5 Mothers On Navigating Relationships With In-Laws

When I first imagined Mother Untitled, I wanted to create the vibe of the playdates I was having with other smart, kind and open moms leaning into this chapter. One of the inevitable conversations that comes up among friends in the early years of parenting and marriage is managing the new dynamics integrating into our partner's family and creating positive relationships for our children within a culture that is different to what you're used to. It's a topic I committed to not comment on personally publicly so I asked mothers I admire to comment because I think there is so much camaraderie and comfort in understanding the universal challenges, how everyone is uniquely working through differences and the key to peace. 


pat, mother of two, brooklyn, NY 

My mother-in-law is British making our divide cultural as well. Her ability to insult while chirping in a lithe and lyrical British twang is almost admirable...

We actually had a public argument about six weeks postpartum with my second when she was visiting New York. It's like my delicate hold on sanity and her issues pent up. All the things were too much for both of us. We legitimately yelled, cried, I yelled at my husband to back me up (he did). In public.  Yes. It was awful.  They then had to go straight to an airport.  HOWEVER...that opened all the gates. No more tensions on my end. No more beating around the bush. 

I called her the next day, something I've never done and not since to be honest, and we cleared the air as best we could. We apologized and the next visit was better.  

We will never be close but I think we are both comfortable with that. It's a shame and sadly it makes her less close to her son and grandkids and I'm not sure she even realizes it. When she visits, I try to imagine if my son left the country and had a family and I didn't see him often. I want to die thinking of that for my own life..so that allows me a certain amount of empathy to how she might be feeling. Her weirdness is wrapped in love and I think sadness that she doesn't get to see her own baby that much.

It's never easy seeing her but she's a great grandma who flies over to sit if we need her too and Skypes each week. We are just soo different.  It's complicated!

Susan, mother of two, bedford, NY (the Parenting Mentor & Author of Parenting: 101 Ways to Rock Your World)

My two cents:

Accept limitations - For example, they need to plan ahead vs being spontaneous, even if they live around the corner. They don’t initiate requests to get together, they won’t do bath time, change diapers, etc.  Instead of letting these things bother you, just work around them. Avoid thinking or saying the phrase, “ I can’t believe they don’t/won’t….” 

Create  boundaries  - this is crucial! If you aren’t okay with random drop-ins, make that clear. If you don’t want them providing critiques of your parenting skills, (who does??) or questioning the way you discipline,  you need to stop this right away! The key is HOW you do this. As frustrating as it may be, communicate to your in-laws with love and kindness. Try something like this:  “We love that you want to come over and see us and your grandchild. Just dropping by doesn’t work for us.  Please call ahead or let’s  plan in advance" or “Clearly you guys were great parents! [Husband] is so wonderful.  And, we know that you only want what is best for your grandchild. But we are parenting the way that works best for us. We really want to figure this out ourselves.” 

Validate concerns - By validating any concerns your in-laws have about your parenting or your child, it takes them off the defensive. (Bonus - this works with anyone!) Thank them for their concern and their advice and tell them you will think about/ investigate/ask your doctor, etc.  You can always follow-up  and let them know that the doctor said everything is fine or you discussed their concern with your husband and decided  to handle it a different way but appreciate their concern. 

Gifts, food, safety, nicknames - It’s important that you communicate clearly about these types of issues. If “weapons”  are not acceptable, let them know. If you don’t want them taking your kids out for McDonalds, make that clear. No sharp scissors - give them a pair of kids scissors to keep on hand. If you don’t want Victoria called Vicki, be firm.  Again, preface your comments with something like, “I know you may think I’m nuts/over-protective/etc.  but I feel really strongly about [x] and need to know that you will respect that."

Encourage a relationship with your children  - You don’t have to be best friends with your in-laws, but the more you encourage time spent with the grandchildren, the happier they will be.  If they are able, alone-time is best for everyone!  Call every week (in the book I suggest setting up a regular video chat or call with family members).

Always remember these are your husband’s parents  - they did something right!  

