Photo Credit: Rick Cowan

Plenty of people struggle with maintaining happy and healthy relations with their in-laws. Bring a newborn into the equation and unexpected sticky in-law situations can quickly arise.

You likely spent a lot of time with your in-laws before getting married. And you may have felt that they were involved in your pregnancy — baby showers, advice and perhaps even aspects of the birth. Even if you want to include your in-laws during this exciting time, you will want to retain your personal space. If nothing else, you’ll be upset if your boundaries are ignored; the worst, longtime conflicts may take shape.

Protect yourself without damaging the in-law relationship

Here are six tips on how to stand up for yourself, say no and keep your relationship with your in-laws positive:

1. Insist they always check in before arriving unannounced.

    • The issue: Unexpected visitors can be a huge source of strife, especially for exhausted parents of a newborn. In the excitement, in-laws may not see any reason to call before dropping something off or visiting to “help” you in any way they can. They think, “They’re family — what’s the harm?” Suddenly, you feel your boundaries shrinking. You may feel guilty stopping them, feeling selfish by denying them access to their grandchild.
    • What to do: Emphasize how much you’d love them to visit and connect with their new grandchild. But, remind them of the chaos of newborn: The baby’s sleep schedule is completely unpredictable; your sleep schedule is out of whack; etc. Tell them before the baby is born or soon after: “We are thrilled that you want to visit, but please call first.” You can add: “We want to make sure the baby and I aren’t sound asleep when you’re here!”

2. Be a firm diplomat.

    • The issue: It’s rare for both sets of grandparents (or relatives from both sides of the family) to have equal access to the new baby. At some point, one set of grandparents may believe the others get to spend more time with you and the baby (whether or not it’s true). Amid juggling all the responsibilities your newborn brings, you may face upset, confrontational or even bickering parents and in-laws. You may even find yourself in the middle of a heated grandparent tug-of-war.
    • What to do: Be reassured that it’s rare for both sets of parents to share time equally, especially if you’re close to your own parents. To temper any jealousy from your in-laws, emphasize to them that any time they’ve spent with your baby has shown them what tremendous grandparents they will be. Share that you look forward to sharing the wonder of the baby as he grows up.

3. Stand by your parenting choices.

    • The issue: Even if the critic means well, it’s normal that you’ll receive advice, criticism and suggestions about how to care for your baby. Comments have a wide range: whether you should be breast or bottle feeding; the best way to get baby to sleep; right down to the temperature in the house. Especially for first-time parents who may want to defer to the guidance of longtime parents, a flood of advice can start to feel like a barrage of unwanted critiques.
    • What to do: Instead of automatically embracing an in-law’s commentary, ask yourself if you believe in the choices you’ve made. If so, hear an in-law out, but stick by your gut. Tell yourself an in-law’s comments should not bother you as much.

4. Know when to accept “the in-law way.”

    • The issue: Your in-laws care for the baby in ways you might not necessarily adopt yourself or even like: your mother-in-law wants to hold the baby until he falls asleep, for example. When guidance becomes particularly insistent and intrusive, tension builds.
    • What to do: Remember that some disagreements are not worth arguing about. If what she’s doing does not permanently disrupt the baby’s routine (or yours), let her. You can even gain a few “points” by saying, “Thank you for taking care of this problem or teaching me a different way to calm the baby,” for instance. In all in-law issues, call up your sense of humor. And, when your way is decidedly not your in-law’s, you can gently remind him or her that new developments in child rearing have their merits.

5. Steer “helpful” in-laws in other directions.

    • The issue: Generally, your in-laws know you need help and they do want to be useful. But when in-law assistance makes your life more cumbersome — when they do a chore that’s unnecessary or ends up creating more work for you — it can be tough to confront the people who are going out of their way to assist you.
    • What to do: You can feel more in control if you find the right way to speak up or point them in directions that are more useful to you. Remember: No one is a mind reader. Instead of being polite and bending to what they offer, take time to think of a few things they could do. (If done before baby arrives, the better.) Consider what your in-laws are good at and like to do. Assign jobs you can’t find time for or are too exhausted to do. Identify jobs that don’t need to be done “your” way: does a few loads of your laundry, grocery shops, prepares dinner, put gas in the car, put together new baby equipment. This will help reduce some of your stress.

6. Put your spouse in charge of really sticky situations.

    • The issue: Your in-laws were a godsend right when baby was born. But, their short trip has morphed into a long-term visit. Some new parents love this, especially if they adore the in-laws or if they are super helpful. But needing to entertain long-term guests can quickly become stifling and exhausting.
    • What to do: Especially when in-laws tell you their plans — not ask — it’s time to have your spouse handle this one. Your spouse can explain that them staying any longer won’t work out, or to offer specific dates. Hearing it from you, they might think you are trying to keep them away from the baby.

If you and your in-laws had a strained relationship before, a new baby can be a feasible starting-over place. Embrace that the new baby opens doors for you having a bigger say going forward.