When my son was a baby, a friend with a kid of similar age casually dropped into conversation, "Grandparents don’t actually have automatic legal rights to see their grandchildren, you know". When I asked her how she knew, she replied, "It came up on Google". Err, when you googled it, then? Another pal offered to lend me one of her self-help books about dealing with mothers-in-law, to which I replied, "There’s more than one?" Meanwhile another mum friend doesn’t even ask how I am before asking, "What’s Julie [not my MIL’s real name] saying now?" eagerly anticipating a good LOL. Another who’s about five months pregnant with her first baby reported her MIL dropping off several boxes of baby clothes that she’d been keeping in the cupboard, although the intervening 30 years had not been kind in terms of smell or aesthetics. There’s a pretty clear pattern here.
In some ways, the hardest part of having a baby is not giving birth or looking after it; it’s redrawing all of your relationship boundaries, like the Yalta Conference after the Second World War. With your partner, your boss, your own parents and siblings and, if they’re around, your partner’s parents. Before you have a kid, you think about your in-laws maybe a couple of times a year (while panic-buying generic Christmas presents) then, as soon as you reproduce, or even announce that you're pregnant, BOOM – there they are. And you can never get rid of them.
The rift with mine started when they arrived at the hospital so soon after the birth that staff hadn’t yet cleaned the bloodstains from the floor, weighed down with huge bags of gifts for the baby and not so much as a biscuit for me. Who visits hospital without food? I fumed, so angry I couldn’t actually look at my mother-in-law – a loud character who proceeded to squeal with excitement over my hours-old infant before passing him back, covered in lipstick and reeking of perfume. The memory of that invasion is still vivid enough to make me bristle. But it was forgivable compared to what happened next. My partner had informed both sets of parents that our son had been born safely and when both sides asked to visit, we asked them to wait a day so I could rest after an all-night labour. While my own parents respected this, MIL pushily insisted they come anyway, so I asked my partner to ask them to be discreet and not tell my parents they had beaten them to it. My husband either forgot or didn’t feel comfortable passing this on and no sooner were they in the car home, than MIL rang my mum to boast. Understandably, my mum was hurt, although she tried to pretend she wasn’t. I was livid.
Even if you enjoy a good relationship with your in-laws (or have a saintly disposition), for some reason adding a baby into the mix can bring out tensions. If there’s already a personality clash, birth can really light the fuse for an explosion. There’s something about the word ‘grandparent’ that feels possessive and competitive where 'auntie' and 'uncle' don’t. Talk of "MY grandchild" can be enough to rile you and, even though you thought you wouldn’t, suddenly you’re patrolling your territory with bared teeth, like an irritable lioness. Now, my own mother can be overbearing when it comes to my son, yet a) you know your own parents’ approach to childrearing, and b) it’s somehow easier to tell them to piss off if necessary.
According to my focus group, the main MIL crimes are demanding to see you all the time – especially on weekends when you just want to spend time with your partner and not get properly dressed – and bringing round mountains of baby stuff, either covered in questionable stains from decades ago or new but not to your taste. Then there’s the charming habit of totally ignoring you or picking up the baby without asking. I remember Julie telling me that one of her neighbours (who I’d never met) had got a present for the baby so she had promised her a cuddle with him next time we came round. "You can’t pimp out my baby like taking turns on the school hamster!" I spluttered, genuinely horrified. And don't forget the comments, ranging from helpful unsolicited suggestions for how to get the baby to take the breast (or why they are or aren’t having a bottle, or dummy, etc.) to what they did back in the day to get them to sleep and other handy hints, none of which you want to hear. You have to bear in mind they’re trying to help and are desperate to pass on their wisdom, but no one likes a lecture and anyway, baby-care advice has changed over the years.
But let’s face it, none of the above is really THAT bad and as the factors making me so oversensitive – sleep deprivation and mad breastfeeding hormones – receded, things improved. There are always new battlegrounds, though. A neighbour’s MIL gave her toddler’s afro a drastic trim without asking. "She said it was because his hair was matted but I know it’s because she thought it was starting to look too girly" she explained. Multiple friends complain of grandparents hyping up their kids at bedtime, ignoring nap routines or feeding them chocolate and other junk, leaving the parents to cope with a crazed child or appearing uptight if they ask them not to.
Weaning and stopping breastfeeding were milestones for me, at which point my husband could take the baby to his parents without me needing to be around. And I hardly need point out that full-on babysitting comes in very handy. In hindsight, another tip is to always involve your partner, even (or particularly) if they're reluctant. Certain guys are happy to pretend it’s nothing to do with them but, really, they should be the conduit for all discussions.
"Bite your tongue" advised my neighbour with the shorn-haired toddler. "Most of the time arguing doesn’t work – it’s upsetting and they don’t listen anyway." I would add that it’s okay to pick a few battles that are going to be ongoing. My cousin and I both tackled the issue of our respective MILs buying our kids clothes – just telling them which brands and styles we prefer while still allowing them the freedom to choose which items. I was surprised to find it worked and Julie swapped Debenhams for more unisex, online labels. If you can find a few areas of common ground then I’ve found it goes a long way to helping you relax when they start saying and doing things that would otherwise really wind you up.