Mother-in-law: Establishing boundaries

My husband's mother drives me crazy! She is controlling, demanding, and overbearing. She drives my husband crazy too, but she is his mother. I am expecting our first child (the first grandchild) and I don't know how I am going to handle her demands. I am not a confrontational person and it terrifies me that I am going to finally have to put my foot down on some things when the baby is born. She will be staying with us after the birth and I'm worried that she'll step in and relieve my husband of his responsibilities and he will not be able to fully bond with the baby. What can I do?


Gayle Peterson

Gayle Peterson, PhD, is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She is a clinical member of the Association... Read more

The successful formation of a new couples bond includes establishing rules in your own household. Because the two of you have not taken appropriate action to protect the boundaries of your relationship, you are right to be concerned about your mother in law's continued invasiveness when your baby is born. But do not despair, as there is no better time than the present to address your very realistic concerns for the future!

Giving birth and becoming a mother for the first time is a profoundly life-changing experience. It is one you have never done before and you will need all of your energies focused on yourself. It is not in your best interests or your child's to compromise resources needed to adjust to this transformative event.

You are intuitively aware of the need for precious family bonding between your husband and child, yourself and your new baby and your couples' relatedness . It is clear that you are significantly uncomfortable with your mother-in-law's presence in normal periods, so why would you allow her to stay in your home during this period of great vulnerability? You are the mother. You will need undivided attention for adjusting to new motherhood. Put your needs first.

Talk with your husband about the boundaries needed to protect your couples relationship. It is his job to set limits with his mother. Without his leading the way, your attempts to set limits will likely cause you to be seen through a negative lens. It is essential that your husband step up to the plate and deal with his mother and father directly. Once he paves the way, you will easily be able to reinforce the boundaries without being "scapegoated" as the outsider.

Your husband will probably fare best with his mother if he takes charge of talking with her about "our" needs to have private time after the baby is born. It is critical that your spouse use "we" to represent your family needs during this period rather than using you as the "reason" she is not invited to stay in your home after the birth. By doing so, he is establishing the couples' boundary that has been lacking in your marriage so far.

It would benefit your relationship for your spouse to consider his father's contribution to your present dilemma as well. Clearly, your mother-in-law has not had the advantage of a spouse who would call her on her damaging behaviors. By not setting limits himself, it is likely that your father-in-law has contributed to enabling her in her "craziness." It is likely that your husband is following his father's role model by not challenging your mother about her inappropriate behaviors.

"Standing up" to his mother is pivotal if your husband is to take his place by your side. The stress on your marriage resulting from not standing his ground are increasing each day. Discuss together what kind of family role models you want to embrace. And remember that without interruption, family legacies repeat themselves!

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