QUESTION: My husband comes from a different cultural background. This wasn't a problem until we had a baby six months ago. Now my mother-in-law is becoming more involved in our lives, telling me how to do things and suggesting inappropriate foods for the baby. I've asked my husband to speak to her and he keeps saying he will, but he hasn't. She's driving me crazy. I don't want to cause trouble, but I have to do something.
Elly Taylor, a counsellor and author of Becoming Us, Loving, Learning and Growing Together, answers:
This is a topic most parents have to grapple with, even without cultural differences. And if there's any issue you need to work together on, dealing with in-laws is one of them, and the earlier the better.
This is an issue that can have ramifications because it asks us to divide ourselves down loyalty lines. Becoming a family is a time of establishing new boundaries, drawing a circle around "us", distinguishing yourself from each of your original families to create your own.
At the same time, you want extended family in your life. As long as it doesn't cause conflict or other problems, family can provide a great source of support, comfort and joy - especially grandparents.
The first step is to talk together about the situation and work out who ''owns'' the problem. If your partner feels the same way, I suggest you speak to her together. If it's your problem alone and he doesn't agree, I suggest you speak to her directly. If you don't have the sort of relationship where you feel comfortable drawing lines with her, then your first step would be to create one. Get to know her and open up lines of communication so you can craft your boundaries. If you don't, silence implies consent, and you will likely find it harder to backtrack later.
Above all, beware triangulation, which causes a lot of strife in families. This happens when someone communicates through a "third party" to try to manage conflict between the original two. It almost always makes things more complicated. The last thing you want is for your partner to be the meat in the sandwich - but you should expect his support for your pre-existing agreement, either as a back-up in the conversation, or if he is not present, by including him in it: "we have decided" or "we would prefer".
Next, separate the problem from the person. What looks like intrusiveness from your perspective is because she cares from hers; her intentions are good. It's her advice that might be outdated or inappropriate. She is not the problem, the advice is, so this needs to be the focus of your conversation.
To soften the conversation, I suggest using the "feedback sandwich". Start with something you appreciate about her, be assertive with your request, and finish with a compliment. For example: "Mum, we really appreciate your offer. You are such a great cook, but she's just not ready for spicy food yet. I'll let you know when she is, but we would love for just the adults to have it for dinner." This way you protect her feelings but stand firm on the issue.
You've also just set a benchmark for tackling the next issue, and with all the newness that comes with parenthood, there is likely to be one!
Send your questions to Elly at firstname.lastname@example.org.