As A New Parent, How Do I Set Baby Boundaries With Extended Family?
One of my first memories as a new mother was rocking my newborn daughter late one night, both of us in tears, because I had felt pressured by family who wanted as much time with her as possible to keep her up past her bedtime. As my instinct warned me, she was a mess, which meant I was too. I count this as one of my most important new mom lessons: I should have disappointed our family that night instead of sacrificing the sanity that comes with a newborn getting the sleep they need. This was tough for my people-pleasing nature, but with time and experience, I have gotten better and more resolved about setting and keeping these important boundaries.
Be Clear and United
To set strong boundaries, the first step is being clear with yourself and your partner about what those boundaries are, and why. Make sure you are both on the same page before you attempt taking on his family. This prevents the "oh honey, it will be fine" moment of feeling publicly unsupported by your main teammate. You can start with what is most important to you, which sounds like protecting your baby's health. If you and your husband agree that you do not want others holding her at these large family events, take the next step of making a plan.
First, communicate with the primary point people of your husband's extended family—maybe his parents or siblings. Explain your reasoning and expectations prior to the first event so they can hopefully also support you and back you up. It may also pre-empt them feeling slighted about not holding the baby if you let them know you're fine with it at smaller family get-togethers (if you are). Second, set yourselves up for success by limiting easy access to the VIP baby. One example would be wearing your daughter nice and tight under a baby wrap so it's clearly too difficult to unwrap her, and there's a nice barrier between her and so many loving, yet possibly germy, hands!
It's Okay to Be Honest
The above steps may prevent some of the onslaught of attention and pressure to pass around your daughter, but probably not all of it. Be prepared to calmly state your position, and manage the fall out. As a chronic people-pleaser myself, I understand how hard this may be! Especially when you are likely sleep-deprived and barely able to form coherent sentences or get through a sappy commercial without sobbing. Remind yourself that even pre-pandemic, many parents did not expose their pre-vaccinated infants to large groups. It doesn't even have to be about the pandemic at this point, just stick with "we are being careful about her exposure before she can get her shots."
No matter what type of boundary new parents want to set, having a prepared statement like this can be crucial. If we know what we are going to say ahead of the moment of pressure, we come across more confidently. This preparation also reduces the stress of anticipating these boundary-pushing interactions because we tell ourselves, "I know what I'm going to say" instead of ruminating over if it will happen and what it will feel like.
Plan Breaks from the Action
With the amount of stimulation that comes with large, boisterous groups, especially after years of isolating, you may want to plan breaks from the action—for your daughter's sake and yours. Newborns can actually be quite insulated from their larger surroundings, which is why I learned to love taking them to restaurants before they grew into grumpy infants and table-standing toddlers. But newborns are highly sensitive to what's going on with you. The better you calm your own stress at these events, the better for her, too.
Maybe once you arrive, scope out a quiet, unpopulated corner (even a bathroom) to know where you can escape. If baby starts fussing or if you start to feel sensory overload, which she will sense too, give yourself that physical space for a few minutes. Prepare a calming activity, whether it's nursing or doing a 5-minute breathing meditation with her skin to skin. Even knowing you have this strategy in your back pocket can help you enter the get-together with less stress. It turns out babies can be the best excuses ever—it's hard to argue with, "she's getting a little fussy so we'll be back in a few minutes!"
The Bottom Line
You may not be able to change the boundary-pushing nature of other people, but you can find your own sense of control over how your smaller family unit engages with extended family. View this entry into the post-lockdown world as your training wheels for the future of establishing healthy boundaries with this loving, large and boisterous group of relatives. Strengthening your confidence with the why and how of physical boundaries with a newborn will prepare you for each phase of her growth and the demands of extended family that come with it, which will likely grow right along with her.
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Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., is the author of The Art and Science of Mom parenting blog and the upcoming parenting book Parenting for Autonomy. She is a mother of three from Oak Park, Illinois, and a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with children and adolescents.
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