When My Mom Butts Into My Parenting
When we had my daughter, my husband and I were clueless about babies. We took a basic baby care class, read books, but mostly waited to see what happened when the baby arrived. After all, how hard could it be?
After the first week our daughter was home, she got Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) and had to stay in the hospital for ten days. She had breathing tubes in her nose and cried nonstop even when I would hold her. We were upset and perplexed. Were we bad parents? How could our baby get sick after being home only one week?
After Sabina returned home, my mother came to Berkeley to help out for six weeks. Everything changed. She created order with scheduled naps and regular feedings. She didn’t want the baby to get ill again, so she insisted that all visitors entering our home wash their hands and wear a white laboratory coat she had brought. Asking my friends to put on a white lab coat was too embarrassing for me, so I had my mother make the requests. Most people humored the situation, although my mother-in-law was a little miffed.
Changing diapers was another example where my mother brought calm to the situation. We used baby wipes to clean Sabina’s bottom. But Sabina had a bad diaper rash that my mother blamed on the alcohol in the wipes. So, she created a whole new system of cleaning the baby’s bottom: warm water, paper towels cut into fourths (to save money), and Mary Kay moisturizer that she also applied religiously to her face at night. If the baby was really poopy, then it was OK to use wipes.
I returned to work and let my mother pretty much run the household. Although she had a practical, seasoned side that I appreciated, my mother also had her own quirks that came out in unexpected ways, like clothing. My daughter had numerous outfits to wear--adorable dresses, flounced skirts, and tiny tutus, but my mother would only dress her in the same four outfits because she thought they were cute and they kept her warm. “But she has all these other clothes,” I said, holding up a corduroy jumpsuit. “She’ll outgrow them if you don't let her wear them.” My mother didn’t care and continued her four-outfit rotation.
My mother is also a clean freak, constantly recleaning things that I’ve already cleaned. She often thought the baby bottles weren’t sanitized enough, so she would periodically boil them in hot water.
That was baby number one. By the time baby number two rolled around, I had become more confident as a mother with solid principles on how I wanted to raise my kids. This summer, my husband and I flew to Minnesota with our children to spend a month visiting the grandparents. And things had definitely changed.
It started with mealtimes. When my daughter ate certain messy foods, like the saucy Korean black bean noodles “jajangmyeon,” I let her eat shirtless. Her shirts always got so dirty I would have to wash them immediately. My mother was horrified about eating a meal without a shirt or bib and sternly said she needed to wear both. I watched as her pink blouse got caked in brown sauce and thought, “What a waste.”
My mother also insisted that my daughter only wear one ponytail, not two, because she thought my daughter looked like she had horns on her head. When I prepared meals for my Sabina, my mother said I gave her too many options. If Sabina refused to eat something that I had prepared, such as cauliflower, I would find something else for her to eat. I didn’t want her to starve. My mother, on the other hand, said she would eat when she was hungry. But I knew Sabina would be hungry later and would end up eating cheese and crackers right before bed because it was fast and easy to accommodate, but not healthy.
Finally, I couldn’t take the way my mother took control over everything. Snatching away the child’s shirt my mother was trying to put on a jajangmyeon-eating Sabina, I shouted, “I should not have come here. You aren’t helping. You’re just making things more difficult.”
My mother was quiet after that for the rest of the day. Later that night, she explained she was trying very hard to help, and tearfully said if I didn’t want to be at my own parents’ house, I should leave.
I felt badly. My mother was working hard and she’s in her 70s. I realized you can’t change people, and that I should just accept who she was and appreciate her efforts. Did it really matter that my daughter had one ponytail? I told my mother she was doing a great job and apologized for snapping at her as she rewashed a bottle I had just cleaned.