How Do I Deal With My In-Laws Undermining Me as a Mom During the Holidays?
We know that every holiday season, parents have lots of questions — whether it's how to deal with stress-inducing in-laws or ways to keep their kids healthy. That's why, this year, we tapped four advice columnists and experts to help us. Enter: The Holiday Nightline, where we're answering your most burning questions about parenting during the holidays. Keep reading for a Q&A advice column from Lotte Jeffs, a journalist and author of "The Queer Parent (Everything You Need to Know From Gay to Ze)."
I'm the non-biological mother to our newborn daughter, and we're spending Christmas with my wife's family. They treat me more as the nanny, or a helpful friend, rather than an equal mother to their grandchild. When she was born, they didn't address their cards or presents to me, and they'd often say "go to Mommy" when passing the baby to my wife, but "go to Sara" when passing her to me. I feel so undermined as a parent. How can I survive five days under their roof?
— Undermined Mom
Dear Undermined Mom,
Five days! Well, firstly, never forget the rule of three — this is the optimum amount of days any adult should spend with their parents or in-laws in one another's homes, particularly at emotionally fraught times such as the holiday season (if you're in a neutral space such as a hotel or rented cottage, I'd extend the rule to a week). Regardless of your individual situation, being around extended family in their home is always hard work. They'll have their ingrained ways of doing things, and you'll have yours. Everyone will crave some moments of peace, and long-standing family issues often bubble up during this time, like Mount Vesuvius just waiting for the next eruption.
Now add into the mix that you and your wife are new parents and are, I imagine, majorly sleep-deprived (aka most likely short-tempered, irritable, and emotional). You'll also be reckoning with the huge shift in selfhood that happens when becoming a parent, and as you are the "non-gestational mother" to your daughter as I am to my now 5-year-old, you haven't experienced nine months of physical changes and birth to perhaps slowly come to terms with your new role as a parent.
Instead, it's all happening now, and it's only natural that you have some insecurities about your identity in that process. I think it's really important that you get comfortable and confident in yourself as a mother first. That way, you'll have a really solid anchor and a steadfast belief in the incredibly important part you'll play in raising your child — so that nothing anyone else says, or doesn't say, will be able to chip away at that.
Soon enough, everyone will see you as the mother you are.
Something I found really helpful in my own journey was learning that, according to biological anthropologist and professor Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, a parent who did not give birth to their child can still be considered a "biological" parent because of all the hormonal and neurological changes that take place in the body of anyone intimately caring for a baby. According to various studies and to Hrdy, there is a similar rise in oxytocin, the "bonding hormone," when you compare birth parents with the other parent.
I've now stopped calling myself the "other" or "non-biological" mother, because these terms define me by what I am not instead of celebrating all that I am as an equal parent. So in the time between now and the holidays, I'd work on validating yourself as a mother. Do this by speaking to other queer parents; perhaps there's a WhatsApp or Facebook group you could join where people share their experiences. Might I also suggest reading my book, "The Queer Parent (Everything You Need to Know From Gay to Ze)," which is full of great advice and stories from other LGBTQIA+ parents? You're not alone!
Also, spend some quality time with your daughter, just the two of you. Perhaps introduce bottle feeding if you haven't already, so you can play an equal part in this profoundly bonding experience. Find your own way to rock her to sleep, to comfort her, or to make her smile so you have a sense of autonomy as a mother rather than falling into a secondary parent role. This all means that by the time you show up at your in-laws on Christmas Eve, you'll be full of pride, have a network of other queer parents who you can reach out to if things get tricky, and will have taken as active a role in caring for your daughter as your wife. There's nothing they can say to take that away from you.
Now, what to do if or when they do say something that makes you feel less than or overlooked as a parent. Call them on it! If you stay quiet, they may not even realize that they're offending you, and you need to address anything like this before your child is old enough to pick up on it herself. Approach the subject with lightness and humor to avoid anyone feeling attacked or "told off." But still, it's important to be bold and honest about how you feel. Try pre-empting some of the things that might upset you, like the language your in-laws are using, and addressing the subject before it becomes an issue. When everyone's in good spirits and talking about other things, you might casually drop into the conversation something like, "Just to let you know, I'm Mamma and she's Mummy, so feel free to use those words when you talk to the baby about us." Doing it this way takes the weight out of the situation and stops it from feeling like an intervention or Big Conversation.
It might also be helpful if your wife takes a bit of a step back so you have a chance to shine as a mother. For example, she could lie in while you do the early shift with the baby, so your in-laws see how involved and essential you are.
There are bound to be things that come up and feel difficult, but cut yourself some slack. You're adjusting to this new world order, and your daughter's grandparents are, too. It might take them some time, but if my experience is anything to go by, soon enough, everyone will see you as the mother you are, and the thing you'll be most annoyed about is that your in-laws' busy social life stops them from babysitting as much as you and your wife would like!
Good luck, and happy holidays!