setting boundaries with a new grandmother
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Setting Boundaries: Why My Mother and I Have a Safe Word

By Hannah Clay Wareham

“You know it’s okay to have caffeine, right?”

“You shouldn’t swear; the baby can hear you!”

“You’re not going to vaccinate…are you?”

As soon as it became clear that my baby bump was indeed full of baby (and not burrito), the flood of advice started. Everyone had something to tell me about pregnancy, childbirth, or parenting: friends, co-workers, acquaintances, and strangers. Don’t get me wrong, there were some gems in there, but I smiled and nodded through most of it. There’s one person to whom I willingly turn for advice again and again, though: my mother.

My mom knows her stuff

My mom has done the pregnancy/baby/kid thing three times over and is a registered nurse on top of it all. We’ve had a really close relationship ever since I emerged from teenagehood, and I feel so lucky and grateful for that. So it’s come pretty naturally to call her when I get a blocked milk duct, to text her pictures of my son’s diaper rash, or to want to memorize her “sneak attack” spoon-feeding technique (I swear, she never misses!).

In fact, after the baby was born, she and my dad visited us every single weekend until he was 16 weeks old. My wife and I relied on their support and help so much – and we still do. Ever since becoming a mother myself, I’ve discovered I need my own mom in so many new ways – and that sometimes the thing I need the most is a safe way for us to check ourselves.

Setting boundaries, one word at a time

One day, early in my son’s life, we decided to bundle up the baby for his first walk in the stroller. It was late November, so hats, mitts, socks, and blankets were duly layered and tucked around his tiny newborn body. I wanted to also try out a fleece stroller liner a friend had given us. As I zipped it around the baby, my mom said, “Oh honey, are you sure that’s safe?” I looked up at her, exhausted and confused and a little pissed, but before I could even answer, she put up her hands. “You know what, reverse,” she said. “That’s what I want you to say to me whenever I step on your toes: reverse.”

Her grace caught me off guard. I stopped in my tracks, so relieved and grateful that I almost cried (and no, all those postpartum hormones weren’t helping). In that moment, she recognized that even though I’m a first-time mom and I do need her help and advice, all the choices and decisions that affect the baby are ultimately my and my wife’s call alone.

Respect wins

“Reverse” became our safe word; a way for us to remember to respect each other’s roles while safeguarding our bond. I can call her out for frowning at the baby monitor while my son fusses in his crib before falling asleep without putting any extra stress or tension on our relationship. We both implicitly respect “reverse.” This way, it doesn’t lead to a huge discussion or argument about that ends with me heatedly defending my autonomy as a parent.

By giving me the emotional space to make my own calls, she’s saying she trusts me as a mother. That, in turn, helps me learn to trust myself, and my confidence as a first-time mom is growing. Of all the gifts my mother gave me after the birth of my son – her time, her advice, her spoon-feeding trick – the one I needed most of all was her respect.

Our next reco: The End of Us and Other New Mom Fears

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