Most parents are eager for the arrival of their baby. Grandparents are excited too, perhaps even more so than the parents! This is especially true when it will be the arrival of your very first grandchild.
A baby's birth can be a very emotional time for a new mother. Carrying her baby in her womb for 9 months before going through the ups and downs of labour can be quite exhausting. As any grandparent would well be aware, when a baby is born, he or she needs constant care and attention, around the clock. It's fair to say that all new mothers (and many fathers too) will be sleep deprived, because a baby needs to be fed throughout the night. If a new mother is suffering from post-natal depression or anxiety (which is more likely if she is particularly sleep deprived or has low self-esteem), she may be having an extra difficult time and may feel inadequate.
At this stage, help from the grandparents is essential – if the mother wants it. However, there can be a fine line between helping to care for a newborn and interfering, which is the the source of many mother-daughter conflicts in the newborn period.
What is deemed as helpful for new parents varies from mother to mother. Some new mothers are thrilled and overjoyed at having to have help with the practical things that are difficult to accomplish in the newborn days. For example, removing the burden of cleaning, shopping or cooking. By helping with these things, it will allow mum to simply feed her baby, bond and gaze into his eyes as he sleeps. This helps to create a secure attachment between mother and baby.
Potent mothering hormones, particularly oxytocin (the hormone of bonding, birth, breastfeeding and love) are in high quantity in throughout childbirth and afterwards. This is Mother Nature's way of creating the protective mamma bear that she is. We must honour this normal process — feeding does not need to be ‘shared' by other members of the family, and if baby cries for his mamma, then it's important he feel safe back in mamma's arms. A baby does not understand that he is separate from his mother for many months. After all, he was attached for nine long, warm and cosy months!
On the other hand, other mothers greatly appreciate someone simply holding her baby for her, so she can shower, do some cleaning or cooking or other things.
It’s really important to ask a new mother what she would like help with, rather than to assume, if you want to avoid conflict and tension. When you help parents how they need and not how you need, they will be much more inclined to invite you over more often.
If she chooses the option you were least hoping for, don't make her feel bad for telling you what she needs. No-one likes to regret opening up about what they really need. Parents find it hard enough trying to figure out their own way as a new parent, so with added pressure on top of that, a mother may not ask for help at all next time. Feeling unsupported and isolated is a big reason why new mothers can slip into depression and anxiety.
However it’s important for communication to work both ways. According to Pinky McKay, a grandmother, lactation consultant and parenting author, she says:
“Working with mothers and also being a grandparent – I think it's important for new parents to try to GENTLY suggest what would be most helpful to them, if they are offered help. Often, I hear that grandmothers whip around cleaning when all the mother wants is a ‘break’ from holding, rocking – feeling totally responsible. But to the grandmother, cleaning is something ‘tangible’ that she can do. It's really about acknowledging the help you do get. If you get any help, you are lucky. It seems that so many grandmothers either have their own careers or are elderly – so, they don't have the capacity to actually be helpful in a practical way.
It's important for new parents to make space for grandparents to be involved with their newborn. It's very painful for grandparents to be ‘held at arms length' or to be repeatedly told, ‘No, you can't come over to see the children/baby because we are having visitors/going out with friends etc.'
This often results to grandparents giving up any hope of drawing close to their grandchild because they feel unwelcome.”
How Can Grandparents Help Without Being Obtrusive?
Pinky McKay offers this advice to grandparents:
“Have a talk with the new parents regarding what would be most helpful to them right now. For example: ‘Would you like me to hold/help with the baby or do the dishes?'
If you are feeling ‘rejected’ because of different parenting styles, try to stay calm and watch things unfold. I often have had grandmothers buy my books to pass onto their kids, who may be leaving babies to cry for instance. This can be an option rather than expressing a strong opinion. You run the risk of not getting to see the grandbabies if you say too much. It's your job as a grandparent to dish out love but try to keep advice to yourself, unless you are asked.”
Pinky adds: “It could help to ‘gently’ ask questions about the ‘new’ advice or make a comment, for example,
‘I'm sorry this is so different to when I had my kids. Please – can you fill me in on this new way of doing xxxxx?'
Perhaps offer to do something that is neutral — ‘Would you like me to take her for a walk/give her a bath?'
Remember the baby is your grandchild. The parents are ultimately responsible, and trust that your own nurturing of them will filter down to how they parent. With respect and acceptance of what they do, they are more likely to open conversations and share how they feel – especially if some of the advice they are trying doesn’t work for them. Then, you can step in – tread carefully though. There could be nothing worse than being kept away from the joy of your grandbabies.”
One mother says:
“My parents were fantastic. Mum would come around with home cooked meals, allowed me to have a sleep for a few hours between feeds tucked up in their bed whilst looking after my daughter, took baby for a walk while I have a 20 minute massage to get all the muscles relaxed and a bit of me time and gave me lots of cuddles when I looked like I needed one. Mum was never in the way just fluttered in and out to give us time to settle in – just the 2 of us. Now that I am back at work full-time, my parents look after her everyday. My Dad has filled in as the predominant male in my daughter's life and always has spent time telling Ruby stories – and now she is older – teaching her the timetables at 2 years old. I am blessed to have such wonderful supportive parents.” — Samm
Grandparents should also remember that so much has changed since they had their own children. Many things are no longer done due to health and safety reasons, and some things we're even going back to! Why don't you consider getting informed about parenting research too, to help you connect even more with the new parents? BellyBelly has a fantastic parenting reading list full of groundbreaking books here. You can also read our recommended baby sleep book here. Baby sleep is a very big issue for new parents, and an area where lots of recommendations have changed.
