Changing the Rules

PD_Seniors_SEN013 You may have been able to avoid spending holidays with your in-laws before you had children. But, once your mother-in-law becomes your baby's grandmother, the situation is decidedly stickier. And because holidays can be stressful even under the best of circumstances, adding new mom anxiety to visits with the in-laws can easily create a disaster worse than Aunt Betty's fruitcake.

Being Clear

In situations where your in-laws are putting your child in danger, your response must be immediate, say Judith Sherven, PhD, and James Sniechowski, PhD, authors of The New Intimacy. "Together with your husband, explain to his mother in no uncertain terms that if she wants to continue to visit, she must abide by your decisions," they recommend.

Getting Criticism

If your mother-in-law's actions are actually endangering your baby, your husband will undoubtedly back you up without hesitation. But sometimes it is "just" your ability to mother your child that is called into question.

Less than a month after her first son was born, Carrie Myers Smith of New Hampshire, went to her in-laws' home for Thanksgiving. Her son, who had been born four weeks premature and was receiving small amounts of formula while Smith built up her milk supply, was extremely fussy. Smith took him away from the family gathering to nurse him in a quiet room. "My father-in-law came in and in his 'all-knowing' way said, 'I think he should be on more formula. Our kids had formula, and they turned out okay.'" Smith was livid.

"You have to expect that your in-laws will disagree with you on just about everything you do with your baby," says Sybil Evans, author of Hot Buttons: How to Resolve Conflict and Cool Everyone Down. "There should be no surprises." She suggests that before the holidays arrive, you take some time to figure out how you will react to the inevitable criticism.

Practicing Your Responses

"Imagine that you are watching a play," says Evans. "Picture your in-laws saying their piece. Envision yourself responding. Are you retreating? Frowning?" She cautions that such behavior automatically sets up a confrontational situation. Instead, Evans says, keep the "zingers" out of your conversation. Stay balanced whether it is through deep breathing, repeating a mantra, or focusing on a single point in the room. Keep your remarks level.

"A woman's husband needs to support her against any violation by his parents, and vice versa," say Drs. Sherven and Sniechowski. But, cut him a little slack if he does not always agree with you. "If your husband sides with his mother against you, that should be a private discussion."

Choosing the Right Words

What exactly should you say when your choices are being challenged? Bear in mind that questions starting with "why" put people on the defensive because "being asked to explain ourselves makes us feel like children," says Rebecca Ward, author of How to Stay Married Without Going Crazy. She recommends a straightforward response that leaves no room for argument: "I feel awkward having to explain myself and defending my choices as a mother." With an answer such as this one, Ward says, "You are not attacking anyone. You are only talking about your own experiences, and nobody can argue with that."

If your husband takes his mother's side in front of the family, says Ward, lay your feelings on the line. "Say, 'I do not feel very supported by you, and that hurts me.'"

Finding Another Option

Marla Milling, a mother from North Carolina, says that holidays with her mother-in-law means walking on eggshells. "When we celebrate the holidays at her house, she spends the entire time telling [my children] what they cannot or should not do, and spends the rest of the time telling us that our children are not progressing fast enough to suit her. She thinks there is a time limit for potty training, walking…everything," says Milling. "If she would just relax, we could have nice family holidays. But as it is, no one has a good time around her."

One solution to this problem might be to stay in a hotel, says Ward. Again, she stresses that presentation—and semantics—are crucial when stating your case. "Do not make any judgments," she cautions. "Say, 'This is your home, and I understand that you have rules of behavior that must be followed here. I am upset when my children need to be corrected. I am worried they will break something—and I am worried about the effect of their behavior on your relationship with them. I would be more comfortable if we stayed in a hotel.'" These statements, says Ward, give your mother-in-law information. She can use it as she wishes—and you can keep your glad tidings intact.

Staying Home

There is no reason to dread the holidays, even if you think working—or even childbirth—is preferable to spending time with your in-laws. Put the advice offered by the experts into practice, and you may just discover that your mood goes from Grinch-like to glee. Of course, there is one other option. "If it is easier for you to stay home for the holidays, stay home," counsels Smith. "If the grandparents want to see the baby, let them come to you."