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Making Healthy Families

By Gayle Peterson, Ph.D.

Excerpt from Making Healthy Families
Part Two: Becoming Parents
Chapter Four: Tilling Your Garden

Available for purchase online at Amazon.com

Couple's identity and new family formation

We have already seen how marriage is the coming together of two different family cultures. Family backgrounds differ and conflicting patterns and expectations are inevitable obstacles to work through. The couple must come up with their own new family form. Realignment of relationships to include new parenting and grandparenting roles, as well as adjustment in the marital relationship cries out for new order at the time of the birth of a child.

In addition to the development of parental identities, the couple bond is also stressed by the necessary forging of new family boundaries. Partners must sort through alliances with their childhood families, making sure that these alliances are secondary to, and supportive of, the decisions they make together as a couple. New families need both appropriate boundaries and, ideally, appropriate support from the extended family network. Pitfalls can arise when husbands or wives have difficulty setting limits with intrusive or judgmental in-laws, due to feelings of disloyalty. Everything from differentiating their own parenting style, the values by which they raise their child, to what holiday traditions they will build into their own family structure can cause stress. This stress is healthy fuel for alignment of the new family identity that must emerge.

A new family culture must be forged between husband and wife. The couple's task is to develop a shared sense of child-rearing values. This can be difficult if in-laws are critical instead of supportive when the couple's actions reflect a difference in values or parenting styles from that of the extended family. It is important during this period of adjustment that the couple's bond is strengthened and not divided by the extended family network. Maturation involves differentiating yourself from your family-of-origin, and taking your place in alignment to your spouse in working through these family concerns. The following question and answer illustrates the need to maintain the couple's boundaries in the creation of your own family unit.

Dear Dr. Gayle,
My problem concerns my mother-in-law. She and I got along great until I married my husband and gave birth to our daughter seven months ago. I feel that since the baby was born, she has been trying to take over my life ! (Did I mention my husband is the only child?)

My mother-in-law is very possessive and demanding and from the time I have became pregnant has acted as if the baby was hers (she calls the baby "hers," and fantasizes about doing "Mommy-daughter" stuff with my baby). I think my mother-in-law is trying to live vicariously through my family. I am feeling very rejected, hurt and smothered. This has created so many problems in my marriage that my husband and I almost separated because of it, even though my husband agrees his mom's behavior is very inappropriate.

We tried talking to her about the problem once, but she freaked out and denied everything. My mother-in-law used to be an alcoholic (my father-in-law still is), so they have the "don't talk about problems" attitude. I find it very hard to visit them (which my mother-in-law is demanding more and more frequently) and I find myself getting desperate to move far away. I am ashamed to admit I have even considered leaving my husband and daughter just to get away from this woman. I feel so trapped and I don't know what to do. Help!
- Michelle

Dear Michelle,
Your husband must align his loyalties with you if your marriage is to succeed. The good news is that he knows his mother's behavior is inappropriate. Now it is time for him to do something about it!

Each day your husband does not set limits with your mother-in-law strains your marriage. This is the stage of development in the family life cycle in which it is essential that the two of you create a boundary around your nuclear family. You are a new mother and it is important that your authority be recognized in the extended family. But it is your husband's job to talk with his parents about this boundary in the beginning.

He must show his mother that he supports you in your parental authority and require that you be accepted as his wife and the mother of his child. Not saying anything for fear of his mother's reaction only worsens the situation and reinforces her fantasy that this is "her" child and you are a "third wheel." Let your husband know that you do not expect him to love his mother any less, but that you are now the center of his life and need his support.

Do not despair! You are the wife and mother in this family. Instead of feeling trapped, find your voice as a mother. You and your husband set the guidelines in the family. Explain to your mother-in-law that you appreciate her as a grandmother and ask her how she would like herself referred to, in this role. Would she like your daughter to call her grandma, nana, or some other appropriate endearment? Let her know that you do not want there to be any confusion about who is Mom and who is grandmother for your child. Clarify your expectation for her to speak accordingly to your child. "My grandbaby" might be an appropriate substitution.

Visit only as often as you are comfortable and allow your mother-in-law's participation in your baby's life at the level that feels right to you. With your husband's support, your mother-in-law will come to accept her natural place as a grandmother. And in time, you will feel increasingly secure in your position as a mother.

Remember, too, that your mother-in-law is adjusting to sharing her only child with his new family. No doubt her tenacity to "live vicariously" has much to do with her loneliness in her own marriage, however you cannot change this for her.

Although there may be some reaction from your mother-in-law as she adjusts to grandmotherhood, she will most certainly get over any feelings of rejection if you continue to include her in your life. Send her cards, invite her to visit you and the baby even though she falls silent. Expect this but do react to childish behavior. Consider her frailty, but do not take your cues from her. Act with the maturity of your new identity as mother and treat her with patience until she comes around. It is unlikely she will continue to "cut off her nose to spite her face," once some time has passed.
-Dr. Gayle

We are more likely to avoid "acting out" our feelings and needs through behavior that damages relationship if we take time to consider our communication patterns and how they contribute to, or detract from, successful conflict resolution and ongoing dialogue. Communication tools that promote rather than inhibit discussions is what the rest of this chapter is all about!

Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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