Setting Boundaries As a…New Parent

After nine long (long, long, long) months, your little bundle is finally here! The little face you’ve been waiting to meet is finally looking up at you, the little hands are grasping tight to grown-up fingers, the little body is snuggled in close… your mother-in-law?!

Baby is only a few days old, but you feel like someone else has held her more than you have. Pass-the-baby is going full force, and you’re beginning to feel a little desperate. But when you ask to have her back, you get laughed off, ignored, or told to go take a nap while baby’s visitors hold him. This isn’t what you thought newborn life would be like. But they’re here to help, a voice inside whispers. You’re not supposed to get upset when someone’s trying to help! Isn’t that selfish?

What do you do when that well-intentioned help is making you feel worse? When you feel walked over, dismissed, and ignored? How do you establish a new family unit when your family of origin doesn’t seem to realize anything has changed?

Setting boundaries as a new parent is hard. It is difficult for extended families to recognize that the dynamics have shifted, that you are no longer the young niece or nephew, the child, the sibling or cousin—now you are the mother or father, and you are trying to assert yourself in a new way. That little bundle of whimpers and snuggles needs you to be someone new—a Parent—and that means revisiting your role in the lives of those around you. Sometimes extended family handles these changes well, and other times it becomes a power struggle in short order. If you are struggling to set boundaries and establish your new role as the parent and caregiver of your baby, here are a few tips to help you.

1. Start early.

If at all possible, start laying the groundwork for your new boundaries before baby even arrives. You don’t know how labor and delivery will go, how you’ll feel afterward, or whether you will want anyone around right away. When eager in-laws and extended family start discussing their travel plans, intentions of being waiting room warriors, and how they can’t wait to watch the newborn while you sleep, let them know you will be keeping a flexible mind about when you’d like visitors. You will let them know when you’re ready to introduce the newest addition, and you appreciate their support as you establish your new family unit. Setting expectations early can help curb some of the shock and resistance after baby comes into the world, because you’ve already been laying the foundation for your new boundaries.

2. Solidify your support.

There are many times in parenthood where the support of your partner is crucial to success, and one of the most critical is the first few moments, days, and weeks of your baby’s life outside the womb. Talk with your partner beforehand and make sure you are on the same page about visitors at the hospital/birth center or at home. Make sure you know what is important to each other in terms of bonding time, and that you are in agreement with each other to reinforce the boundaries you are setting. It undermines your position if one of you wants no visitors and the other allows 10 extended family members to waltz in whenever they want.

An additional note on this: In most cases, I am firmly for both parents having equal say in developing healthy family boundaries. Mother and father should be equal partners, and in general, I apply the 2 yeses, 1 no rule (both people agree to something, and one person being unwilling means you scrap that plan and work on another). In the case of visitors during or after delivery and in the first few weeks following birth, I strongly recommend that new fathers defer to new mothers. Not because mothers are inherently better, or because fathers’ feelings don’t matter—because the new mother will be physically and emotionally going through things a new father just can’t experience himself. Labor, delivery, hormone surges, postpartum bleeding, breastfeeding, potential recovery from surgery or tearing—new moms have so much on their plates that new dads will not. Mothers need extra support at this time, and it is up to fathers to be generous here.

3. Be prepared for resistance.

No matter how well you lay your groundwork, how reasonable your requests are, there is often someone who believes they are the exception to your rules. That person may be your own mom, who takes offense at the perception that you think she is incapable of taking care of your baby, or your father-in-law, who scoffs at your safety precautions because “we all survived just fine.” Maybe it’s the brother who brings his whole family, three of whom are sick with strep throat, because he wanted to see the baby and didn’t respect your boundary to wait until everyone was well. Or your best friend who thinks it’s ok to drop in at any time because she’s there to support you, even though you asked for advance notice.

Most of the time, these people mean well. They are excited to build a relationship with your baby and they want to support you as new parents. Know in advance that you may need to reinforce your boundaries firmly. What will you do if someone ignores your requests, shows up sick, or puts baby to sleep on their stomach instead of back? This is another good area to discuss in advance with your partner so that you can be a united front.

4. Learn to say no.

This is one of the harder things for many new parents to do. They want to believe the best of their family and often excuse behavior that is inexcusable in the name of keeping the peace or not upsetting someone else. But there is a problem with this mindset.

If keeping the peace means giving up your own, the price is too high.

Now this is not to say that you never compromise with anyone, or that you have to get your way all the time. But your wants and needs are at least as important as the next person’s, and there are times in your life where you get to put yourself first. Adjusting to new parenthood is one of them. Those friends and family who believe they are exceptions may get upset and may have a tantrum when you reinforce your boundaries, but you are not obligated to give up your peace, bonding time, or recovery time to stop a tantrum. You never get this time back—take it for yourself.

5. Remember who comes first.

The most important people in your world as a new parent are your baby and your partner, or baby and you if you’re a single parent. You don’t owe your time to anyone but your nuclear family right now. If you are ready and willing to share that time with extended family early on, great! Go for it! But if you are not, don’t let anyone tell you that you’re being selfish. Your first priorities are to care for your newborn, recover from labor and delivery, and come together as a new family unit of parents and child. Everything and everyone outside of that comes second. Cherish the blissful moments of peace, get through the bouts of endless diaper changes, and savor the unique experience of welcoming a new member into your little family. These moments are for you, and you deserve to give them your full attention.