Thursday, November 10, 2011

Handling parenting differences with grace, sometimes

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.

Photo Credits: Melissa / Vibrant Wanderings


Sheila said...

I was worried the first time I traveled to my husband's family, as they're not AP at all. But people may surprise you. After tons of admiration from his grandma about what a wonderful mother I am and how that's the reason my child is so smart and happy (no, he really came like that -- though I'm sure the love he gets doesn't hurt), she told me this story:

"You know in our day, no one nursed their babies. It was all bottles. But my son didn't take to it. He screamed and screamed, all day and all night. Everyone told me to just leave him and he would go to sleep, but I couldn't do that, I just couldn't. I did what I could. It wasn't till months later that I found out the milk wasn't good for him and he had lesions all through his intestines. That's why he was screaming. I only wish there had been anyone to tell me to breastfeed or that it was okay to do what I was doing. Your generation is doing a much better job with your babies than we did."

Quite a surprise! I think we can offer healing sometimes to the grandmas and grandpas of our families, just by sharing our happy, attached children with them.

melissa v. said...

Beautiful post, Melissa! Your admirable, respectful approach towards parenting is paralleled in how you approach other adults. Respect goes fpr, and may open some doors which would otherwise have remained closed. I love this post particularly because you balance respect for everyone. Sometimes as a newer or younger parent I can get defensive and that shuts everyone's ears. It helps me to remember that Grandma's been around the block, so to speak, when it comes to parenting, and that she's often got some pearls or wisdom buried beneath the "Put porridge in his bottle" kind of advice =)
We are all people, at the end of the day. And although we like our AP ideas, they weren't actually invented in our generation: we just named them! Responsive and loving parents come in all shapes and sizes and have for centuries.

Kudos to you for surviving your trip! And props to the grandparents for pushing the bed to the wall; that made me cry. SO COOL.

You are so great! =)

melissa v. said...

And Sheila's comment made me cry too! Poor grandma! And poor baby. We all do the best we can; I'm sure our kids will have improvements to make on how we did things (I KNOW mine will!! Lol!) And I love how grandma wasn't defensive. AND I love Sheila's statement that "he came like that--though I'm sure the love he gets doesn't hurt: that's my philosophy as well. Awesome.

teresa said...

I love "Let your reputation precede you." That's really the best way I found as well.
By the time we were going around the families and letting lots of people visit, they all pretty much knew the story.
And baby shower took care of the information that we only wanted natural, organic clothes and toys.
There's another level that comes up with co-sleeping as time goes by (my daughter is 4 1/2 now).. it's as if they accepted it for a while but then the constant queries, "is she in her own bed yet?" start. I've been really lucky and no one has been harsh, just confused. I agree also that sharing information is a kind way of communicating with the people who will be in your life forever.
Wonderful post!!!!

Megan said...

Does anyone have any ideas for how to discuss these things with a defensive future grandmother (i.e., my mom)?
I'm not even pregnant yet, but I am taking the Montessori training which advocates cloth diapering and floor beds for independence. It seems like whenever I try to talk to my mom about how I plan to do things she gets upset with me and says, "I don't want to fight about it." She was/is a wonderful mother but I think she takes it personally when I want to do things differently from how she did them. My desire to have children is enormous and thinking about how I will raise them is a big part of my life. What can I say to get her to talk to me about it before it becomes reality?

melissa said...

@Megan: That is such an interesting question, and I know others may have more wisdom than I can offer. I've been pretty lucky with my own mom in that she's generally respectful of my choices, but I'll add one bit of advice.

I'm Montessori trained myself, and I wasn't even thinking about having children when I was taking my course, but I remember talking about it extensively with my mom. My own upbringing was far from Montessori, but I was able to draw parallels between some aspects of the philosophy and the way my mom parented me. She now thinks it's the most amazing thing. I wonder if that has something to do with my having found common ground between Montessori and her parenting. Perhaps focusing on the similarities rather than the differences would be a help?

Arlington Girl said...


Meghan, perhaps you should avoid talking with Mom about it until you really need to--there's lots of other things to talk about. Once you're pregnant, she may come around.

Unknown said...

