My mother-in-law is so possessive about our unborn baby | Ask Annalisa Barbieri

Set boundaries about contact you’ll have with your in-laws – and don’t put your husband in the position of defending his family

I’m pregnant with my first child. My husband and I waited a long time to tell my in-laws because we knew all hell would break loose once they knew.

As soon as we told my mother-in-law, she screamed and started throwing herself around the room in dramatic fashion. It became all about her. My in-laws then spent all evening pushing me for information I wasn’t willing to give. It was so horrible – I burst into tears when I got home. We asked them not to get anything yet and my sister-in-law insisted she was going to immediately start buying lots of stuff for the baby.

On another occasion, I sat on a wobbly chair and my mother-in-law grabbed me and said: “Don’t get into any accidents – you’ve got to look after my baby.” Incredulous, I asked: “Whose baby?”, to which she replied very firmly: “Mine.”

I find her behaviour inappropriate and offensive. We’re not particularly close with that side of the family, so I’ve no idea where this sense of entitlement has come from, but I find it threatening and intimidating.

My husband says he will speak to his family about their behaviour before the baby is born and set boundaries clearly – but I don’t believe he will. When I’ve tried talking to him, he has tried to be understanding, but he shuts down whenever anyone says anything negative about his family.

What should I do?

First, congratulations on your pregnancy – and I don’t blame you for wanting to keep yourself feeling safe emotionally and physically. In an ideal world your husband would deal with this. But as we all know, you can’t make someone behave in a particular way, and it’s very hard for people to be caught between their family of origin and their partner.

A new baby in the family can make people feel they almost have to re-audition for positions they hitherto felt were secure. Your mother-in-law’s behaviour sounds extreme, and I wonder if she’s used to being top dog. Her status will also be changing from mother to grandmother. Her grandstanding may actually be disguising some raw feelings. But those are for her to deal with.

I consulted Lisa Bruton, a UKCP-registered psychotherapist who does a lot of work around families. We discussed how, when we feel that another person isn’t listening to us, we start to feel like we have to be very prescriptive about what we’re going to do. This is totally understandable, but it rarely works, for the aforementioned reason that we can’t control other people’s behaviour. So let’s be a little tactical.

Bruton advised: “Instead of waiting for your husband to agree with you [and act accordingly], enlist him in practical things and work out what that may look like. If you need to rant about his family, do that with someone else, not him.”

I understand this need to vent, especially when pregnant, when we can feel a mixture of vulnerability and invincibility. But try to keep your husband out of the emotional in-law stuff and instead discuss practicalities with him: let him take the calls, and discuss when you’ll see them after the birth (I strongly recommend he act as gatekeeper post-partum, and you may want to decide on no visitors for a time).

Bruton wondered about your father-in-law – could he be enlisted to moderate things?

She also strongly recommended setting boundaries, “but think of them not as a punishment for your in-laws but as a positive act for yourself”.

When the baby is born, go and visit them if possible, so you control when you leave. You don’t have to answer every call that comes through from them.

If they have to come to you, invite a friend round to be on “your side”. People behave better when “strangers” are around.

Where is your mother in all of this? Does your mother-in-law fear thaat your mum will become “favourite granny”?

At the moment, everything is theoretical. Your mother-in-law is imagining some perfect baby who will want to be held by her. The reality may be very different. Babies tend to want to be with their mothers – they’re vocal and aren’t ashamed to show their displeasure. Also babies puke and defecate, and that may not be part of the perfect picture. If I didn’t want someone to hold my baby and they wouldn’t take no for an answer, I’d say: “Oh gosh – yes, please hold her, but be warned she’s puking for England at the moment.”

You will always be your baby’s primary focus, and no amount of histrionics will change that. I rather suspect your mother-in-law knows this.

• Every week Annalisa Barbieri addresses a personal problem sent in by a reader. If you would like advice from Annalisa, please send your problem to Annalisa regrets she cannot enter into personal correspondence. Submissions are subject to our terms and conditions.

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Annalisa Barbieri

The GuardianTramp

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