Boundary-Setting With Loved Ones After Baby
by Dr. Maria Shifrin
There is so much anecdotal and scholarly research out there about the value of a reliable support network during the early days of motherhood. Many moms wish they had nearby parents, in-laws, aunts, cousins, etc., whose help they could summon per diem, no questions asked. It was certainly true for me that in those first few weeks, even months, postpartum. Having some relief was a welcome blessing. But the thing that seems to be missing from the conversation about gathering our “villages”, is how we set the boundaries within them. The challenge? Making sure that our homes — and more importantly — our children — don’t end up becoming communal property over which we no longer have control.
In my clinical work, the question I’ve encountered many mothers wondering is: how do they ask for the support they need from their families and loved ones without sacrificing sole rights over their bodies, their homes, or their bonding time with their kids? What makes this dilemma even more pervasive, is that it not only applies to the early postpartum periods, but continues on throughout motherhood at all ages and stages.
As new mothers, our sense of ownership over our bodies seems to disappear almost immediately. We no longer calls the shots. Even our bathroom visits need to be timed accordingly so as not to interrupt a feed, a nap, or whatever our children need at the very same moment we need to take care of a bodily function. Once our kids start crawling, then walking, then running, or climbing, and inevitably falling — and needing the requisite hugs and kisses — our bodies are the ones that they seek for their comfort. Moms are universally known as the head-strokers, the foot rubbers, the climbers-on-ers. Our kids often feel like they have unlimited access to us — and permission to touch, squeeze, rub, poke, lick, bite, and wipe their dirty hands and noses (or anything else) on any and all parts of us, whenever they please. This feeling of near-total loss of agency is often referred to by moms as a state of being “touched out” .
On top of the — at times suffocating — demands of the mother-child relationship, we may also be contending the demands of another kind of mother-child relationship: The ones we have with our own mothers. Many of us have experienced that moment when, after a day of cluster feeding or tending to a clingy toddler, or angry preschooler, our mothers might enter enter the scene with every intention of being helpful. And of course, we so desperately want their help; and yet, their presence feels intrusive, and their advice feels overwhelmingly judgmental. Why is this? Several reasons may be in play: One, motherhood inevitably evokes unresolved conflicts, resentments and insecurities about our relationships with our moms. The same is true for our mothers, with regard to their relationships with us: When they become grandmothers, they may unconsciously attempt to repair the things they feel they didn’t get right with us when we were young, via their correcting of our mothering of their grandchildren.
Mother and daughter then get stuck in a guilt-passing game of hot potato, leaving the new mom feeling defeated
For example, research on sleep training and self-soothing was not as robust 35 years ago. Grandma might feel compelled to guilt her daughter about letting her 8-month-old cry-it-out. Meanwhile, Grandma let her own babies cry-it-out at 3 months because she was advised to do so by her own family. Mother and daughter then get stuck in a guilt-passing game of hot potato, leaving the new mom feeling defeated and unsure of her decisions, and resenting her mother for inflicting an additional emotional burden rather than being supportive. More often than not, the relational mother-daughter dynamics outside of our awareness, are contributing to the ambivalent or negative feelings we are experiencing.
Major parenting decisions — whether they have to do with our kids’ education, how we discipline, or even whether our children need supportive services — can all provoke unsolicited advice from our parents and close relatives. Another reason for the confusing experience of simultaneously wanting our moms, and wishing we could move as far away from them as possible; is just how much guilt our mothers, and other significant mother figures in our lives, are capable of inducing in us. No matter how well we might be doing in the parenting department; hearing a critique, comment, or suggestion, from our mothers, favorite aunts, or mother-in-laws, can be maddening. One reason this might feel painful to metabolize, is that regardless of their intentions, these gestures can trigger intense insecurities about not being “enough” in some way. The thing that mothers struggle with most — guilt — over you-name-it, comes right up to the surface when someone who doesn’t live our motherhood experiences tells us that we should be doing it differently.
If we know what makes us tick, it becomes easier to have an open discussion with our families and friends about what we want to hear, and what we don’t.
The tricky part with this becomes navigating a dialogue with the important people in our lives so that there is a mutual understanding and respect. We must find a way to express how much we value their input and presence, while also asking them to be mindful of making their input constructive by following our lead. In other words, when we want their opinion, we will ask them for it (but otherwise, they should know to keep their opinions to themselves), but also remind them we love them and appreciate their help! And to be fair, we moms owe it to ourselves to become familiar with our emotional triggers so that we don’t end up rejecting help, or good advice because we’re feeling defensive or insecure. If we know what makes us tick, it becomes easier to have an open discussion with our families and friends about what we want to hear, and what we don’t.
The belief that there is a trade-off between accepting help or support, and forfeiting our wishes and needs can be damaging to our self-esteem and relationships. It also takes away from our ability to be present with our kids. Some of my patients have shared with me that their mothers or mothers-in-laws plan to move in for the first month or two after their babies are born and they refuse to say no because it will cause conflict. There are just too many things wrong with this mentality to fit in one essay, but the glaring one here is the misconception that once the village comes, it stays. In my experience, ruffling a few feathers while negotiating the new way of life as both a daughter/daughter-in-law and a mother is worth it. Not only will ignoring our needs in the service of accepting help make that help less valuable to us, but it will likely create power struggles, and feelings of helplessness and neglect.
Most of the time, our parents and loved ones are just doing what they think or feel is helpful; they have no clue what we are thinking or feeling unless we reflect on it and share. Their intention is usually not to take over or tell us what to do, but it can be easily misinterpreted, leaving a lot of pain and resentment. If their intentions are in fact to be controlling, then the boundaries need to be set in stone, and unwaveringly consistent. In reality, saying and owning what we want and need from our village to support our motherhood journey is the best boundary setting strategy there is.
Dr. Maria Shifrin is a clinical psychologist with a private practice in New York City. A mother of two, she is a strong believer in parental mental health to help foster a well-adjusted next generation.
Image by Anja Niemi, “La femme qui n’a jamais existé”, via L’Oeuil de la Photographie.