Rigid, strict routines like letting baby ‘cry-it-out’ have been proven to be detrimental – especially to young babies developing brains. Strict feeding routines have also been proven to be harmful to both the baby’s growth and the mother’s breast milk production.
Having access to the internet has completely changed parenting, and society in general. Information is now at the tip of our fingers, and it's often the first place women women go to for information on pregnancy and parenting. Today's grandparents realise that their children have likely researched what they’d like to do and why. If you do the same, you’ll have something to discuss (not enforce an opinion – rather, ask what they think about xxx) with your children and you'll be able to relate to them in a whole new different way.
New mothers who are daughters of nurses or midwives seem especially vulnerable to butting heads! If your children do not agree with your parenting style, your children are definitely telling you that you aren’t appreciated or experienced, nor that you did a crappy job as a parent. Your children just like to do things a different way that appeals to them. Reading about parenting may have swayed their opinion or piqued their interest.
Here’s an example of how to create resentment with your daughter (or daughter-in-law) when she’s trying to establish what she’d like to do as a new parent:
“My mother-in-law lectured me about breastfeeding for too long (my daughter fed frequently and for 45 minutes or so, each time), told us we should let her cry more before we pick her up, and that wearing her in the sling so much was creating a bad habit. She also told me that my daughter’s hiccups were because I overfed her. She added her washing to my never-ending pile and told me it was there when for when I did my washing. She only helped with the washing a couple of times in 10 days. She wanted to put honey on my daughter’s dummy and argued with me when I told her how that is no longer the done thing. Actually, she argued about everything I said as ‘she had been a nurse looking after babies 50 years ago AND she’d raised 3 children without any issues’.” — Taurean
Grandparents should know a few key things when helping their own children with parenting:
- Hold back the temptation to criticise your children — remember, you had to learn once too. Remain positive and praise the good qualities of your son/daughter and his/her spouse or partner.
- Always affirm that they are caring and loving parents. Assure them that they are doing well.
- Tell them that you are proud of them for having the right priorities such as attending to all the baby's needs over doing chores in the house.
- Let them choose what support they need from members of the family.
Your children, who are now parents, need unconditional support and encouragement. The most loving thing you can do is let go of your judgements and ideas on how things should be, and be loving and accepting of how she chooses to mother her children.
You can also attend classes with them, from breastfeeding to parenting – helping you to become an even more powerful support for times when your daughter or daughter-in-law needs to reach out and seek advice.
What Can Grandparents Do If Their Children Turn Down Their Offers Of Help?
In this case, Pinky McKay suggests, “Really there is nothing you can do. Try not to take it too personally. Live your own life with purpose and joy and congratulate yourself on bringing up such independent ‘kids’. If you need to vent – vent to another grandparent who is also feeling left out – rather than bitching at your kids, as that will only create more distance.
If things do feel really tough, try calmly talking to your own child without criticising their spouse about how you would love to see the grandbabies more often. Offer an invitation to come over for a meal – that way you at least get to see the kids even if you don't get to actually have much input.”
What Do New Mothers Want?
Here are some comments from mothers who are very grateful for what their parents did to help them with their newborn:
“My mum was awesome, she brought food over and cleaned my floors and did the ironing. She was so encouraging and happy to help in any way she could. Even just being on the other end of the phone while I cried was a great help.” — Trish
“My mother-in-law arranged homemade meals for one week! Each day, a different church member would stop by with dinner. She also took my 3 year old and 1 year old for a night over a few different times during the first two weeks. My mother would come by during the hours my husband was working and help with the children. All of this assistance was wonderful during the adjustment phase of newborn #3. It was especially helpful as I’m exclusively a breastfeeding mama. ” — Nicole
“Apart from being my midwife for all three pregnancies and delivering the last two (first ended in emergency c-section), my mother has done everything! When my first son was born at aged 19, my boyfriend (now husband 10 years on) still lived with my parents. She moved into my sister's room upstairs and got up with me at every night feed for the first week to help me with breastfeeding, and even took my DS1 after the feed sometimes, so I could go back to sleep. With my second son, she moved in with us for a week, cooked dinners, took the baby into the lounge room at 1 AM so DH and I could sleep, did washing, babysat ds1 (aged 7 by this time) and again, got up with mist feeds during the night for the first week to help with breastfeeding – ds2 had lots of trouble attaching, but after 7 weeks, we got there! Then with DD (born 12 weeks ago) she cooked a week's worth of meals, came over and made lunches, and was just there, everyday for support and a cup of tea! She couldn’t have done more! She is a beautiful mother, friend and amazing midwife, so I had the best of everything!” — issy02
Every new mother needs help when dealing with a newborn. Each mother wants help in different forms. One thing is clear: grandparents have a supporting role in the childhood of their grandkids. Perhaps the most important contribution that you can make is to give your children positive feedback on how they raise their own kids.
All grandparents know how difficult it is to raise children, especially for first-time parents. By assisting your daughter or daughter in law with a newborn baby, you allow him/her to have some time to unwind. This, in turn, will allow him/her to be more able to cope with the responsibility of raising his/her child.
“My parents told me I was doing a good job, didn’t smother me and let my husband and I have space to figure things out. They only gave advice when asked, helped with meals and housework. They helped more when my husband went back to work.”— Amaunet
“They gave us space! They made sure we knew they were there if we needed them – no matter what time of day, no matter how silly the question was – but they made sure we knew it was on our terms not theirs!” — Sahbear