Saturday, May 21, 2011

Me and the In-Laws: Letting Time do the Telling

Like many new parents, when we had our son, we were on the receiving end of quite a bit of well-meant advice. Some of it, we sought out or asked for from people we trusted; our midwives, or friends who had just had a baby a few months before us. My husband and I had done a lot of reading, so we felt informed about the first few choices we would be making as parents – to co-sleep, to breast feed as long as possible, to use cloth diapers, and to skip a lot of the things (swings, play yards, and other various items) that the Baby Industry declare as necessary when you become parents. For us, we had everything we needed to be parents: my sling, diaper service, clothes and each other.

My family – from my mom, my step-mom (the one who partially raised me), my dad and his current wife, my aunts, even my grandmother (who largely disagrees with my parenting) – however, did not give advice. They all agreed on a few key things about new babies and new families: that the first few weeks are the most special as a new family, that you are figuring out who you are as parents and who your baby is. The first few weeks are when you discover your routine. The first few weeks are intimate, and the new family is best left alone – unless they ask for help or advice.

My husband’s family, on the other hand, had different views – and the culture in their family is completely different. After the birth of my son, my mother-in-law visited for one week by herself, and then two weeks later, she and my father-in-law both visited for the week over Christmas. They offered their advice freely, simply because that was what had been done to them and that was what they did to my husband's sisters. And it had never occurred to them to question the accuracy of the advice they received or if it lined up with their gut instincts about how they wanted to raise their children.

I, in comparison, was raised to question everything and to do enough research to know why I felt the way I did. So, when my in-laws offered such things – that they assumed were true – as “let the baby cry, it’s good for it’s lungs” or “if you always hold the baby, it will always want to be held” or “if you always nurse the baby to sleep, it will never go to sleep any other way” and other such tidbits, I tried to be polite, but firm in my response, whether I said, “He doesn’t need to cry to strengthen his lungs; they were fully developed and healthy at birth,” or “I don’t mind nursing my baby to sleep or holding him – it’s such a short period of time in the long run.” My in-laws offered up other parenting advice, why my six week old needed to get a grip and learn to self-soothe, he needed to learn how to put himself to sleep, the merits of corporal punishment at home and in the schools (I didn’t think corporal punishment was still legal in the schools, but in Texas, it’s still used and my husband went to schools where it was used.) I spent so much time trying to be polite and firm and deflecting their advice (some of which I found appalling) that by the time they left, I was exhausted.

And I felt criticized and judged – sure, my newborn nursed every 30 minutes because he was constantly hungry (he was also constantly growing – at the end of 6 weeks, his 3 months sized clothes no longer fit) but other than that he was a gorgeously happy and content baby. Did they really think we were so off track in our parenting that we needed advice without asking? Granted, in my family, we have the common saying that unsolicited advice is criticism. Still, I had tried my best to be polite, because while my in-laws are from Texas, their culture is completely different. And still, my responses did not go over well. My in-laws went home and wrote my husband a letter about how I was oversensitive to all of their unsolicited advice when clearly it came from their love and experience.

Needless to say, this did not go over well with me.

(Okay, actually, I don’t know if I’ve ever been so hurt or angry before in my life.)

There were a lot of other various things that did not work about my in-laws lengthy visit that I don’t necessarily need to go into; I will say that while I got along with my in-laws before the birth of my son, after their visit, our relationship was rather strained to say the least.

And I was fortunate – my husband’s work took us overseas for a year. While my in-laws visit their other grandchildren every six to eight weeks, they had no desire to visit us across the globe in Singapore or Bali. Without meaning to, my in-law relationship was put into a much needed time-out. By the time we returned to the states and had settled into a home, so they could visit us again, it had been two years since we had seen them. They hadn’t seen my son since he was six months old.

Their visit was last weekend.

Overall, it went well. Surprisingly well. And I realized a couple of things that I had no clue about when my son was a newborn. Mainly, that time was on my side. It didn’t feel like it then. When my in-laws appalled me by their views on corporal punishment, I wasn’t really in a position six weeks into new parenthood to say that we wouldn’t be punishing or even giving our child a time-out – I had nothing except my gut instinct and the books I had read to support me, while they based their views in the rearing of their three children and what my husband’s sisters did with the other four grandchildren. But over the course of their weekend visit, my son behaved the way he always did and they could see our child rearing works – for us. We don’t let our son walk all over us, and there was no point over the weekend, where any kind of punishment would have been necessary.

Or over two years ago when my father-in-law told me that if I always held my baby, he would always want to be held? And this last weekend when my father-in-law asked my son, “Can I hold you?” and my son took off running to discover something? Okay, yes, in my head, I was snarky and thought something along the lines of “guess that piece of advice turned out to be true.” But I didn’t say a word.

I let my son and who he was speak for himself. As they say, the proof is in the pudding.

If I had a chance to talk to who I was as a new mom feeling bombarded with advice from the opposite end of the parenting spectrum I don’t know what I would tell her. Despite the two years of strain, I am glad I tried my best to define our boundaries as a family. My husband says I permanently cured his parents from ever offering advice again. And there were moments this past weekend when I could tell his mother was biting her tongue – at our choice to not enroll our son into pre-school or that we don’t know what we’ll do for his education, but we’re looking at something along the lines of home school or traditional public school alternatives.

But now I have the gift of knowing that how we are with our son, and how we’re raising our son – and the child that will soon arrive – works for us. It doesn’t need to work for anyone else. Just us.


shinybutton said... [Reply to comment]

Great post! My mom was the renegade in her family. She saw some families in her church, that didn't hit their kids, and were cuddly and understanding with their children. So, as a young child, she made a decision that when she had kids, she'd raise them like that, instead of the way she was being raised.

She got all kinds of dire predictions about what would become of me, when she announced that they had decided not to spank. She actually had to leave one visit, when her mother decided to take it upon herself to do the spanking (I was 9 months at the time), and we never went back until she promised to never lay a hand on me again.

They were sufficiently convinced later on, when I was the best behaved child of the bunch. I actually became like the Pied Piper, and all of my cousins followed me into whatever fun, creative, quiet play I came up with, during our visits. The family was amazed at how well behaved all the kids were, during our visits.

I'd learned early on, that if I didn't want to see the disturbing sight of my little cousins getting spanked, I'd best keep them busy doing quiet things.

Later, all those cousins grew up and started coming to my Mom for advice about parenting. There were so many of them, she decided to give them all classes. We met once a month, and I took care of the kids, while she taught them everything she had learned from all the books she'd read, and tried out that worked for us.

Those cousins' kids have grown up, and so many of them are so grateful to my Mom, for helping our family break the cycle of violence and rigidity in our family.

So, it's true that time will tell, and when it does, it can have a real impact on the rest of the world!

Tara said... [Reply to comment]

Thank you! What a beautiful comment! Thanks for sharing!

Julian@connectedmom said... [Reply to comment]

Thanks for a great post Tara!

It took me a few months of head butting to realize that if I just let time do the talking the nay-sayers would eventually go away. or take their comments elsewear when they say that what we were doing was working.

I wish i'd gotten the 2 year break in between though! lol

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