We'd travelled from SF to Chicago with our 11 month old son. He was a natural, smiling and enjoying all the new faces... until the final leg of the trip came: the dreaded car seat. Our son has never liked his car seat. And we anticipated his reaction. so, when his Papa picked us up at the airport all smiles and our son actually got into the car seat without a peep, we were cautiously optimistic. but we knew. it was just a matter of one too many red lights and instead of being lulled into a sweet sleep, cries for help were about to explode. and they did. Papa was so disappointed with us for wanting to stop and try to calm our son. to try to get him to sleep by nursing and then ease him into the carseat. after several red lights, i finally lost it and said, "Papa, please pull over now." he did as asked and was clearly frustrated by our response. wasnt i coddling him? he'd be ok in a few minutes. so i nursed him and tried to get him back in to the seat. no luck. my husband did what i thought the unthinkable. but we both knew that it would work. He said, "honey, can you nurse him in the car seat?" well, yes, we both knew that i could and had on many occasions. but in front of Papa? who forumla fed and circumsed all of his children? so i did. and what was papa's response? "wow, he must have really been hungry. Youre a good mommy." thanks, Papa. he was hungry. not for milk. there wasnt any left, but for connection. for his mama, for the end of a long journey.

Anonymous said...


Just out of curiosity, how do you nurse in a car seat?!

Anonymous said...

Yes - how do you nurse in a car seat???

Anonymous said...


Nursing in a car seat is extremely dangerous. If you were involved in a crash you could seriously injure yourself and your child. Just an FYI.

Anonymous said...

I think driving with the distraction of a screaming baby is worse, increasing the likelihood of the crash in the first place! Some rear facing seats have the baby sitting close enough to sit next to them and feed, just slightly leaning over, not that I can now that my boy is forward facing:(

NMal said...


I read this as, they were pulled over to the side of the road, trying to nurse the baby to sleep, and sneak him back into his carseat, but he kept waking up. So, instead, still pulled over and parked, baby already in carseat, mom leaned over and nursed him to sleep, snuck the nipple out of his mouth, and then they were able to continue their drive without baby screaming.

melissa said...

@Sheila How sad that she had to see her baby in pain, but I love that she was able to be supportive of you! I can only hope that our generation's children and grandchildren learn to parent in even better ways than we have. Such a neat story!

melissa said...

@melissaYou put it so beautifully - you could probably write a book on this topic! I know intellectually how important that respect is, but I relate so much to the feelings of defensiveness you mention, too. I guess this is one of those areas most all of us have room to improve in! I hope it's not just me anyway ;)

melissa said...

@teresa Thanks, Teresa! I love the idea of living openly, and just letting others think what they will. It sounds like you do that well! I hadn't thought about how opinions may change as children get older and our parenting style stays the same. I can definitely see that causing some confusion, but it speaks volumes about your relationships that people have been accepting despite their own feelings. So cool!

melissa said...

@Unknown What a cool story! I can so relate to the feeling of relief when people react far better than you expected. I love that Papa was able to appreciate your responsive approach, despite his more traditional ideas about parenting.

I know I have nursed in a moving car myself. I never really saw it as dangerous, though there could be factors I have failed to consider. It seems like it would depend on the vehicle, the carseat, and the ... er, breast size and consistency? I was always able to stay buckled and lean just so - never in a position that would allow me to be launched into the baby any more than if I had been sitting up straight ... I think. My boobs are nice and stretchy, though. Heh. Interesting thing to look more closely at! I think all of us mamas want to keep ourselves and our babies as safe as possible!

tinsenpup said...

This is all great advice. I like your idea of letting little birds carry your expressed feelings where they will. I have done this many times.

I would like to add a slightly different perspective as well. Ten and a half years ago when my eldest daughter was born, my father and step mother had ideas on child raising that very much disagreed with mine. For instance, my father told me that I shouldn't hold my newborn daughter too much or it would "spoil" her. I spent the first vulnerable six weeks of my daughter's life being patronised, bullied and judged for my carefully researched and thought out decisions.

My case is extreme, because they became quite disgusted and fed up and I'd just had enough and wanted to enjoy my baby. As a consequence, I haven't talked to them in ten and a half years and I quite genuinely have no regrets. A decade of relative peace has been its own reward.

My advice though is just to recognise when it's time to pull back. When you're a new mother, your focus should be on your baby and yourself. While often people will surprise you, sometimes they will show only disrespect. Please just make your excuses as politely as you can, but without guilt and don't let anyone spoil this magical time with their own selfishness.

