Setting boundaries with our loved ones can be incredibly challenging, and navigating family relationships is among the tougher work we do as parents. Sometimes we have to make the hard decision to eliminate toxic family members from our lives. If you are struggling with toxicity in your relationships, you are not alone. You may find comfort in hearing how others have dealt with toxic family members, toxic in laws (including difficult mothers-in-law) and toxic friendships.
Setting Boundaries With Loved Ones
Dear Mother, Sister, Friend, In-law or other well meaning person in our lives,
We love you. We know you love our children and we are thankful for that. We want you to be close to them. We want you to have a good relationship with our child(ren). But we need to talk about boundaries. It is a difficult subject because it is unlikely that you mean any harm, though some of you undoubtedly do, and we do not want to come across as ungrateful, whiny brats. We are our children’s mother. We suffered with the morning sickness, the difficult labor, the C-section, the adoption fees, the breastfeeding issues, the sleepless nights. We did. Not you. Sure, you may be related to our children, but you are not their mother, and it’s time we cleared the air. We’ve compiled a list of things that are boundary breakers for many of us, and we would like you to consider them, and consider us as new, fragile mothers just trying to do the best we can with what we’ve got.
We want you to know that these words are hard to write, even harder to say, as you mean so much to us. But at times certain words or actions hinder our relationship, cause us to pull back and potentially damage the relationship you have with our children. While not every situation is a boundary breaker for every mom, it would be wise, when dealing with new parents, please consider the following things:
My child is not “your baby.” My husband may be your baby; hell, I may even be your baby, but that little bundle of joy is not. I know you know that. To you, calling him/her your baby is a term of endearment, but it causes mothers around the world to clench their teeth. I went through so much to have that child, and the right to call him mine is mine. It may be petty, but the privilege of calling the baby “mine” should be reserved for the parents.
Please refrain from intervening when I am disciplining my child. You may not approve of my methods. You may think I’m too stern or not stern enough, but this is not for you to decide. You do not see the whole picture. You may think I am overreacting by not giving in to my daughter’s tantrum for more candy, but you do not have to live with the repercussions. You will not have to put her to bed tonight. You are not the one who will be up later tonight trying to sooth her upset stomach. So if you don’t mind, I will handle the discipline myself.
While we are talking about candy, please do not offer them candy then say, “If it’s okay with Mommy.” While I appreciate the consideration, it turns me into the bad guy if I have to say no. Do us all a favor and ask me first. Most often, it will be fine, but since you may not be aware that he had a giant cookie from Starbucks just before we arrived, a quick “Hey, can I offer them him some candy?” will be much appreciated.
You may think my child has an illness, a delay or any other medical issue, but please do not attempt to diagnose my child. This is not to say if there is something clearly going on that you should remain silent, but be mindful of your words. No mother should hear, “There’s something wrong with that child” from a loved one. If you feel you have legitimate concerns, bring them to the parents, away from the child, and voice them – gently. Suggest we bring it up at our next doctor appointment, but do not label or suggest medications unless you are a qualified professional and we sought your opinion. Attempting to diagnose a child will only lead to frustration and perhaps resentment, even if you are correct.
Unless we ask, please do not attempt to be a lactation consultant. Breastfeeding can be challenging, and it may involve literal blood, sweat and tears. It is also extremely private for some new mothers, and not something everyone would like to do on display. Thank you for your concern, but anything more than “How’s breastfeeding going?” will get you into the boundary-crossing zone very quickly.
Talk to us about birthdays and holidays. We do not need to know or approve of your plans or gifts, but we would like to be sure they do not interfere with ours. Giving our child the same “big” gift we planned to give, and giving it a few days before the actual celebration – that is over the line. Attempting to plan an outing for my child on his birthday, especially one that doesn’t include me, is another example of boundary breaking.
If any of the above describe your words or actions toward the new (or even seasoned) mother in your life, you may be guilty of breaking boundaries. You might think, “Oh, if it bothered her, she would just tell me.” But that is so difficult because we do not want to hurt your feelings. We know in almost all cases you mean well, but that doesn’t stop it from offending us, or causing us to become defensive and even withdrawn.
