This is one in a series of guest posts by other bloggers. Read to the end for a longer biographical note on today's guest blogger, Melissa from Vibrant Wanderings. This post is also part of my special HAVE KIDS, WILL TRAVEL series to give you advice on traveling with kids and is a perfect prelude to the upcoming holiday season. Melissa shares the wisdom gleaned from a long visit with family on how to gently deflect and defend when relatives consider your parenting choices unusual.
Guest post by Melissa from Vibrant Wanderings
As someone whose parenting practices are on the extremely nontraditional end of the spectrum, I have had more than my share of awkward moments. I'm not always the best at navigating them, either, so I've had a great many open mouth, insert foot situations as well. Thankfully, it seems that I am not alone in this, and like many other parents, these difficult scenarios come up most often with family. I admittedly have a very long way to go when it comes to handling them gracefully, but I have learned several strategies, and I'd like to share some of them with you.
My husband and I live together with our daughter, a sixteen-hour flight away from our families, so visits tend to be of the longer-than-is-necessarily-comfortable variety, which has made for many of the aforementioned moments of error, but also many of the following revelations. The biggest learning experience for me was a two-month trip I took when my daughter was just under five months old. My husband was deployed to the Middle East, and our family was itching to meet its newest member, so I took my time and made the rounds. I learned most of the following strategies during that time, and all of them through trial and error — mostly error. I'll undoubtedly find myself in a few situations where I fail to implement any of them, but they are a start.
Let your reputation precede you.Like many attached parents, I was a bit nervous about my first visits to family members' homes with my baby. I knew that quite a few aspects of our parenting style would be foreign to our relatives, and therefore hard for them to understand and respect. I also knew that I was in an extremely sensitive and vulnerable state, navigating the world of new motherhood, and doing so with my partner halfway across the world. I think one of the smartest things I did in preparation for our trip was to share my feelings of uneasiness and allow little birds to take them where they would, if you know what I mean. I told my mom, my sister, everyone who asked, that I was really looking forward to the trip, but a little nervous, because I knew some of our hosts might not be comfortable with me choosing to sleep with my daughter instead of using a Pack and Play, for example. I wasn't singling out specific people, just openly acknowledging that we do things differently, and that not everyone is comfortable with that. It doesn't hurt that I blog, too, and that my blog has some cute pictures of my kid. I'm sure one or two of our relatives were familiar with how we parent from scanning the archives there. I think that simply giving others an idea of what to expect really paved the way for our visit.
Have realistic expectations.So like I was saying, we do things differently, and not everyone is comfortable with that. I tried to keep that in mind as we prepared for our trip, accepting the reality that this could be really hard. While our families are wonderful individuals, being somewhat hostile to change can be a natural reaction in all of us at times. I was prepared for a scenario where I would be told how dangerous and reckless I was for bed sharing with my daughter, or how inappropriate it was that I had just breastfed her in a public place. I knew I needed to be ready to do my best to handle such a situation gently, but in a way that was true to my firm beliefs about the importance of such practices. Thankfully, I was frequently met with the best-case scenario instead of the worst, like when I showed up at my grandparents' house and instead of being offered a Pack and Play, I was shown to a guest room that had been completely rearranged, with the bed up against the wall for safer cosleeping. Still, there were a few situations where I had to stand up for myself, so I was still glad that I had walked through some of them in my mind in advance.
Go in with an open mind.It's easy to think of parenting as a black-and-white world where some people cosleep, nurse on demand, and practice gentle discipline while others leave their babies down the hall to cry themselves to sleep, prop a bottle of formula in their mouths at feeding times, and yell at the slightest sign of "misbehavior." Fortunately, that's just not how it is. It's easy to forget that having different parenting styles from our friends and family members does not preclude us from learning from one another. At their core, most all parents share the same deep and genuine love for their children and the same desire to give them the very best. I tried to keep this in mind as I spent time with people who do things differently. I tried to focus on the things I could learn from them rather than the things that didn't sit well with me. Which brings me to my next point...
Find common ground.This one came in handy when I had to explain to generous family members why I did not, in fact, want them to buy this or that adorable plastic toy for my daughter. Because we had a shared love for my daughter and concern for her well-being, discussions about hidden hazards like BPA in everyday items for children struck a chord in both of us; and it made passing on certain items less of a personal dismissal, I hope. I loved talking with my grandparents about how cloth diapers have changed over the years, and they got a kick out of velcro, snaps, and especially Snappis. I found that there were a number of topics we could all discuss openly (what parent doesn't have a good story about poop, right!?) that didn't include controversial decisions, and this made for a very pleasant visit much of the time.
Be willing to discuss the issues.All people start out as children, so this business of parenthood, of nurturing future adults, is important, and talking about it is worthwhile, even for those who aren't "in the trenches" right this minute. The way I see it, Grandma may not breastfeed another baby in her lifetime, but if she knows the current WHO recommendations, she might be less apt to comment on the fact that so-and-so seems a bit old to be nursing. She may even share her knowledge with a younger relative who is just getting started on the parenting journey. The more anyone knows about important issues relevant to our children, the better off the next generation will be. This is a difficult issue, however, because not all families are willing to talk about the hard issues, much less listen to another point of view. For those families, Lauren's "pass the bean dip" approach is probably the best strategy. Fortunately, most of my husband's and my family members appreciate a good debate and we're generally able to discuss issues respectfully and without hurt feelings. Everyone, for the most part, seems to appreciate an opportunity to look at another perspective, even if they're quite steadfast in their own. When hard issues did come up, I found that laying out the facts usually put them to rest. Even if people did not agree with my stance, they saw that it was a thoughtful one with at least some backing in research, and this kept them from any continued criticism.
Be willing to laugh at yourself.While some of the issues that come up with family are serious business, I found that relaxing a bit when the situation called for it did a lot for my connections with these important people in my life. When someone suggests something that doesn't jibe with how I do things, a bit of self-deprecating humor often works far better than a super serious declaration that, "There is no way I would ever do that!" When people made offers to babysit so I could go out with friends, for example, I laughingly explained, "Oh, you know me — I'm way too paranoid for that! First I'll see about letting her out of my sight for more than thirty seconds!" It's not always the most authentic approach, but it can ease tension in the really tough situations when feelings are at risk.
Of course what works for me would be a disaster in many families, so take what you can and ignore the rest, but please share your own advice in the comments so we can all learn from one another.
Melissa writes from her home on the Pacific island of Guam, where she lives and learns alongside her husband and their vibrant, curious toddler. Pre-parenthood, Melissa developed a passion for Montessori and worked as a Children's House Guide. After several happy years in the classroom, she gave birth to her daughter and made the choice to follow her passion home.
Nowadays, Melissa applies her experience with the Montessori method to her parenting and her writing. She blogs about motherhood, daily life with her family, and anything else that comes to mind at Vibrant Wanderings.