By Lisa Hassan Scott
“Well, when you come to visit, I can try to see if I can get a portable crib.” My husband and I were planning our first visit to his parents’ house, and my in-laws were really excited. “That won’t be necessary,” I said, “the baby will just sleep with us.” A silence. “With you? But won’t you roll on top of her?” And so began a conversation about parenting that has been going on for ten years. At first, I felt uncomfortable and defensive of our choices. Everything we were doing was so, well, different from the choices our parents had made. Heck, most of what we were doing was different pretty much everyone around us. After many years and many conversations, we have reached a point of mutual respect, and our children’s grandparents take such joy in seeing how they are growing under our loving care.
The season has arrived when many of us will be sharing celebrations with friends and extended family. Many cherish this time of year, when we can stay indoors, share delicious food and celebrate family traditions. On the other hand, spending so much time with people we don’t normally see, or in someone else’s house, can put our parenting choices under the microscope.
Perhaps you’re co-sleeping with your baby, but your relatives feel uncomfortable about it when you’re staying at their house. Or maybe you’re still nursing your toddler, and you’re dreading your little one asking to nurse at Great Aunt Vera’s present exchange party. Maybe you’ve chosen not to vaccinate your child, and you wonder whether your doctor cousin plans to corner you about it over holiday drinks. Or maybe you just know that everyone will be watching as you gently deal with your toddler’s tantrums, and you know they’d do it differently. Whatever the case, being in the company of people who may feel uncomfortable about (or downright disapproving of) our parenting choices has the potential to cause friction.
Only you can decide how you want to approach each situation. Some mothers find that clear and open discussion about the issue at hand can help. But other mothers have found that this approach can lead to arguments, heightened disagreement, misunderstanding or hurt feelings. It can be painful to get in a conflict with someone we love about something that means so much to you.
Here are some ideas that have worked for many mothers I have talked to, which I share with you in the hope that you will choose what suits you and leave behind the rest.
Listen, listen, listen. I once attended a communication skills workshop where the leader said that we have two ears and only one mouth, so we should listen twice as much as we talk. When someone makes a comment about your parenting choice, simply listen to what they have to say. In my experience, people have a deep need simply to be heard. Hear them out. But importantly, consider what the feeling behind their words might be. Listen out for feeling words and use these in your reply. Your father-in-law may not be ready to hear the latest research about co-sleeping until you’ve really heard how worried he is. So your reply might sound like, “You’d really worried that the baby is going to get hurt, aren’t you?” This gives him a chance to further express himself. By listening you’ve opened the door to communication. When he feels heard, he is more likely to be receptive to your side of things, and you may be able to find a solution that will work for both of you. For example, maybe his biggest worry is that the baby will fall out of bed. This can be easily solved by using a bed rail or moving the mattress to the floor.
Choose your battles. You might decide that the comments you are hearing are so aggressive that you can’t listen, listen, listen. You might decide to walk away, find somewhere else to stay, or make different plans next year. What you choose to do depends on how meaningful your relationship is with the person you’re having a conflict with. If it’s an acquaintance, you may choose to let it go and walk away. On the other hand, if it’s someone you really care about, you may want to apply more of your attention and energy to good communication skills.
Along with choosing your battles, remember to choose carefully who you complain to! I learned this the hard way when my first baby kept me awake through most of the night. I’d tell all who would listen about what a bad night I’d had, and yes, you guess it: all of my listeners had a piece of advice for me as to what I should do about this situation. Head spinning, full of confusing ideas, going from pillar to post and trying everything—none of their ideas worked for me. I grew irritated and resentful at others’ interference, and saw that my complaining opened the door for this unwelcome advice. I soon learned to share the highs of my parenting journey with anyone and everyone, but save the lows for people who would encourage me to listen to my heart and support me in my decisions.
Focus on your child. It can be really uncomfortable when your child is having a tantrum in front of a room full of onlookers. What’s worse is if they start to say to one another, “I’d just smack his bottom,” or if they approach you afterwards with such unwelcome advice. If everyone is watching when a child is having a tantrum, or when you are mediating a squabble between siblings, it can help to keep your gaze completely on your child. Don’t look up at the onlookers or naysayers. Your eye contact could be interpreted as an invitation for their involvement. And after all, what your child is telling you he really needs right now is your full attention. Give it to him and ignore all else.
The same approach can help if you are breastfeeding your baby or toddler in a place where you might feel unwelcome. Keeping your eyes on your baby can help you to focus on his needs. If you’re looking at your baby’s beautiful face, you won’t see any questioning or disapproving looks.
Prepare some stock phrases in advance. One of my favourite ways of deflecting criticism is to return the focus to my child. Why am I still breastfeeding? “Well, look how well he’s doing on it!” Invite your friend or family member to see the real-life evidence here in your arms: this baby is doing great, and it’s because of your choices not in spite of them.
Maybe your baby or toddler is struggling with something right now: reflux, teething, the ‘no’ stage. Focusing attention on how brilliantly your child is doing might not feel right. But it’s worth remembering that your friend or family member is starting a conversation, and the criticism is often more about the person giving it than receiving it. You can use this to your advantage, move the spotlight off yourself and on to the person who seems to be criticising you. So when Aunt Florrie says she can’t understand why you don’t just smack your two year old’s hand when he shouts, “NO!” You might say in reply, “It sounds like that was something that worked for you.” The conversation turns to her experience. Although you might not want to hear about how well her methods worked, if you can manage to keep her talking about herself for long enough, the attention will be more on her than on you. You might also find that you learn more about her as a person, about the pressures she was under as a mother, about the parenting fads of her day and what her generation thought was acceptable. Through skilful listening and careful questioning, you might even develop a sense of empathy for Aunt Florrie and your relationship will be better for it. And if, through listening to her, you have built enough rapport with her, she might be willing to listen more respectfully to what you have to say.
And finally, remember that most people are just trying to be helpful. Meeting up in the holidays with family and friends is an opportunity to connect with people who love you, even if they sometimes have a funny way of expressing it. Remind yourself of their intention—is it to harm you, or help you? In your heart, acknowledge that these people are trying in their own way to support you…. but few people have the communication skills and self-awareness to do so in a healthy and constructive way. Recognising their intention may soften your own heart and lead you toward compassion rather than anger or hurt.
I dearly hope that you will need none of these suggestions over the holiday period and that you come from families who wholeheartedly support you in all of your parenting choices. But if not, I hope that these suggestions will support you in difficult times. I’d love to hear how they helped you, and if any readers would like to share what’s worked for them, please do leave a comment below.
©Lisa Hassan Scott 2012.
For those who are interested in developing their communication skills, I recommend Robert Bolton’s excellent book, People Skills.
Photo credit: By Elizabeth Ann Colette (Flickr) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
About Lisa Hassan Scott
Am American living in the UK for 17 years, Lisa is a Yoga teacher, freelance writer and breastfeeding counsellor. Her writing has been published in magazines in the US and UK, online and most recently in Musings on Mothering, an anthology about breastfeeding and motherhood. She has been a Mothering blogger since November 2011 and blogs about parenting and the mind at:
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