I love this article. I actually wrote something recently for my mother in law because she is assuming many things without even discussing it with me or my husband. I don’t want her not be excited because this is her first grandchild but I’m having trouble not getting upset. She is planning a baby shower and instead of asking us anything about it like the day she told us she is doing it this day at this place and assumed it was okay. Now she’s assuming she’s going to be in the delivery room and that she’ll have to stay at my house postpartum to help me. I may be a first time mom but I have helped with many many children in my time and wish she would just ask instead of assume. Sorry about the complaining but I don’t feel like I can really say this to anyone
This is happening in my family as I try to be there and play a supportive role for my sister as she raises her two small children. I didn’t have the luxury of support and offers of regular free babysitting, since I lived across the country when my kids were little. Alas, she’s becoming exactly this kind of over-protective, know-it-all young parent with no regard for the wisdom and experience of her elder female family members. Her kids are 2 and 4 and she still won’t let either set of grandparents be with them unless she’s there to supervise. I used to think she must have superhuman levels of patience and an endless fount of empathy to give and give of herself, coddling those two to such an extent she doesn’t set any boundaries for herself, her time, the bed she shares with her husband, or even her own body. Her unwillingness to let them cry for even one minute results in kids that run her life and car rides to visit family on holidays end up taking two and even three times longer than they should, because they stop every ten minutes to settle a frustrated or impatient child. The coddling extends to absolute control over all influences (violent video games are one thing, but no Sesame Street or Thomas the Tank Engine?!). It’s gotten to where she’s started making excuses for not making family get-togethers, I think to avoid her kids playing with my kids, their cousins. The last straw came when I was with her and her kids (always, conveniently, during school hours when my kids can’t be there) and she told her four-year-old son, right in front of me, “that’s why we don’t see [my son], he’s a bad influence.” My son is a normal (maybe even socially delayed) second-grader, perfectly capable of playing gently with boys much younger than himself, which I know because when we’re around kids he doesn’t know he gravitates towards younger, smaller boys, perhaps because they’re on his socio-emotional level. My point is, my sister’s belief that she can tailor the perfect upbringing for her kids, controlling the exact timing of any and all cultural influences (the candy/food/electronics/toys argument above is spot on for her), is not only naive, but is hurtful to those who want to love and support her and her kids. And, ultimately, she is hurting her own kids by not giving them the opportunity to play with, learn from, and form life-long bonds with extended family. When my kids were little, I would’ve killed to have the family support she has, and it’s downright offensive how blithely ungrateful she is… and all the other mothers out there thinking they can lock their precious little ones away in towers.
While I can appreciate the sentiment of this blog, as I think back over my own parenting experiences it was hard to look a gift horse in the mouth. As a single parent I relied on the best grandparents in the world to watch my babies while I had to work to support my family due to circumstances that were less than ideal. I made reqeusts of those grandparents that were not necessarily followed, but we did the best we could at the time. My children also manipulated the situation (as children will do) to gain advantage for themselves. I love my kids more than life itself…that being said they drove me to the edge and back. I would not have survived without the village that helped me raise them. I am eternally grateful to all who were there for me during that difficult time when I was less than my best self. My family was small and broken, but it is still good. The Millennials as a whole seem to feel that they can just toss away family members if relationships are dysfuctional, and have some interesting boundaries. As a whole, they don’t have any concept of how to functionally communicate or how to repair relationships. Perpaps it is related to spending so much time on social media at such a young age instead of forming personal relationships. If I was a member of this generation I wouldn’t have a relationship with any of my children based on their rules, and I definitely wouldn’t have attended weddings/receptions where my ex-husband was present. IMO, sometimes in life we have to suck-it-up and deal. I taught this montra in my home because I spent most of my life sucking-it-up, and I’m still sucking-it-up. I’m not saying that anyone should stay in an abusive relationship, but sometimes we need to pick and choose our battles. What hill do you want to die on today? Do you want to offend your village and not have anyone there when you need them? Maybe nobody will be coming to your child’s next birthday party after reading this blog… The choice is yours. Just sayin.
Wow these comments… I see a lot of grandparents in these comments equating the actions she spoke of with “love” and “relationship.” Go back and read the list. If you really think those things are how you show love you are sadly mistaken and I feel bad for your family. All of the things she listed are about having basic respect and if you are offended by these then you probably don’t respect the parents at all. Respect and love are two different things, good relationships need both.
Calling them your baby? Pick another nickname or term of endearment. It’s that simple. How about “my grand baby”? If you are disrespecting and hurting the mothers feelings do you really love the child? It’s so easy not to do it – insisting on it shows you to be controlling and possessive.
Giving kids candy and cavities and stomachaches and a sugar high isn’t a great way to show love either… Try spending time playing or talking with them. A couple pieces of candy sure, but I know most grandparents have the attitude of fill them up with sugar and send them home. Spoil, spoil, spoil… Which only causes problems for the child and parent both when they get home anyway. It’s not that hard to make a child feel special without crossing a line.
Taking the child on his birthday and edging out the parents? Uh no, they have every right and desire to spend time with their child on his birthday. I’ve always allowed my kid to spend time with their grandparents on birthdays, but guess what relationships aren’t only built on birthdays and holidays. Where are you the rest of the year?