Daniella, mother of one, Brooklyn, New York

Something I’m working through is accepting that my in laws’ parenting style is different than my own. I have to work on this with most adults. People will often freak out when Ness falls while I wait and see if there’s any cause for a reaction at all. That kinda thing... but with my mom I guide her to do things my way. And with my dad I kinda just yell at him which um... I wouldn’t recommend. But with my in laws it’s a constant accepting that yes they don’t do things my way and no I don’t really have the right to scold or school them (when I do, I’m left feeling icky and I’m sure it’s the same on the other end.) So my practice these days is just to enjoy my son enjoying his grandparents. Cause, as I remember, it doesn’t really get better than that. 

Oh also! I work on not recapping with my husband or whomever in front of Ness. I feel like that’s so confusing for kids. Talking behind people’s backs. Even if it’s good stuff. 

I’m like 45% successful at all the above. By September 1, I expect to be at a handsome 75%. Work. In. Progress. 

alexandra, mother of one, New York, New York

My in laws do know how I prefer them to play and spend time with my baby.  For instance, if she's enjoying her independent play, they allow her the freedom and space to do so without interfering because they know that's important to me (and to her!). They also make sure to let us know if they are going to visit and don't come by unannounced. They do want to see my child weekly so we make sure to make time for that and work around their working schedules even if it means that the baby is tired and if its during her bedtime routine which isn't ideal. So I'd say the boundaries are about compromise on both ends while not sacrificing my baby's well being of course. 

My in laws tend to think that I'm a little uptight about how I parent, I insist on a schedule and trying to maintain routine for my baby. They feel it should be a more carefree, on the go, type of situation. I manage this difference by making sure to point out when I do allow some space for us to stray a bit from our routine, for instance, bringing the baby to an early dinner at a restaurant, or having her sleep on the beach or at their apartment for a nap. I think that because we're so different, it's important to also explain the mentality around why I do things the way I do. I'll explain, for example, that if she goes to sleep too late after her normal bedtime, it means that she's up more at night, which isn't ideal for anyone. So I would say openness and transparency about my differences has helped. 

I'm working through the fact that they want to spend a lot of time with her, yet they aren't the most helpful. I can't tell if its that they just don't know how to help, aren't the most eager to help, or they're a bit uncomfortable and need some adjusting. My husband and I are working through this by asking them to take on more tasks like feeding her a bottle, burping her, etc when they are with us. We have also recently asked them to babysit, even though it makes us all a bit uncomfortable. I think its important for them to feel we trust them and important for them to get more comfortable. 

Caz, mother of three, London, UK, Founder of Leadership of Mums

I think it's very easy to get a bit weighed down by all the well meaning information and advice of others in the early days of pregnancy and parenting. Not to mention the expectations of family when there’s a new baby coming. It may be that there are Grandparent expectations around being able to come over and whenever they are available, that might be just want you need, but if that doesn’t suit you then you need to set some boundaries early on. Kind, loving boundaries are best for everyone as they assert your needs (for example: your need for sleep/no visitors/not having to host anyone/ or needing extra help etc.) without crushing the other person’s good intentions.

I hope I have always made my in laws feel welcome in our home, but I leave any potentially tricky conversations with them up to my husband (and he knows he has my support in the background). They are his parents. And I take responsibility for discussing with my parents if the need arises (and I know I have his support).

Your house, your rules -  my children have regularly stayed overnight with their grandparents, and I have always provided lists of lists and guidelines galore (as you do), but they were parents of young children once and my husband turned out OK! So I know I can trust them to do a good job and keep them safe.

- One more for the cultural divide - 

Lisa, mother of three, New York, New York

We have no boundaries, really, because my in-laws are VERY respectful and in some ways I wish they weren’t so formal, but it obviously has its benefits.

We have have a lot of differences.  Cultural (my MIL is French, FIL is English), generational (obviously), and they take a different approach to communication than I do.  Candor and openness are not always welcome, I learned that the hard way and now keep my mouth shut most about most things that really, really matter!

I'm still working through how to keep everyone happy while being a trans-Atlantic flight away.  Always a constant battle.