Ask Sahaj: My mother-in-law constantly criticizes my parenting choices


Q: I am working on a writing project while being a stay-at-home mom to a 1-year-old. My husband and I have decided not to put our baby in day care yet. It has been exhausting trying to care for him and get work done.

I am a second generation Indian American and I come from a culture where grandparents are heavily involved in child care. As a result, my mother-in-law (a wonderful kind woman) has stepped in to help. I am really grateful to her, especially since my own mom is very sick and unable to help. But my mother-in-law and I have very different perspectives on how to care for babies. This is her first grandchild, so she is not familiar with modern American parenting norms.

We have clashed from the very beginning. She wanted to put blankets and pillows in the baby’s crib when he was a newborn. But I know that is against recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics. She hates that the baby sleeps alone in his room and stands vigil outside his door in case he cries, which stresses me out. And she hates baby-led weaning. She prefers to put the baby on her hip and spoon-feed him, or to give him little bites from her hand. I have seen her try to force food down his throat when he is clearly full, which is not how I want my baby to be fed.

I have talked to her about all this before. I explained that my husband and I made choices about how to raise our baby and the reasoning behind these choices. She listens attentively to my concerns but then forgets them by the next visit. I am also subjected to passive aggressive comments that make me feel like a bad mom. I know that, ultimately, this all comes down to differences in culture and circumstances.

I spent a week with her recently and it was really tough with the constant criticism and blatant ignoring of our parenting choices. I know she does it out of love for my baby, but to be honest, these clashes are making me quietly resent her. How do I salvage this relationship? Is it even fair to ask her to abide by my parenting rules when she is so generous about helping out?- Conflicted Daughter-in-Law

A: Talk to your husband. You need to understand where he is in all this and his own experiences with his mom. You both need to be on the same page about your values and parenting choices so when an issue does arise, you stand firm together. He has to play an active role in communicating with his mom. It should not fall on you.

Then you both can tackle having the bigger reckoning with your mother-in-law. It may feel countercultural and unfamiliar to have explicit conversations about expectations and boundaries in an Indian household, but you have been resentful because you are swallowing your frustration. Resentment is often a sign that boundaries need to be established. You can be grateful to your mother-in-law while being firm about what you need when she does not respect your rules.

While it sounds like your long-term goal is to maintain a relationship with your mother-in-law, you should consider what your short-term goals are, too, and whether they are attainable. Your mother-in-law abiding by all your parenting rules every time she visits may not be realistic, unfortunately. So maybe, instead, your new goal is to have your mother-in-law visit less often to get some space. Or you decide to focus solely on safety and getting through every visit with better coping tools to maintain your mental health.

Right now, conversations with her are reactive and happen in the moment. Moving ahead, you and your husband should preface her visits with some reminders of your expectations and rules. This may sound like, “We cannot wait for you to come visit. We are making progress with the baby’s sleep routine. We want you to be part of that, which means letting him sleep in his room alone and not going in there even if he cries.” You could also practice being more vulnerable, especially when your mother-in-law reverts to making passive aggressive comments, by reaching for connection rather than bottling up your feelings. This may sound like, “I am doing my best, and I would love for you to be supportive even if you do not completely agree.”

In my work, and experience, many Indian mothers-in-laws want to feel useful and this often looks like being active in raising children. You should continue to connect with your mother-in-law by telling her why you are making certain parenting decisions. You can look for specific tasks that help her feel useful and involved, but avoid situations that upset you.

Ask for help with laundry, instead of feeding, or encourage her to enjoy her role as a new grandmother by simply playing with the baby. Your mother-in-law could be using a different parenting playbook than you, but different does not always mean wrong. This is where you can reflect on where you are willing to have flexibility when she visits versus what is nonnegotiable.

You questioned if it is fair for you to ask your mother-in-law to follow your parenting rules. That suggests you struggle with internalized narratives about what it means to be a good Indian daughter-in-law and wife. I want to remind you this is your baby. Your opinions matter. Your mother-in-law may be growing into her role as a grandmother, but you are also growing into your role as a mom. You are not meant to be perfect. Take care of yourself and stand strong in your feelings and opinions. You owe it to yourself, and to your baby.

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Sahaj Kaur Kohli. Photo Twitter @SahajKohli

Sahaj Kaur Kohli is a mental health professional and the creator of Brown Girl Therapy and Culturally Enough, communities focused on people with bicultural identities and immigrant parents. You can submit questions here:



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