Interfering in discipline? Diagnosing a child with something? Telling a mom how to breastfeed? Don’t get me started… I applaud the author of this post. I’m sad for the people who have to deal with these things on a regular basis. The problem lies with the boundary breakers not the boundary setters. None of these things were out of line however some of the comments… wow, just wow.
I agee.People feel an entitlement to parent your children the way they see fit.As a new mom it is not that you think you know everything, but like the moms before you, you deserve to raise your child how you see fit.As long as they are safe everyone should respect it.
This article is just sad. Although boundaries are fine, the perspective of this article comes off as ungrateful, overprotective and equivalent to helicopter parenting. What’s worse, it’s extremely ethnocentric to say “sincerely mothers everywhere”. Not all cultures are individualistic Mrs. Myndee. Just look at the globe and you will see that there are millions of mothers in other parts of the world relying on a whole range of people in the family and beyond to help raise their child. It takes a village. So please, don’t impose your western view of parenting on mothers everywhere. You have no right to do that no matter how passionate you feel about the issue.
Thank you Sarah Ghab! Can white women PLEASE stop assuming that their values are universal? That’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with your parenting beliefs. Just please stop assuming that they’re universal.
Grandparents can be a blessing whether they are good or bad. I have a very dysfunctional and mentally ill mother. The children know about her issues appropriate for their age, but are not allowed to stay with her or see her at this point. She is not a safe person. I would be a bad parent if I allowed them to have contact before they are able to protect themselves as adults. I will not prevent them from seeing her, but I will not allow interference as long as they are under the age of 18. As a parent, there is a big difference between allowing spoiling and having disordered, overbearing grandparents. Spoiling should be allowed, undermining parental bonds no.
My husband’s Grandmother is a meddling, manipulator who makes family fights, claims to be a good Christian and then in the next breath pulls children aside to tell them that their parents do not love or understand them the way that she does. My children do not see her alone either. Beyond that we talk openly about her hurtful choices and comments. When she dies, they will not miss the facade because they know she is not a very nice person and she treats her own daughter, their Grandmother like garbage. They do not like how she treats me or talks about their parents who love them. My children have learned that family love should not hurt.
My husband’s mother (children’s Grandmother) has been a good influence on them. She gives them more things and candy and tv that I do. She supports them with love, encourages them and does not undermine their parents love for them. I could care less what she feeds them, lets them watch or if she follows my rules when she watches them for a week in the summer. Her house, her rules. If you can’t trust people with your children, don’t dictate, just keep them away. That is your prerogative as a parent. There is a HUGE difference between a rule change and dysfunctional grandparenting.
Be smart. Your kids can take as much love and support as family can give them. Candy, tv, no shirt required are all small prices to pay for love. Besides that, watching how other family members do things can lead to a better understanding of their own personalities. You are the parent, not a dictator of perfect family interactions. Spend your time on what is really important instead. Keep them away or be honest about family who are dysfunctional and let the rest truly roll.
I am not even a mother and it makes me cringe so hard when I see this happening LOL
I’m going to have my first child this year and some friends and family are already plotting on making her “theirs”. My sister, whom I’m very close to, only has boys. She was so excited to learn I’ll be having a daughter because she’ll treat her as her daughter, which I don’t mind. That is until she started telling me she’ll having matching outfits with MY daughter and etc. Then when I tell her the name I plan on picking for the baby she tells me she doesn’t like it and tried to give me another name. Then when I shot her suggestion down she decides she’ll just call the baby by her the abbreviation for her middle name which I also shot down as that was my plan for myself. Jesus take the wheel because I know this is going to be an uphill battle…
After reading, I noticed that there are a bunch of older moms and grandparents shooting down this article. I don’t personally agree with the reasoning though. I even saw the dreaded “maybe it’s because they’re millennials” jab, which is overly simplistic and basically groups everyone into a box instead of just taking the text above at face value
I will be a FTM soon, but I’ve had my fair share parentification and overtime baby sitting since I was probably 7, with many babies. But even if I didn’t have this experience, it wouldn’t negate my ability to perform as a mother. Wisdom is valuable, but don’t be arrogant. The requests above seem reasonable to me. Simply put: you are not entitled to anyone’s child. You are however entitled to your opinion which may be expressed privately and respectfully and that is the point.
You do not spend nearly as much time, effort, tears, energy, or money on that child and being family does not give you a pass to essentially say “screw you”. It seems people have normalized poor boundaries because that is what was modeled to them. But what an honor it is for someone to confide in you for help or a second opinion voluntarily versus you forcing it down their throat. We all figure out motherhood in our own way and time. Not everyone has a village or even wants their village’s help. And honestly, maybe they don’t need it. You are undermining the will and strength of parents globally if you think otherwise. Don’t take it personally.