Q&A: criticism from family on your parenting

Melanie writes:

"Ok, any thoughts on how to deal with relatives who constantly tell me I am doing everything wrong?  I live overseas, so each week I talk to my parents via phone and webcam, and then spend three weeks at their place each summer.  Since my DD Zoë was born (she is 9 months this week!), every single phone call is filled with statements like "Of course she is still eating in the middle of the night - you've conditioned her to do that because you actually give it to her", "I hear her fussing again - that's because you carry her around too much", "If you keep breast feeding, none of the rest of us will every be able to bond with her", "Her first word will definitely be Moneth, since you are working" (Moneth is our nanny's name), "She'll never crawl if you give her everything she wants all the time", "We gave you X, Y or Z and you turned out just fine", "Just let her cry - she has to learn X, Y or Z sometime", "You're spoiling her because she is your first; just wait until #2 comes along, then you'll be a normal parent".

Despite the fact that my mother is a nurse and social worker, she seems to think that everything I read about child development or milestones and how they manifest in behavior is completely stupid - she actually makes fun of the fact that I consult books or the internet if I am curious about something child related.  If I hear "You read that from a book, didn't you?" in that condescending voice one more time I may commit matricide.  And I'm not even expert-obsessed or anything.  We have no sleep plan and sort of do a combination of AP and just letting her take the lead.  I guess we subscribe to the "go with the flow" style of parenting.

All of this has DH and I very worried about visiting in the summer.  I can just see them trying to take over and steamroll straight to the chocolate cake and candy.  I'd like to work on establishing some kind of control with decisions relating to my DD before we head back to Canada, but every time I try to discuss any of the reasons why I do things the way I do, I am ignored, dismissed or ridiculed.

I've often suspected that part of the problem is that my mother takes personally any choices I make as a parent that are not the same as those she made with me - like this is some kind of statement that I think she was a bad mother.  Yikes, I guess there is a lot of baggage here.

Any thoughts on making any of this easier?"

I think you've got it pegged exactly about why your mother is doing this. It sounds like she's taking everything you do differently as an indictment of the way she raised you. Know that you are not alone, that there are many parents who are suffering through this same kind of pain (because it is extremely hurtful and it tears you down) because their parents or in-laws haven't made any peace with how they parented way back when.

As I see it, there are three things you can do here. You can do one or two or all of them, depending on how your relationship has been and how you want things to go. Let's talk about strategy after I run through the options.

1. Validate your mom by asking her opinion on things you don't actually care about. This is one my mother (who was judged horribly by her MIL in the first few months) used very effectively. Whenever the opportunity presented itself, my mom would ask her MIL for advice about small things. She'd also ask for stories about my dad and my uncle. After a month or so of asking for advice, she'd start to reply to the advice with something like "Isn't it funny? Doctors tell us to do the exact opposite nowadays!" and then she'd talk about the new information, but she'd do it in a funny and totally validating way (my mom's slick like that). But she'd already built up my grandmother by asking for so much advice that my grandmother kind of felt like a co-conspirator instead of like my mom was judging her for doing the stuff she did (some of which was downright cruel, but my grandmother did it because her doctor told her to and she thought she was doing the best thing for my dad). It took what could have been a painful experience for both my mom and my grandmother and turned it into a way for my grandmother to heal a little from some of her disappointments as a parent, and also made a greater bond between the two women.

(Wow. That got a little maudlin. Sorry.)

At any rate, if you ask your mom's advice on "problems" you're having (since you live so far away you could even make up stuff and she'd never know) that gives her a chance to be the expert and validates her as a smart and worthy parent. So she will most likely back off on the other stuff.

2. Confront the issue head-on. You could say to your mother, "Mom, I've been wanting to talk to you about something for a long time. I've noticed that you are very critical of many of the decisions we've made about raising Zoë, and that makes me feel very sad. I feel like you don't trust me or think I'm a good mother. I want you to know that I appreciate the way you raised me, and that even though we're doing some things differently from the way you did them, I think you were and are an amazing mom."

3. Draw your line in the sand. Tell your mother that if she continues to criticize and second-guess every decision you make, you won't bring Zoë to see her this summer. You're her parents, and you have to protect her from people who try to undermine your family.

Now, the strategy. If anyone is reading this and having this problem with an in-law, not your own family, you should really only try option #1. It's the thing that will create positive change without stress, and it isn't your job to change the way your in-laws behave. It's your partner's job to confront his or her family, if there's going to be any confrontation.

For Melanie, I definitely recommend that you try #1, just because it's the high road and is the least stressful option. Whether you do the other two depends on how your relationship has always been with your mother. If you think your mom is normally sensible but is just letting insecurity and her sadness at not being able to see Zoë more often get the better of her, then you should probably also go with #2. Just get it out in the open so she knows you love her but that her comments are hurting you.

If you've always had a more little-girl relationship with your mom, doing #2 might actually help start a different dynamic between you. It will force her to see you as an adult mother, not just a little girl.

If you do #1 for a few months and do #2 and the negativity continues (or intensifies), you might have to do #3. But be sure you're willing to follow through if they won't stop criticizing, because once you say it you can't back down. I sincerely hope you don't have to miss a visit with your family, but if it means that your parents realize you're the heads of your own little family, then you might have to make that choice.

It will also help the situation if you just stop discussing some of the things you do that you know they won't understand. And probably at least some of those things won't even be issues once you get to Canada to see them. You may find that when your parents see your daughter in person and how healthy and happy and brilliant and capable she is they won't have anything negative to say about how you're raising her. The proof's in the pudding, after all.

Another thing to consider is that Zoë will be old enough by the time you go home to understand that there are different rules at different houses (they understand it sooo much earlier than we think they can). So even if she gets stuffed full of chocolate and cookies at your parents' house, she'll know that that stuff is special at her grandparents', and not what's going to happen at home. If it helps keep the peace during an otherwise pleasant visit, you might consider letting some of the food and "spoiling" stuff slide (assuming Zoë has no allergy or other health issues).

Now, I'm supposed to be helping you think through this, not just commiserate with you, but some of the things they say are just nuts! How do you stand it? The only thing I can say from personal experience is that if you can keep the peace while also drawing your own boundaries, Zoë will be able to have loving and rich relationships with her grandparents. And when she's an adult she'll realize just how difficult your parents are and she'll thank you for working so hard to allow her to have good relationships with them.

(Oh, and if your baby's first word is "Moneth" I'll eat my hat. It'll be "ball" or "cookie" or your pet's name, just like every other kid's first word is.)

Updated to add: If you're dealing with a particularly wily and passive-aggressive critic, check out Menita's technique in the comments. Pure genius.