This is a difficult piece to write, because although it’s one of the most common things people talk to me about, it definitely doesn’t have a one-size-fits-all solution. So I’ve decided to invent a case study of someone I might have worked with (she is parts of lots of people) and talk about what we might have discussed:

Sandra is 35 and has been married for six years. She and her husband, John, had been trying to conceive for two years before their daughter Orla was born, and had been beginning to assume they would have to investigate IVF when they fell pregnant.

Orla is now five months old. Sandra works in marketing and mostly enjoys her job, although she has mixed feelings about returning to work after the end of her maternity leave (she is taking a year). Things have been mostly okay so far, but Sandra is finding it increasingly hard to be around her parents-in-law and finds it tough to talk to John about this because he gets angry or defensive when she brings it up.

Sandra didn’t get on with John’s folks particularly well before they had Orla, but it wasn’t such a problem. However, since Orla’s arrival, Sandra has found them to be incredibly critical of her as a parent and she finds them dismissive of Orla when she cries.

Sandra finds the situation increasingly difficult to manage and dreads going to visit them or them visiting her, but feels stuck as John is very supportive of her parents visiting. She also believes it’s important she tries to support Orla’s relationship with all her grandparents.

If I were working with Sandra, here are some of the things I would be wondering:

– How did Sandra manage the relationship with her in-laws before Orla was born – what made it easier then? Is there any way of mentally recreating some of that distance?

– When her in-laws criticise her, what does it do to her? Does it make her angry, or ashamed? Does it make her feel guilty? Does it make her feel like a failure? Does it make her want to gain their approval somehow?

– And why does she feel like that? If she knows why their criticism is so tricky, it might be easier to figure out ways to ignore or rebuff. Sometimes, if someone says something and we have some deep-rooted belief they are right (even if we rationally know they are wrong) it can make it hard for us to shake what they’re saying.

So, for example, if Sandra’s MIL was to say, ‘You should be bottle-feeding that baby and then she would sleep at night. You’re doing this to yourself.’ And although Sandra knows why she has chosen to breastfeed, she also has a hidden belief that perhaps Orla should be sleeping through the night by now and that she must be missing something if Orla hasn’t yet managed that. Sandra also has a hidden belief that, as Orla’s mum, she should get everything ‘right’, so if she is missing something then she is not doing her job properly. Hearing her MIL say that, rather than being able to let her MIL know her comments make Sandra feel very unsupported, Sandra hears it as confirmation that she is not doing her job properly, and that triggers a sense of shame.

Just being aware of some of the hidden beliefs Sandra holds about herself might be enough to help her choose not to allow those feelings to take over when she is with John’s parents. However, there are many other aspects we haven’t considered.

One of the other issues in this scenario is that she finds it hard how they deal with Orla’s crying. I would wonder whether this is something that needs paying attention to. If Orla only ever sees them when she has a parent present, then it might be easier for her parents to challenge this for her. However, if Orla is going to be in a position where they are ever her main caregivers (for example, if they are babysitting), then it might need more attention paid to it.

If Sandra felt able to raise this with them or felt able to get John to raise it with them – using concrete examples of times when they (Sandra and John) have felt his parents have been dismissive towards Orla – then this might be easily resolved. However, if this doesn’t feel like a conversation that could be had, or if they do have the conversation and their concerns are also dismissed, then it might be that Sandra and John need to rethink their hope of having John’s parents look after Orla in this way.

[Just as an aside from this, it can take a while to process the disappointment that sometimes the people we expect to care about our children the way we do are unable to do so. Sometimes we can keep hoping they will change, in the face of glaring evidence that they just don’t get it. Try to be gentle with yourself as you absorb this disappointment, as it can be huge.]

The other big issue in all of this is Sandra’s relationship with John. It sounds as though there is the likelihood this issue with John’s parents might be driving a slight wedge between them, if John refuses to engage in conversation about it. Sometimes, approaching it by saying something like: “I’m worried about having this conversation with you, because I’m worried you think I hate your parents, when it’s not that at all. It’s because I really want to have a relationship with your parents that works, that I want to talk with you about this. I think it’s really important.” It might be that when he hears how much Sandra wants to make this work, it’s enough to stop John from needing to defend his parents so much, in order to truly listen to Sandra’s point of view.

It might also be that Sandra points out that she is worried all of this is having a detrimental affect on her and John’s relationship, as that might also help John to find a way of engaging with what she is trying to tell him.

Before having this conversation, it might be useful for Sandra to think about how she would like John to support her, for example, by speaking to his parents on his own, or by backing her up when he hears his parents querying her decisions in his presence.

In this scenario, I have chosen not to consider that there might be other factors that make it hard for Sandra or John to have these conversations. It might be that there are relationship patterns from before Orla was born that are having an impact now, and if that was the case then I think that it might take some individual or relationship counselling to help resolve. I also haven’t considered self-care strategies that Sandra might use to help support her when she is finding John’s parents challenging, such as breathing techniques.

I hope this has given you some useful ideas of ways in which you might be able to manage some of your own tricky relationships. The next case study I am going to write up is about feeding issues. In the meantime, I’d be really interested to hear your feedback.

Sarah Wheatley is a registered counsellor and mother, who set up Birth and Beyond to support mothers and their babies. Sarah is experienced at working with women in the perinatal period, through counselling and parent-infant therapies, and works closely with Juno Perinatal Mental Health Support in Edinburgh.

As well as working with the Scottish Government playtalkread campaign, Sarah has spoken on Radio 4 Women’s Hour, talking about Perinatal Anxiety, and has appeared on local TV. As well as her own blog, she writes for various sites about motherhood, including The Every Mum Movement, Have You Seen That Girl and Selfish Mother.

You can visit Sarah’s business website, Birth and Beyond here, and you can follow Sarah on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Moment Health is a technology company that aims to prioritise Maternal Mental Health and provide new parents with the tools and knowledge they need to sustain good mental wellbeing – from pregnancy through to parenthood.

The Moment Health app has been developed with clinicians and healthcare professionals. It screens for perinatal, postnatal and associated anxieties, and includes additional features such as a helpful guide to practical and accessible coping strategies.

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