Visits to and from family, especially during the holidays, are both a joyful and stressful experience all rolled into one. Watching our children connect with our parents can be a truly beautiful occasion. Sharing family traditions and experiences can provide moments all of you will treasure.
On the other hand, routines become disrupted and conflicting needs and desires of many people sharing a space can be hard to manage. Holiday or special gatherings may bring together families with varying parenting styles, and our choices for our children, including breastfeeding, can feel as though they are under a microscope. I've written a separate article, called "Dealing with Family and Criticism While Breastfeeding" that outlines some specific issues that tend to come up (see related links below). But often, choices Moms and Dads make, individually and as a couple, influence greatly whether criticism and advice is invited or avoided.
Husbands can especially play a key role in keeping stress to a minimum, regardless of which side of the family is visiting or being visited. Here's some tips to share with husbands on how you both can work together to keep sane during the family visits:
• Be a "we" – The days of Ward Cleaver are over and husbands have become more and more involved in children's lives and parenting decisions. But let's face it … breastfeeding is not an equal-opportunity parenting job. Even the most involved Dad often sees this as his wife's domain. But when discussing breastfeeding with family members, especially those who may be critical of it, Dads and Moms should remember to present a unified voice. Statements like, "We are really committed to making sure the baby gets the healthiest start possible," from both Mom and Dad can go a long way. (For tips on how breastfeeding can really be a "we" activity, see my article on "Husbands and Breastfeeding – What's a Dad to Do" in the related links below).
• Save reservations for later – If Dad and Mom are working out disagreements on breastfeeding, or related choices, in front of family is not the time to get into it. Issues like when and how to wean, introducing foods, co-sleeping, breastfeeding schedules, night nursing, bottlefeeding, pumping, going back to work, and other issues, are both complicated and emotional. Putting one another on the spot by airing these issues in front of family won't get you anything except an angry spouse. If family raises these issues, I'd suggest a response like, "Fifty people will give you fifty different opinions on THAT issue… Nicki (spouse's name here) and I are deciding together what works best for our family" and channel the discussion in another direction, like how cute the baby is when they… .
• Never, never use family against your husband or wife – Just reserving the right to privacy in decision-making between husbands and wives can be challenging enough, but don't ever gang up on one another using family members. Commiserating with family over life's woes may be a pastime for some, and in close quarters, it can sometimes be hard to hide things we'd otherwise not share. But if you choose to discuss breastfeeding and parenting challenges with family, especially in the absence of your spouse, make it perfectly clear that you are just looking for a sympathetic ear but will be working out the solution with your spouse on your own. If you think that the family member you are talking with will not be able to leave it at that, it might be better to keep it to yourself.
• Complaints invite advice – If you comment on or complaint about something going on with the baby during your visit, then know that you are asking for family to get involved. Think about how you feel about your baby (or other children). . . you instinctively want to solve their problems. Advice-givers don't have evil intent and really aren't trying to drive you crazy. It's just an instinct to try and help when you see someone in need, even if all you actually want is some sympathy or acknowledgment.
• Get the help you want – If you really do want some advice or help from those around you, think about what sort of response you really want and how you'll handle it before you ask. If you are just looking for ideas, you want to ask in a different way than if you want specific information on how to do something. For example, asking a sister-in-law to teach you that great swaddle she did with her kids, because yours always falls apart can be a great help – ask away. But say you are asking for tips on getting the baby to sleep longer stretches at night (or being given that advice unasked), you might want to be more strategic about saying you are looking for "options" rather than "how tos." And if you don't get advice you think you can use, don't argue – something like "That's interesting…I'll have to think about that" will let them know they are being heard and let you process later on your own.
Remember when visiting with family, you can set the climate for whether your breastfeeding and parenting choices are up for discussion. Managing this, in partnership with your husband or wife, can help greatly reduce stress, and help focus on the joyful aspects of family visits.