Home About Dr Gayle Counseling Services Speaking Services Online Seminars Articles Press Room Books Contact

Ask Dr. Gayle

Grandmother Is Taking Over

QUESTION: I am a new mother. My baby was born prematurely and weighed only 2 pounds, 14 ounces at birth. My mother-in-law lives six hours away, but when she comes to visit she completely takes over. She won't let him nap in his bed. She wants to hold him constantly even though he is happier in his crib. She takes over all of his feedings and goes through his drawers finding what she gave him so he can wear it. It is like she is obsessed with him. I am developing very negative feelings toward her. What can I do?

ANSWER: The good news is that your son has a very enthusiastic grandmother. Eventually, when your mother-in-law finds her appropriate place in the family, this could be a great resource not only for your son, but for you and your husband. Meanwhile, however, there is definitely work to be done!

You are a new mother, and you have undergone the stress of a premature delivery. Not only are you finding your own way, but you are no doubt quite protective, and rightfully so, following your son's fragile entry into the world. Your mother-in-law will likely take guidance from you and your husband once you establish boundaries. Do not be shy to exercise your authority as the mother.

Consider the following suggestions in establishing a comfortable role for your son's paternal grandmother:

  1. Clarify the role your husband's mother can play in the family. Talk with your husband about the role you and he would like his mother to play in your lives. Visualize what kind of relationship you want her to have with your son, now and in the future, and consider ways to encourage that role. Would there be a time when she could babysit, for example? This would allow her to "play" mom but not be mom. Naturally, this will also depend on your mother-in-law's desires, too. But remember that she needs guidance from the two of you in order to successfully fit into your family.

  2. Establish guidelines for handling your baby, and communicate these to grandmother. Do not be shy about being authoritative about your son's needs when your mother-in-law visits. If he needs to nap, let her know: Simply say, "It is time for his nap," and gently lift him out of her arms and put him in his crib. However, do make an attempt to arrange visits when he will be awake some of the time, so that she can interact with him. If you are not comfortable yet with her feeding your son, say so: "No, it is not time for him to eat yet," or "I want to feed him myself at this time." Consider, too, being proactive in satisfying some of your mother-in-law's desires. Dress your son in clothing she has provided BEFORE she arrives, if you know that this brings her great pleasure.

  3. Consider having your husband present at grandma's next visit. As a parenting team, you and your husband are developing your own child-rearing philosophy and parenting style. Once the two of you clarify guidelines, your husband's presence can help support you in your new behaviors towards your mother-in-law. For example, if she protests, he can simply reinforce that it is time for the baby's nap, or that the two of you like to feed the baby yourselves at this time. He can also kid her, if she takes it too hard, "Don't worry, Mom, there will be plenty of time in the future when we will want to leave him with you for the weekend!" In this way, you and your husband can gently but firmly establish new boundaries.

It may be wise to allow your husband to take the first step, as it is his mother who needs some loving feedback about her new role in your family, and it is his job to give it. She will be more likely to be able to hear it from him, as there is already a well-established bond of love. Hearing it for the first time from a daughter-in-law may not go over as smoothly, and can encourage feelings of competition rather than cooperation.

But rest assured, once your own confidence in mothering is solidified, you will likely feel less intimidated by your mother-in-law and better able to enjoy what love and enthusiasm she has to share. In the meantime, be clear that you are in charge and establish boundaries with the help of your spouse. After all, it is your turn to mother!

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.

Return to Dr. Gayle Peterson's Home Page

Copyright 1996-2003.  Gayle Peterson All rights reserved.

Send Comments and Inquiries to Dr. Gayle Peterson at gp@askdrgayle.com