Setting boundaries is crucial to a healthy relationship.
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How To Set Boundaries With Your In-Laws When You Have A New Baby

Because it’s important for everyone.

by Cat Bowen
Originally Published: 

Setting healthy boundaries with your partner’s parents after marriage is one thing, but having to reset new boundaries with your in-laws after having a baby comes with its own unique obstacles.

As I sat in my hospital bed, bleeding onto a pad, covered only by a gown and thin sheet, my stepmother-in-law walked into my hospital room with my father-in-law, walked right past me and over to my newborn son, asleep in his bassinet. Without permission or even a “How are you feeling” to me, she lifted his sleeping form and showed him to my father-in-law, declaring, “he’s too skinny.”

I can’t possibly tell you what I was thinking in that moment beyond “um, huh?” At that point, I’d been in the hospital for a few days, recovering from a difficult birth that required intense postpartum care and a blood transfusion. My son was slow to nurse, and we’d just decided to supplement for a time with formula. What I do remember feeling was abject horror as she then proceeded (again, without permission) to grab one of the “ready to feed” bottles of formula from under my son’s bassinet, rip off the top, and starting feeding my son. This was the very first meal he’d eaten that wasn’t a wash of tears at my breast. I looked to my husband who was as shocked as I was. We didn’t know what to say or to do. How on earth do you react to such audacity? I gave him a look, and after a minute he said, “I’ll take over.” After some back-and-forth and a bit of his own look towards his father, my husband grabbed our baby and his bottle, sat next to me on my bloodied pad (my crappy postpartum care in my glamorous New York City Hospital in a private suite a tale for another day), and we fed our child as my stepmother-in-law went around the room remarking on the potential costs for such place, all the while still not acknowledging my presence.

Unfortunately, that was not the only time when our parents would overstep in their eagerness to see our children. My own parents are equally as guilty of disrespecting our boundaries when my children were babies. I’ve learnt enough from this to understand that boundaries aren’t a stop sign; they’re a map, and every family needs to be using the same one. But how do you set boundaries with in-laws when you have a new baby? How do you recognize how excited everyone is, while also anticipating your own needs? I asked my friend, psychologist Dr. Dara Bushman, to help us navigate this delicate situation.

Never let them see you sweat

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Bushman says that the biggest and most important thing you can do to start setting boundaries is to show a “united front in front of your in-laws.” You and your spouse are a team. They’re not siding with your family on this, and you’re not siding with theirs. Know your boundaries going in. This isn’t a place for negotiation. If you want to reassess after talking to your families, fine, that’s OK, but don’t do it in front of them. It makes your position weaker, and it will be exploited.

Be consistent & constant

The second you start making exceptions is when things get hairy. If your rule is “you can’t take our child out to the store while you’re watching them,” and your in-law says “we just need to pop in to grab a prescription,” and you say OK, they now think that there’s an opening here for them to start eschewing the rule altogether. It’s likely not intended to prove there’s holes in your boundaries, but they will know that there are. We get it, there will always be extenuating circumstances that cannot be ignored, but try to maintain.

Bushman cautions that if it’s possible, be “consistent of keeping the same limits with in-laws and your parents. What is good for the goose has to be good for the gander.” You might be OK with his parents who walk everywhere taking your kids to the park, but maybe not your own father who drives around the retirement community in his golf cart like the hounds of hell are at his heels. But for what can be equal, let it be equal.

Tone is important: How you tell them is as important as what you tell them

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Bushman urges us to think about our tone and language. I will be the first to admit I’m crap at this. I am either a doormat or a tornado, and it can get messy. I would be the literal worst politician. But it makes sense. If you go in, guns blazing, “No, Marie, you cannot invite your herd of mean bridge players to come meet the baby,” it might encourage them to either do just that, or it might just set them off. We’re trying to avoid that.

But again, hey, it’s an option for the future.

If the answer is no, say no

Firm nos get a no — no question, no compromise. But on a lot of things, this might not be the case. Try not to say no to things you might change your mind on later. If it is something that has a little wiggle room (like whether or not your kid can be held to fall asleep or get a taste of whipped cream from Grandpa’s sundae), tell them you’ll think about it.

(Also, the smile babies get from whipped cream is almost as good as the face they make when you give them a pickle or salt and vinegar chips. Make sure they record it each and every time.)

Ask yourselves the hard questions

Dr. Bushman says that when it comes to setting boundaries, intentionality is key. She says to ask yourself, “Is this for them, or for your baby?” That will help you guide where that boundary should be.

Other questions to consider are, “Is it helpful, or is it harmful? Do they have the best interests of the child in mind?” If you can’t answer these clearly, or the answers you come up with aren’t to the benefit of the child, that’s a place to draw a line. And it doesn’t matter what kind of situation. From social media posts to overnight visits, if it’s important to you, it’s important.

Get your priorities in order before the baby is born

When you’re pregnant, figure out what you will and won’t deal with after the baby is born. This is one of those areas where it might look lopsided. For example: You may be OK with having your mom or your sister in the delivery room with you, but not your spouse’s family.

Controversial take here: It’s your vulva and vagina on display, so you’re making that call. No one else. Where it gets tricky is after the baby is born. Unless you have beef with your in-laws, it’s hard to say, “My parents can come visit our house on day one, but yours need to wait until day six.” That’s more likely to cause strife in a family. Not only with you and your in-laws, but also between you and your partner, who likely want their family to meet their new little angel.

Figure out when and how the baby will meet their family members. Will it be only at your house? Are you requiring proof of vaccination? Do you want to take some time as a family of three before everyone descends upon you like a swarm of baby-grabbing cicadas? Get this sorted and let them know.

(Even if you’re tempted to booby trap your front door with angry bees that you’ve painstakingly trained to love you, this isn’t the best option in this scenario. They’re notoriously bad guardians.)

You don’t need to figure all of this out in one day. Setting these boundaries with your in-laws is going to be a process that is ongoing for basically the next 18 years, maybe even longer. There will be disagreements, with everyone — including the baby, because they are highly picky and might hate one of their grandparents and then that grandparent might blame you for absolutely no reason. (It’s a baby, Janet. Maybe they don’t like your perfume. It’s not my fault!)

As long as you and your partner are a team and show up for each other in these situations, and give yourselves grace when people (yourself included) are bound to change their minds, you’ll get through it, and hopefully won’t end up posting an “AITA” thread on Reddit. (Or in the JustNoMIL group.)


Dr. Dara Bushman, psychologist

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