A couple having a baby brings together two family traditions that themselves blended the previous generations’ experiences and perspectives. Each of the new parents has been raised by two parents with their own histories, values, successes, and crises all available and potentially playing a part in the new baby’s future. A baby’s arrival can call forth memories of past successes, failures, hopes, and dreams – some fulfilled and some not.
As the pediatrician, you serve as an authority and a resource for the new parents. You will hear questions that have roots that may go back one, two, or more generations. Some may involve discipline, approaches to food, religious issues, or more subtle concerns relating to control and autonomy. And you may find that they will bring you the challenge of managing the beliefs, values, and expectations of the new grandparents. You may even find these new grandparents in your office! You have a unique opportunity to help new parents set a course with their own parents or in-laws that can promote family cohesion and honor family traditions or values, while empowering parents to trust themselves and truly be in charge of raising their own children.
Imagine this scenario: A young couple has just had their first baby, a son. The paternal grandfather, who played soccer in high school and college, presents his first grandchild with his own college soccer ball, proclaiming with great emotion that soccer will certainly be a part of his grandson’s future.
While this simple act may seem touching, it might also be perceived by the new parents as intrusive or controlling. How does the new father (who was maybe more bookish than athletic) feel the burden of this expectation? Perhaps the mother may wish her son to be more of a scholar than an athlete, or may want no expectation set, but may feel uncomfortable speaking honestly with her father-in-law. And this scenario is just about the gift of a soccer ball!
Grandparents (like parents) come with expectations, with beliefs about what practices worked and what failed over a wide range of areas from child rearing to managing finances to career to marriage. The arrival of a new grandchild will likely prompt them to share these beliefs, and do so in the way they usually communicate with their own children, be it blunt, emotional, indirect, or mute. These views might be forcefully presented, if a grandparent feels guilty or unfulfilled because a meaningful hope for their own child did not materialize: The new grandchild is their “last chance.” While their love and interest, their experience and wisdom can be invaluable, they might also arouse insecurity in a new parent or be disruptive. If they share opinions in a way that is stressful, devaluing, or confusing for new parents, that can translate into anxious, uncertain interactions with their new baby or a climate at home that is full of conflict instead of calm.
Parents are already blending their two styles and values, challenging enough before also trying to blend the elements of four grandparents.
The first weeks after the arrival of the new baby is a crucial time in the baby’s development, as well as in the development of the new parents, as all are rapidly acquiring new skills, adjusting to a new schedule, and learning how to understand and respond to each other. During these hard early days, grandparents often will be present, staying in the home or nearby to offer support to their children. Very commonly, they will share their opinions about such basics as nutrition and sleep. These are areas that are fundamentally important for a baby’s healthy development, but can be mysterious and challenging for new parents. They may seek out guidance from friends, books, websites, and pediatricians, as well as the new grandparents.
While their accumulated wisdom may be as helpful as their helping with laundry or meal preparation (think, “sleep when the baby sleeps”), it also might not. Perhaps the opinions are misguided (think, “sleeping on the tummy was always fine in my day”). And grandparents who are inadvertently undermining (“I don’t understand the difficulty, nursing was so easy for me”), or highly anxious might add to the new parents’ stress and uncertainty rather than alleviate it.
Grandparents also may come with strong cultural beliefs about child rearing. In families that are only one or two generations removed from immigration to this country, there may be powerfully held ideas about newborns, ones that might be inextricably linked for the grandparents with their drive to preserve their own cultural background. These may include ideas about when a child can eat solid food or what he or she should start eating. They may include beliefs that a child should never be put down or should be left to cry for long periods, lest they be “spoiled.” They might include ideas about when a baby can swim or how best to bathe them, what sorts of toys are appropriate or when their hair can be cut. While many of these beliefs have cultural value and no medical implications (like the timing of the first haircut), some may fly in the face of current scientific evidence (such as eating solids before they are able). And even when they are “safe,” new parents may experience these beliefs as fraught directives: ones that they may not believe in, but which will make them guilty of some cultural betrayal if they do not follow them.
Along a similar vein, grandparents may enter the home of their new grandchild with passionately held religious beliefs. While few of these may have direct medical implications for the new baby (such as circumcision), they can still have profound implications for life in the family’s home. When parents and grandparents all share the same religious beliefs, there is less possibility of conflict. But when new parents come from different religious traditions or no longer share their parents’ faith, there is high potential for emotionally charged differences. And if the new parents have not anticipated these conversations (say, whether or not to circumcise a baby boy when one parent is Jewish and the other is Protestant), trying to sort out these matters while also learning to change diapers or nurse a colicky baby can make a challenging situation into an overwhelming one.
Pediatricians are in a unique position of both neutrality and authority with their new patient’s parents and grandparents. When parents come to a newborn check or well-baby check, it can be invaluable to determine “who else is helping you?” After finding out about nursing or feeding the baby and about sleep, inquire about where they are getting any guidance or support. Friends or siblings with children? Books or websites? Grandparents? What has been helpful and what has not? When you hear about grandparents and see an eye-roll or hear a deep sigh, be curious about what has been helpful and what has been challenging. It is vitally helpful to first-time parents to be validated in their feeling that their own parents are a valuable resource, but not without their challenges.
While it may be important to offer a “medical” opinion about certain matters (back-sleeping, cosleeping, and introducing solids, for example), on most matters, the pediatrician’s role will be to help parents set a framework that will help them to cultivate what is precious and helpful from grandparents while minimizing conflict or unnecessary stress. For new parents, this may be as simple as reminding them that while this is an vital time for the baby’s development, it is also a big transition for them into parenthood and a significant transition for their parents or in-laws into grandparenthood. Help the new parents to understand that there is sometimes no one “right” way to handle certain decisions or challenges, and they will have to try a variety of strategies before finding the one that fits them as parents to this particular child. Remind them that parenting is a learning curve and it is common to feel stressed in new territory with high stakes. But they will find the right rhythm with being attuned to their new baby and eventually managing routines and limits. They are allowed to embrace the support that they find helpful and limit that which they experience as deeply undermining, dismissive, or judgmental.
When you notice that parents sound very angry at or alienated from grandparents, particularly when it is causing some marital conflict, it can be powerful for you to suggest that they should sort out their wishes and beliefs as parents first and then find a clear and loving way to communicate these to the grandparents. Remind them that they are becoming the experts on their children and that they will best be able to set appropriate routines and expectations. But remind them also that grandparents are potentially a treasure to their grandchildren, beyond the help with laundry and meal preparation at the very start of a child’s life.
There can never be enough loving, interested adults in a child’s orbit or a big enough cheering section. And grandparents can be uniquely passionate, patient, curious, and supportive to their growing grandchildren. They bring perspective on a family’s history, wonderful as a growing child builds a story about who they are and where they come from. And their interest and love will help a growing child build a sense of what characteristics make them a treasure to others. Few people can do this as well as grandparents, and letting them begin this involvement at the start of their grandchild’s life only supports this role.
While the arrival of a new baby will be a joyful event for a family, it will also be emotionally complex. Providing your patient’s parents with support and even some language that may help them cultivate the grandparents’ interest and love, while building healthy boundaries around their own parenting, may help set the stage for the healthiest development of your very young patient.
Dr. Swick is an attending psychiatrist in the division of child psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, and director of the Parenting at a Challenging Time (PACT) Program at the Vernon Cancer Center at Newton Wellesley Hospital, also in Boston. Dr. Jellinek is professor of psychiatry and of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, Boston. E-mail them at email@example.com .