I hear mums complain all the time about mothers-in-law who show up unannounced or overstay their welcome, Christmases ruined spent driving all over creation to various family homes, and so on. I nod and listen, but truth be told I’m always pretty surprised. After five years of marriage and two kids, we’ve never found ourselves in a situation where family is showing up uninvited, and I’m sure it’s in large part because that’s how we want it.
Here’s the thing: grandparents are amazing. I grew up very close to my two sets and so did my husband with his. I know that the greatest gift we can give our own parents at this stage of life is time with their beloved grandchildren. I also know that divorces and distance add wrinkles of complication. Feelings need to be considered, and everyone needs to get their time.
But what I absolutely find appalling are relatives who expect an open-door policy to be in place. I have one friend whose father-in-law gives little or no notice, and often arrives hungry — plus a guest. What the heck?
Now, our own parents are way more considerate than that naturally. If not for the boundaries my husband and I have put in place, they probably still would never show up here expecting a sandwich and sleeping accommodations for two. But even still, I learned that establishing “rules” was the only way to make sure that everyone — especially us — got what they needed out of the extended-family hangs.
Another friend, whose kids have four sets of grandparents (divorces and remarriages all around), told me before we walked down the aisle that we needed to talk before we had children and decide where we wanted to spend major holidays, how long family could stay if visiting from out of town, and what/who we were cool with them bringing.
At the time it seemed a little extreme, but I heeded her warning and now I’m so glad we did. Since we have two little kids in the mix now, and living out of state from every single member of our extended family on either side, visits are coveted, frequent, and need to be monitored to keep everyone happy. I’m not trying to sound militant, but I’d also rather keep a good relationship intact with my parents and his, as well as any other family members who want to visit.
Most important, since the birth of our first daughter we’ve agreed that any out-of-town guest may stay with us a maximum of four nights. If you’re clicking your teeth at what an obnoxious b**** I am right now, then I guess it’s good you’re not my parent (or aunt, or sibling…). Anyone who wants to remain in town longer than that is welcome to get a hotel room for the rest of their stay, but our little homegrown B&B ends at the four-day mark.
First of all, having family underfoot for extended periods of time gets stressful. It breaks up the routine with little kids. Children aren’t necessarily in their normal sleeping arrangements, certainly not at the usual times, and life just has a layer of hectic stress that starts to build when there are extra adults roaming around your house.
Also, we go all-out. We aren’t the type of hosts that let you fend for yourself on the way from the airport, fix a lunch from whatever’s lingering in our fridge, and then watch the kids so we can go out and paint the town red. I’m all about fresh linens and flowers, WiFi passwords framed by the side of the bed, transportation to and from every sight that’s to be seen, and a full roster of fun activities. My husband whips up a mean breakfast, we always go out to eat, and in general we try to make it feel like a holiday.
After four days, that’s exhausting AF.
Four days is also the point at which all the little quirks you love and/or tolerate about your family members start to get really freaking annoying. I won’t identify them by person but nitpicking, cruise-directing, and loud snoring all fall somewhere in our family tree. At the four-day mark, you’re still feeling full of excitement and joy over the visit, and tensions haven’t started to erupt.
The other important boundaries include how to handle our kids. I appreciate that my children’s grandparents all raised kids of their own, but that was a while ago, and those were their kids. These are mine. I am super strict about upholding our rules and adhering to modern protocol on baby care.
I also don’t want anyone but my or me husband disciplining the kids. This is honestly even more for their sake than ours, because I want the children to experience nothing but joy when it comes to their grandparents.
Obviously, if they’re watching them for us, that’s a separate issue. The on-call adult should — and must — discipline when circumstances mandate it. But if a kid messes up, and Mum or Dad is already handling it, we really don’t need a grandparent chiming in. That’s when we get into shame territory, and I don’t like to go there.
When it comes to holidays, we divide and conquer or repeat. We have a schedule and we stick to it; make sure that every grandparent gets major holiday and birthday time with the kids and always an even amount. When we can get everyone together, even better. When we can’t, we make it work. But we don’t drag our children all over creation to accommodate a list of whims or dramas longer than their holiday wish lists.
It might sound like I have too many rules in place, but I think the boundaries keep us all happy and the relationships healthy. There’s no jealousy or “unfairness” about trip length because the four-day rule applies to all. The kids look at their grandparents and see nothing but joy because none of the bunch is the go-to disciplinarian. And as for the holidays, what kid wouldn’t love two Thanksgiving dinners — or better yet, three Christmas mornings?
Getting married or having kids soon? Bring on the boundaries, Mama! You will all be better for it.