This blog post is featured from a past "Ask Oriana" submission question, submitted for the Wildwood Window newsletter. You can submit your own questions here.
Subscribe to the Wildwood Window to stay up to date on the advice column, and stay connected to our behind the scenes work and community happenings in the birth world of North Carolina and beyond.
How do you navigate mothers and mother in laws through each stage of motherhood? Pregnancy, birth, postpartum?
Such a big question! Our mothers can be such a big part of our lives.
To be able to answer this, I have to respond with some follow up questions for you dear reader. The first, and most important question- is this person a safe space for you?
There has always been a topic of tension between mothers and daughters. Sometimes, it is just a matter of finding a rhythm and maintaining the right boundaries. But other times, there are deeper issues.
A mother, or mother in law, should first and foremost be a safe space for you. This means that they are going to try. That they care about your wellbeing. Not just for the sake of baby pics, or grandparent benefits, but for your sake. Are they seeking a relationship with you? Are they available for real talk, for basic support needs? Do they show a capability for true empathy and understanding when it comes to you?
If the answer is no, the most important lesson you will learn on this journey is how to set and maintain boundaries. Where your limits are. When you are making a decision for your body, your birth, and your baby- the word selfish goes out the window. It is irrelevant, does not apply here. Not for you and your choices.
Always- you have choices and you are allowed to make them. This might mean others feelings get hurt. It might mean you have to battle some well meaning guilt that comes up inside of us from patterns of people pleasing and etiquette.
One of the best ways to separate ourselves from that guilt, is to view the situation objectively. Look at a boundary. Ask yourself, is this a need, or a want? Is what they are asking a need or a want?
Your job is to put your needs above others wants. Their job, is to manage whatever tension comes with that. You are not responsible for the feelings of anyone, but especially anyone who is not trying or willing to be a safe space for you.
Now if the answer was yes, if they are a safe space for you, or if they are trying to be- I am so glad! But boundaries are still going to be important. From the beginning, you can open that line of communication. Talk about your relationship, where you want it to be, what you need, and what each of you wants. How to manage tension as it comes up. Communication is lotion to the soul.
It is super important to remember that each mother, has her story. A history of grief, and love, and choices, and sacrifice, and mistakes. These things are going to shade her vision, shade her outlook on this new experience. A new grandmother can be overwhelmed with excitement, love, and a strong nesting like urge to manage things. To help. To give. Or, to take. Sometimes this urge shows up in ungraceful ways.
A new mother, is overwhelmed for many of the same reasons. This is new for both of you.
Your safety is always most important. Your physical, mental, and emotional health speaks to you. If you find yourself lashing out, you might need more help, or more space. Ask for it. If you find yourself retreating, you may need to work on learning to use your voice of advocacy. If you can find ways to advocate for yourself, your child will benefit greatly. It is hard to do things for ourselves, but each act of love for ourselves, is an act of love towards your child's mother. That child deserves for his mother to be loved, supported, and well. It will also prepare you to advocate for your child in the future. You simply can't be a good mother without learning how to use some form of advocacy.
IF there are safety or boundary issues now while the baby is small, it will only get worse if left unresolved. Communicate. Advocate. Set boundaries.
The only person who does not benefit from healthy boundaries, is a person who wants to take advantage.
As a child grows, they will become attached to the people in their life. From the beginning it is important to know who that is going to be, and if needed, who that is NOT going to be. Because trying to set boundaries after that child has become attached, is much much harder.
Here are a few boundaries that are worth exploring for even the healthiest of relationships:
Consider your culture, your mother or mother in law's culture. How does touch play a role? How is it communicated, and what is said with touch in those roles? How can you find ways to honor that role, while maintaining your own needs and comfort levels. Communicate these needs, and these observations. Talk about how you are comfortable being, or not being touched. Same with the baby. Your baby is an extension of yourself, and it can feel strange to manage that feeling.
You should not have to play hostess on this journey. Find your limits, and respect them. If company is hard for you, ask for time to settle in before any visits. If you find yourself lonely, ask for company more often, but in a way that fills your cup. A schedule is a great way to manage a healthy relationship. Maybe she comes over on Mondays and Thursdays. Visits you, visits baby. Scheduling, can help prevent those pop by visits that might cause tension. It's very important that you communicate your expectations, and ask for hers. Does she expect to hold and kiss the baby? Do you have a different form of affection in mind for that relationship? Do you need help with something else? Will she respect your breastfeeding journey? Talk about it. Before baby is born, and revisit it after. You can find ways to compromise, that serve both of your needs and touch both of your wants.
It is very important to voice to yourself, and to anyone in your life right now, that you need time to figure this out. This is new to you. You need time to figure out how to parent, how to communicate, how to exist in this new space as this new version of yourself. The best way to honor this journey, is to ask for your choices to be respected in each moment. You make the choices for your body, your birth, your baby. But, those choices might shift and change and grow as you do. You can ask, very directly, that they hold space for you and openly listen to your decisions. Acknowledge that you are going to have different views, opinions, and that she may have advice that you don't always take. Ask her to respect your limits, and allow you to figure out what is best for you as you go.
Pregnancy, birth, and postpartum. You are allowed to make choices that are best for you and your body and your baby, even if they are not what's best for someone else. Trying to honor their journey, and make space for them in your life, is a beautiful thing to do. As long as it's not at the loss of your safety, your mental health, or your motherhood.
If you can find ways to let go and compromise when it is safe for you to do so, you might find a new layer to this relationship is just what you need. If you can all go into it with open communication, you can figure it all out as you go.
If there is not equal effort, or safety on both sides- remember that this is your time right now. You are allowed to take space, to advocate, and to ask others to help you maintain those boundaries as needed.
I truly hope you can find an ally in this mother figure, and that you can find new ways to connect and move forward together. If you can't I truly hope you can find your own level of peace in this situation, and find ways to honor your own journey, and most importantly: I hope you find the courage to take whatever steps necessary to protect your own space, love, and health.
Thank you so much for submitting your question. Anyone reading this- feel free to reach out if you have follow up questions on this topic.
p.s. Regarding your physical birthing space, you choose who attends your birth. Do not let someone attend out of guilt, fear, pressure, or expectation. Protecting your privacy, has nothing to do with your relationship with any individual. During birth, we have to be able to go to an internal place of instinct and passion. If we do not feel safe with our birth team, if we have to manage the emotions of others, or if we feel uncomfortable being vulnerable with any individual, we may not be able to reach that internal place. This can cause very real complications in the birthing process.
Your birth space, should be your safest place.