Beth and her sister-in-law share a rental house at the beach for a week every summer. Their kids—three between them—crowd into one bedroom, dive into big plates of pancakes every morning, and spend the days swimming and zooming around on a fleet of well-loved tricycles and bikes. It’s bliss. But as is often the case with family, and especially in-laws, this annual tradition wasn’t always so happy.
Cut to bedtime on the first night of the first beach trip, three years ago. “We got the kids brushed and jammied and up to bed. Then out of nowhere, my sister-in-law asked my nephew if he really wanted to go to sleep right then,” recalls Beth. “Of course, the little guy said, ‘No, wanna watch TV!’ She immediately took him out of bed and brought him downstairs.” It was a small moment, but a significant one: “My girls gave me this betrayed look. Until that moment, they had no idea these things were negotiable.”
The dynamic reared its head for the next six days at mealtime, playtime, and nearly every time between. Beth felt judged for being strict. Her sister-in-law felt judged for being a pushover. “I gritted my teeth to get through that first trip,” says Beth. But swallowing your feelings goes only so far. Eventually, most of us will explode in rage (usually over something minor) or start making passive-aggressive comments. That’s why I decided to talk to real moms (last names withheld) who’ve dealt with all kinds of family drama and kept their cool. Here are their most successful strategies.
Karen lives with her husband and their three sons in what she calls “a fart-friendly home.” She also (don’t be shocked) occasionally curses in front of her children. The behavior worked for them until they spent the day at her parents’ house. “The strongest language I recall my mother using when I was a kid was bull tushy. And farting was, well, out of the question,” Karen says. Like so many of us, she often feels like a child again when she goes home. And her parents may think of her as a child too. “Grandmas are used to being in charge, and taking a step back and letting a daughter be the parent is a new role,” says parenting expert Betsy Braun Brown, author of Just Tell Me What to Say. If you can muster some empathy for that experience, it can go a long way.
To make visits smoother, Karen ultimately let her kids in on the secret: Grandma and Grandpa are a little uptight, and boy, aren’t we lucky we can be sillier at home?
For Joy’s mother’s 60th birthday, their entire family went on a cruise together. “Can you use the word clusterf___ in a national magazine?” asks Joy. “Because the sit-down dinners for all 20 people every night were exactly that.” Between Joy and her sister (who both have kids), their two single brothers, her parents, and their elderly parents, no one wanted the same thing out of the trip. “The kids are crying in all the photos. But my sister and I wanted to be there for our mom,” says Joy.
Months later, Joy says she doesn’t regret the trip, exactly, but next time, she’ll be clearer about her expectations. “If you’re planning, do not be vague about what you’re committing to, even if Grammy is footing the bulk of the bill,” she advises. Same goes for how mealtimes will be handled. How much together time is everyone counting on, and how will adults get some individual peace?
As for Beth, who shares the house at the beach with her sister-in-law, it was a manager-training course at work that eventually helped her get along. “I realized that the roles we take in parenting aren’t unlike the roles we have at work. Just as people have different styles of handling employees, you can have different yet successful ways of interacting with your kids,” she says. “My style is authoritative and my SIL’s is permissive, but neither is wrong and both are formed by love.” This is a concept that kids can understand and that Beth explained to her daughters. “Now my girls know that when I lay down the law—and when I compromise with their aunt—it’s done with love,” says Beth.
Watching how you handle family disagreements is a great way for your child to learn adaptability, says Parents advisor Robin Berman, M.D., a psychiatrist and author of Permission to Parent. “A flexible child grows up to be a more resilient adult. After all, if you don’t bend, you break. It’s okay to make exceptions to your usual rules.”
Nearly two thirds of mothers have felt judged for their parenting decisions, and that criticism is three times more likely to come from people within their close circle than from outside it, according to a C. S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health. My own first taste of family judgment came in Week 1 of motherhood, when I was hell-bent on breastfeeding. I wanted to do it, my newborn son definitely wanted to do it (“Wahhhh!”), but it was hard, and everyone had their opinion. My mother-in-law urged me to quit. My own mom kept insisting I must be doing something wrong with the latch.
I guess I understood that they were meddling out of love, but when your nipples are bleeding and your baby is screaming, who’s got the wherewithal to be that clearheaded? I’ll tell you who: an expert. Specifically, a lactation consultant, who insisted everyone leave the room, declared my nipples flat, and gave me her blessing to use a nipple shield that I then carried with me in a denture case everywhere I went.
