The arrival of a new baby brings joy and excitement, and many question how long family members should spend bonding. In this Parents article, Mindpath Health’s Zishan Khan, MD, discusses how much time is actually needed and how parents can set boundaries.
Having grandparents nearby can give new parents a built-in village. But it can also leave them with little breathing room for coveted downtime for themselves or with a new baby. One mother of a 2.5-month-old baby is feeling rather crowded by a mother-in-law who wants to pop in whenever she wants. She took to Reddit to see if she was overreacting.
“Is once a week enough for MIL to see a 2.5-month-old baby?” the original poster wrote in the r/Mommit subreddit, which has since been deleted. “Is that fair? I thought it was.”
The mother-in-law in question here seems to not-so-respectfully disagree.
“She says things like the baby ‘isn’t going to know her nana’ and she’s ‘missing important things’ like when the baby babbles because she doesn’t see baby enough,” the original poster continues. “She says she wants to be able to just pop in at our house to see the baby whenever she wants, but I don’t want this. Again, we aren’t close. I’m a stay-at-home mom while my husband works full-time, so it would be me having to hang out with her all the time.”
Close or not, as someone not too far removed from the infant stage, having someone “just pop in” when your boob may have “just popped out” to feed a baby or you may have “just popped into” the shower alone because the baby is napping can be rather intrusive. It appears that comparison is robbing everyone of their joy here, too.
“I genuinely thought once a week was enough for her to see the baby, but she’s not satisfied at all,” the mom continues. “She always talks about her friends that watch their grandbabies because their kids work and need the help. She’s been trying to get me to leave the house so she can babysit since [the] baby was…a week old. She’s so pushy.”
The original poster was hoping to get unbiased opinions on her situation. Redditors weighed in on the thread, and we got some mental health professionals to put it all in perspective.
Does grandma have a point in wanting time with her grandchild?
Posters in the Mommit thread rushed to defend their fellow in-the-trenches parent. But what do mental health professionals think? Is once per week really “not enough time” to get to know a 2.5-month-old baby?
“This [idea] simply isn’t true,” says Hannah Yang, PsyD, a licensed psychologist and the founder of Balanced Awakening. “This idea comes from Grandmother’s own anxiety as well as the desire to be more involved than is preferable for mom. When we really want something, sometimes we create arbitrary reasons and justifications.”
Dr. Yang empathizes with Grandma. But just because all feelings are valid doesn’t mean all requests must be granted.
Another professional agrees and gets technical with the psychological explanation.
“One way to look at this is in terms of object permanence and object constancy,” explains Zishan Khan, MD, a board-certified psychiatrist with Mindpath Health. “Object permanence relates to a child’s physical interactions with the world around them. It leads to their understanding that the existence of an object, including a person, remains intact despite their inability to see or touch it.”
For this reason, when a parent goes to work, the child learns to understand that, like the Daniel Tiger songs, grown-ups come back.
“On the other hand, object constancy involves how a child emotionally connects with their environment, including the stability of relationships with others despite changes or separations,” Dr. Khan says. “A child with a properly developed sense of object constancy can appreciate that if their mother is momentarily upset, this does not mean they no longer love the child and that the state of being loved by their parent will return.”
Dr. Khan says object permanence and constancy develop over time, but the foundation gets laid in infancy.
Also, not for nothing: As families learned during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic—and as people with out-of-state relatives have understood since the dawning of Skype—technology has given rise to new ways to get face time (no pun intended).
“Nowadays, with technology such as FaceTime and video calls, family members can keep the connection strong even if not in person,” says Regine Muradian, PsyD, a psychologist, author, and speaker. “It is not necessary to see a grandparent multiple times a week to build a bond or get to know a grandparent.”
How many times do grandparents need to see their grandchildren to bond?
Dr. Yang says the number is arbitrary, and she and Dr. Khan agree that quality is more important than quantity.
“If Mom’s opinion and needs were being considered here, it’s likely that the quality of the connection between grandmother and child would be better,” Dr. Yang says. “If Grandma were able to attune to the emotional needs of Mom and be respectful, that would bode well for what Grandma is capable of doing when with the child.”
Moreover, Dr. Khan stresses that Grandma’s attitude and relationship with the original poster might, in turn, affect the child’s relationship with Grandma (and overall well-being).
“Even a baby can pick up on cues and sense tension,” he says. “If the grandmother is overbearing, passive-aggressive, or continuously has awkward interactions with the child’s mother regularly, this can also potentially impact their sense of comfort around people.”
How to Set Boundaries
Experts empathize with Grandma, but also stress that new parents have a right to set limits. If you’re in a similar situation, here’s how to respectfully establish boundaries.
Grant yourself permission
It’s tempting to feel like you have to give in to keep the peace, but you can step into your own as a parent.
“The first few months of life are some of the most important for a mother to take advantage of connecting with their child,” Dr. Khan says. “However, it is also one of the more stressful moments in a mother’s life, especially with their firstborn, since they are trying to get more comfortable in their new role of being a mother and trying to connect with their child while not believing they are failures and are potentially harming the development of their baby.”
Dr. Khan says the original poster has a right as a mother to say no to visits. Still, “At the same time, the mother must ensure she is reasonable and understands that it is not in the best interest of their child to deprive them of the love their grandmother can provide them,” he says.
Dr. Yang says once weekly is great and suggests this particular poster sticks to it. A natural endpoint, such as a nap or meal time, can help. Or, if you prefer not to hang out with a relative, try to use the visit for me-time, like a manicure.
“That way, Mom can have an optimal experience of the weekly visit while getting some of her needs met and limiting contact with [her] mother-in-law,” Dr. Yang says. “This works because it makes the experience of the weekly visit more pleasant for Mom and reduces resistance in the relationship.”
Need help with what to say? Dr. Muradian has some suggestions for getting the conversation started:
“I am grateful you are taking care of them today and going to the park.”
“I love it when you come and visit—perhaps if you can come between these times, it would be great. How does that work for you?”
Point out quality interactions
Grandma seems to be concerned about knowing her grandchild. Dr. Yang suggests using visits to gently point out the bond she’s forming with her new grandchild.
“Since Grandma is using the reasoning of ‘the child won’t know me unless I’m here all of the time,’ it could make sense to reassure Grandma at every opportunity, ‘Oh look, she’s smiling at you,'” Dr. Yang says.
Avoid an I-told-you-so approach, though (for your sake).
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