Lauren Wayne said...

Melissa, thank you so much for sharing your wisdom here! I love how positive you are about how meeting with relatives can go. Your expectation that people will be kind is a great attitude to go in with!

Lauren Wayne said...

@Sheila: Oh, what a bittersweet story. It's so nice to realize that the people who parented so differently from you might have just been coming from a different place, with expectations piled against them. I love to think of our own parenting as being healing for the older generations.

Lauren Wayne said...

@Megan: That's too bad that she gets so immediately defensive. I wonder if it will be easier once it is reality and you can be just matter-of-fact about it. But in the meantime, maybe you could sandwich any discussions with plenty of reassurances about how you appreciate her parenting and remember such-and-such good memory, "but oh, also, I'm excited about this idea I read about cloth diapering…" or whatever. I hope she comes around so it's not a sore point between you.

Lauren Wayne said...

@Unknown: I love your story! We've had car-seat screamers as well, and my father-in-law was not keen on having us pull over to throw off our schedule. I love that Papa was so encouraging after all! Thanks for sharing.

Lauren Wayne said...

@NMal: I read it as having pulled over, too, with the car stopped, just as you said. But I do know of people who've managed to nurse with both mama and baby buckled in and the mother still off to the side, as Melissa pointed out.

Lauren Wayne said...

@tinsenpup: I totally agree that sometimes a relationship is so toxic that you need to cut loose. I'm sorry you've had to miss out on a good relationship with them but happy for you that you knew your own limits and needs, for the good of your and your family's wellbeing. Thanks for sharing your story.

mamapoekie said...

wow, the baby stage was a breeze compared to now and from about 18 months. People just generally suck when t comes to children and do all the wrong things, some really awful. I find myself constantly getting into real fights as now the grandparents see no issue in making remarks and being downright abusive.

Lauren Wayne said...

@mamapoekie: I'm sorry. :( I was actually thinking about that same topic — during the baby stage, we got a lot of unsolicited advice about things like feeding and (not) cosleeping and such, but after that tapered off, I figured we were in the clear. But now it's all about discipline and how we're not doing enough of it, or about making our four-year-old separate from us more and send him to school, etc. I'm hoping to keep my perspective and not expect the worst, though, because Melissa reminded me how sometimes I'm surprised at how open (some of) my relatives can truly be. However, as you know, our first responsibility is to our kids, and if the grandparents are being awful, then we have to stand up for our little ones first and foremost. Best wishes as you navigate it all, too.

melissa said...

@Lauren @ Hobo Mama It was an honor, Lauren. Thank YOU! xo

Zoie @ TouchstoneZ said...

@Lauren @ Hobo Mama

Yup, I'm floppy enough to nurse baby in the car seat with us both strapped in well ;)

But, I also read this as being pulled over anyway

Joyo said...

Love the post! I find I have a habit of thinking I know better than my hubby (which I do of course- don't I? :-)

Thanks for giving ideas and showing how both can have valid ideas, even though they may be different from each other!

Pardon My Poppet ~Pip Squeaks from the Mummy-verse!~

Amy G said...

Thanks for sharing, Melissa! I always love your insight. I think you hit many of the topics that parents with different parenting styles deal with. One of the problems that I always face is trying not to sound like I'm putting others down. I do TONS of research about parenting, so I'm scared that sometimes I sound like I'm putting others down or showing off when I explain ideas or concepts of parenting, especially if I don't have time to explain fully and that the concepts and supporting work aren't mine! Like you said, starting a blog which focuses partly on research-based approaches helped me because now my family sees the reasons behind what might otherwise confuse them.

michele said...

I think you did the right thing by talking with your mom about your concerns. Traveling with a newborn and so far away is stressful in and of itself.

Joyous_trouble said...

The other day at my great grandmothers; sitting around with my mum, her mum and her mum, and my 2 year old, so five generations of girls. My great grandmum asks me why am I still nursing? I had not answer that would satisfy her, and being the only one of the four mums in the room that had nursed for more than a few months I didn't know what to say other than it's good for her. She did however tell me that her mum nursed her littlest sister until she was six, cause it always worked as birth control for her and she didn't want to have any more babies. (Also I'm very amused that my verification word is 'tators'!)

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