Question: We will be traveling and visiting with relatives over the holidays. I am worried it will be confusing for my infant, and stressful for me, when they interact with her differently. They are kind but, don’t understand my parenting philosophy.
I hear you. The holidays (and life in general) can look and feel different through your new parenting lenses.
Traveling, visiting relatives, heightened anticipation, added extra’s (shopping, baking, finances), and changes to your daily rhythm can leave the holiday time as a mix of wonderful, stressful, and downright exhausting---even without a new infant.
It can be helpful to think through a few of these things ahead of time, so you can feel as prepared as possible.
Your relatives, even the most kind and well intended, may approach your infant daughter differently than you would. There are as varied ways of being with infants as there are with people. My wise mentor once told me that “there are many ways up the mountain.” When we become parents, we find out what speaks to us and have the opportunity to respond, relate, and build a unique relationship with our child. We also have the time to practice from the moment they arrive; your relationship with them unfolding a bit more with each day. Your family may be meeting your daughter for the first time as well as getting to know you in your new role as a parent. In time, they hopefully will have the opportunity to build a special relationship with your child, but, as you already know, at first it can be a bit of a “getting to know you” dance and someone might accidently have their toes stepped on.
Here are a few ways to build a bridge between your approach and theirs, with the goal to enjoy one another’s company and share an attitude of respect.
Do less: Magda Gerber’s often quoted “do less, enjoy more” is fitting. With a new baby, you have new responsibilities and increased demands on your time. Make a list of what traditions/events are really important and let the others go for now. If you are visiting someone else and they really want you/your baby to do EVERYTHING, you may also need to give yourself permission to say no to some of your host’s traditions. Maybe this year the late night marathon holiday baking sessions are put on a pause in favor for store-bought treats. Perhaps the perfect hand-wrapped gift could be a thoughtful gift card this year.
Self care: Stay hydrated, eat as healthy as possible, and get some rest. If you need to get out for a walk or take a break in another room---do so. When you take care of yourself, you are best able to care of your daughter and roll with the changes around you.
Pick just one thing: It isn’t realistic for your relatives to fully understand your parenting philosophy in a solitary holiday visit. I find it can be helpful to highlight one aspect that is important to you. For example, let your child know what to expect. This can cover so many areas---if you let your child know what to expect then she can prepare and be more involved in the interaction. You can model it in a gentle and natural way when you are caring for your daughter, “I am going to pick you up” (arms outstretched for her, pausing for moment to allow her time to process) and then following through slowly. It could open a conversation in a non-threatening way about why it is important to you. It may be the first time others have seen or heard an infant cared for in this way. If asked, you can share that it is important to you that she is given an opportunity to be an active participant.
Modeling: We grow what we sow. If we wish others to treat our child with kindness and respect; it is best done by giving the same. Reaching out to one another and seeing others as having the best of intentions can go a long way toward creating joyful memories together.
Acknowledge: Acknowledging is a powerful parenting tool that can be helpful anytime and especially in new situations. “You heard the doorbell and it startled you.” “You were telling me you were hungry and ready to eat.” Acknowledging can be helpful for you and your child as you recognize and respond to the environment around you. The beauty of acknowledging is that it is intended to be without judgement---distinguishing it from a passive aggressive phrase. If Auntie quickly picks up your daughter (catching your infant by surprise and bursts of crying ensues) saying to your infant “Oh that Auntie! She just swooped you up!” can sound/feel different from calmly saying to your baby, “I wonder if that surprised you.” And directly to her dear Auntie, “I have noticed she is most comfortable when we let her know we are going to pick her up and she has a moment to prepare.” It is a way to support/advocate for your baby as well as helping your family to know your daughter’s preferences.
Advocate: If your daughter looks overwhelmed or uncomfortable, you can advocate in a respectful way, moving over to your child and narrating aloud, “I see you are wiggling around and stretching your back. It looks like you are asking for a break” and to your relative, “I am going to…” and follow through. If done with a kind heart and even tone of voice, the hope is that everyone can feel respected and honored.
Hold space: No matter what is going on, you can create a little bubble of space around your infant. Being fully present and narrating can help your daughter navigate the changes around you.
Final thoughts: Visits to kind relatives open the possibility of extending the net of love around your child. If we are able to work to create a comfortable space for them to build a special, respectful relationship with your child, there is an opportunity to create lasting memories. Uncle Steve, who allows the children to climb on him like a jungle gym. Aunt Bev, who welcomes the children into the kitchen to bake bread and cookies with her. Grandpa, with the scratchy beard that he rubs on their cheek when saying goodbye. Great-grandma, who patiently lets the children comb, curl, and style her hair. These are some of the people and memories your child will cherish as she grows older.
I sometimes think of time visiting relatives as being a bit like homemade mashed potatoes. You can identify the homemade vs. instant potatoes by the lumps and imperfections. The lumps are the well-intentioned efforts by family members that can feel either smooth or bumpy. The imperfections can also combine to create something wonderful if we are able to make room. Accepting the lumpy parts often helps me look past the imperfections to savor the warmth and familiarity.
When you get back home, the familiar routine will return once again. I wish you energy, patience, and permission to rest along the way.
RIE® Associate bio
Carolyn Paetzel (Minneapolis, Minnesota) is a licensed educator and parent, with 25+ years working with parents, infants, and students to help deepen their understanding of each infant’s unique and innate abilities. She has presented locally and nationally on a variety of infant and caregiver
topics. Coordinator of the FORM network and a local child development consultant, Carolyn is honored to grow in her new role as a grandparent to her beautiful granddaughter. firstname.lastname@example.org