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New baby: Conflict with mother-in-law

QUESTION: I am a first-time mom of a 5-month-old baby girl. My husband and I are very happy, but we do have some conflict with his parents. My mother-in-law consistently offers to baby-sit, in spite of our continual decline. It is her first grandchild. My husband and I feel it is very important for us to be with our daughter, and don't feel like we are lacking in alone-time. But my Mother-in-law will not take "no" for an answer and is bad-mouthing us to the rest of the family. How can I have her respect my decision, while still fostering a close relationship?

ANSWER: Clearly your mother-in-law has been looking forward to becoming a grandparent. Since it is her first experience dealing with a daughter-in-law who is also a mother, try to adopt a patient approach. Trust that others in the family will see that your reticence to involve your mother-in-law at the level she desires is a matter of timing, rather than exclusion.

Daughters who are close to their mothers often do feel greater ease leaving a young baby with their mothers, while daughter-in-laws may feel less comfortable doing so until they get to know their mother-in-law better. Daughter-in-laws may also diverge more in their child rearing philosophy from that of the mother-in-law. Although you are feeling like the "black sheep" in the family, rest assured that this conflict is not an unusual one and will likely resolve with time. The difficulty is that this all new for you, too!

Consider the following suggestions to help you navigate sensitive family relationships, in this first year of motherhood:

1. Allow your husband to take the lead in communicating with his mother
Your husband is a member of his own family, so his voice will be heard more easily. When your mother-in-law brings up baby-sitting, ask your husband to follow up with her, reminding her that there will be plenty of time for baby-sitting in the future, but that the two of you are not in need of it yet, and do not feel ready to leave your baby.

2. Expect to repeat your message
Rather than become upset by your mother-in-law's interpretation, develop patience with her difficulty adjusting to the situation. She is asking repeatedly because she is having a hard time understanding. Respond by once again, letting her know you are just not ready for a baby-sitter, but are certain there will come a time when you will take her up on it.

3. Speak openly and sympathetically about differences
Speak about this difficulty when it comes up with other family members, rather than taking offense or falling silent. For example: "Yes, I know it is so hard on grandma. She wants to baby-sit so badly. We are just not ready to leave our baby." Take the high road. Acknowledge differences without criticizing.

4. Find acceptable ways to involve grandma
Invite your mother-in-law to your home to visit with baby and family. Encourage her to hold your daughter and develop her relationship with her grandchild in your presence. Or ask her to accompany you and your husband on an outing to the zoo, for example. When she is with you, allow her to hold her granddaughter, push her stroller and play with her. Encourage appropriate interaction between grandma and baby.

Keep in mind that it is sometimes our reactions to situations that escalate conflict. Take these differences in stride. After all, you are the parent. You are in charge! Practicing these suggestions, you may find yourself increasingly patient, rather than threatened. And as you maintain your ground in a sympathetic fashion, you are likely to lighten the situation, rather than intensify it.

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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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