Then there’s Melissa, whose extended family is on a campaign to “fix” her 2-year-old daughter’s thumb-sucking. “As she’s gotten older, my mother-in-law has made stronger and stronger comments, such as, ‘Can’t you just tell her to stop?’ or ‘What if she does it at school?’” Melissa says. “And I’m thinking, ‘She can hear you.’ I don’t want her to feel bad about a habit that she does when she needs comfort in the first place!”
Rather than ignoring her MIL’s comments, Melissa finally told her she understood that she was trying to help. Then Melissa explained the steps she was taking to end the thumbsucking. “It’s an ongoing process, but one my mother-in-law is finally starting to buy into,” she says.
Once you become a parent, dynamics with your sibs can be tricky. When you make different choices, it can rekindle previous tensions or feel like you’re making judgments against each other. Growing up, Laura was used to being compared with her older sister. She wasn’t in her sister’s shadow, exactly, but she wore her hand-me-down Easter dresses and had all the same teachers three years later. “It was really only after college that we had separate lives, separate cities, new friends,” says Laura. “And as much as I look up to her, I loved having individuality. Then we both got pregnant at the same time.”
Both sisters were having boys, due just weeks apart. Quickly, everything became comparison fodder all over again: who was carrying higher, which strollers they were getting, how much time each could take for maternity leave. “That was all in good fun, but when I decided to quit nursing at six months, I felt judged by my sister for the first time,” says Laura. “She kept asking if I was sure. It was upsetting not to live up to her expectations.”
This is the point where I’m supposed to tell you that Laura and her sister had a big heart-to-heart. Only they didn’t. “I’m not naturally confrontational,” says Laura. “And as I thought it through, I realized that the person I needed to make peace with was myself. There will be many things that we do the same way as moms, and many we don’t. I learned to feel a real freedom in being my own person.”
Plenty of us have parents or in-laws who are helping us pay the bills. In a TD Ameritrade survey of parents ages 19 to 37 and grandparents ages 50 to 70, the millennial respondents said their parents give them, on average, $11,000 a year in financial support and unpaid babysitting. About 30 percent of them said they got weekly child care from their parents, and more than half said they had received financial support from their parents in the past year.
Of course, all this help can come at a price. On Gilmore Girls, the grandparents famously mandated Friday-night dinners together in exchange for school tuition. Yes, it was an imposition, but at least their expectations were clear. In real life, the moms I talked to described blurrier circumstances.
Jodie says she’s “unspeakably grateful” to her children’s grandparents, who paid for professional training that boosted her career. They also took her crew on paid vacations. “Thanks to their incredible support, now we can pay for our own vacations, but we can’t exactly leave them out,” she says. “They make me nuts, but I want to respect their investment in me, so we still vacation together.”
Sarah gratefully accepts her parents’ help with tuition for her sons but feels guilty because she worries that her father has delayed his retirement because of it. And then there’s Amy’s cultural-financial-geographic ball of wax. As a new mom in a small town in Indiana, she knows she’s lucky to have free child care in the form of her in-laws, who look after her 9-month-old son four days a week. But she doesn’t love it when they balk at her suggestions to wash his teether or change his clothes when the weather warms up in the afternoons. “I’m learning not only which battles to pick but also how to have those conversations without crying or yelling,” she says.
Jodie, Sarah, and Amy have all found that embracing gratitude goes a long way. Remembering that grandparents give mostly out of love—not just for Jedi mind control—can keep anger at bay. So does reminding yourself that you have options. You don’t have to say yes to every gift, but if you do, you should feel like you’ve chosen that path.
Recently, Amy and her husband toured a day-care center to see what it was like. “It was within our budget and trustworthy, but I was surprised not to love it,” Amy says. “I realized that even in a place where I was paying for care, I wouldn’t have control over all the details.” Still, she felt better for giving herself the option. Then she decided, truly on her own, to keep her baby in her in-laws’ care.
“I might walk out of their garage cursing my mother-in-law under my breath, but I never worry about my son being loved,” she says. “No amount of money could buy love like that.”
Lauren Smith Brody is the author of The Fifth Trimester, a book for new moms returning to the workplace.