly valuable to have her there. But if there's any doubt about whether your mom can make it totally about you and the baby, or if you feel she'll boss you around and not give you space to develop your relationship with the baby, don't invite her." You may also want to say no if you don't have a guest room, or any of your parenting plans (i.e., the family bed) are likely to horrify her.
Deanna, of Novi, Michigan, learned the hard way that it was much better for her family to be alone the first week. Her visiting mother-in-law greeted her with a pat on the stomach and the immortal words "you didn't lose much weight," and the visit went downhill from there to the moment when the lentil soup that Grandma insisted on making in the pressure cooker exploded all over the house. "Looking back, I wish I had suggested she come when my son was a few months old, rather than a few days old," says Deanna. "People say you need help right away, but I was on a high and wanted to figure things out for myself. I felt I couldn't with her there."
If the grandmas are far more ready for the visit than you are, you can stall by saying (gently) that you want a little time to get to know the baby and get a rhythm going first. You can say you have an opportunity to hire a great baby nurse or doula. If Grandma lives far away and assumes she will be welcome, suggest a long weekend rather than a full week.
Or consider easing the burden on your household by finding a neighbor that she can stay with, or a bed-and-breakfast. Such a setup may feel alien or insulting to some, but you can point out the very real advantages it offers to her: She can have all the baby time she wants during the day, but still get a good night's sleep.
Childbirth can be a time of miracles, and often a grandma will rise to the occasion in ways you never dreamed. However, you have to start with the assumption that she'll be her usual self and arrange the visit to play to her strengths.
The more clearly you make your needs known, the smoother the visit is likely to go. So what is Grandma's job description? One way to approach the visit is to lay out the jobs and match them up to the person. Assume that you will need help with the four basic household tasks: shopping, cooking, cleaning, and laundry.
Deanna says that when her mother arrived for a one-day visit after the birth of her second son, she knew what her priorities were: "You've got to vacuum this house." But if you know your visitor is just not the type to roll up her sleeves for cleaning or KP duty, maybe Grandma's primary role will be babysitting so you can get some fresh air or go to the bank. More youthful grandmas may love taking the baby for walks and giving you some time at home for some much-needed sleep.
Curiously, experts offer up the same advice for the overbearing mother, like my husband's, and the passive one like mine. Even though they're acting in opposite ways, both women are failing to read your cues, and at heart they may both be struggling with similar conflicts about their usefulness. "Each side needs the same thing, which is direction," says Erica Stoller, a social worker and supervisor in the parent-education program at St. Vincent's Hospital, in New York City.
Lyon concurs. "If Mom is overbearing and involved, I would ask her to do very specific things. Say, 'I really need you to give the baby a bath.'" If you're dealing with a hesitant mother who needs help being drawn in, the same strategy tends to apply. "It's almost like working with children," says Stoller. "You say, 'It would be particularly helpful if you'd hold the baby while I shower,' and then you show her you appreciate it."
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.