My parents and in-laws are making inappropriate comments about my baby. Should I let them go?

<span>Photograph: Jimlop collection/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Jimlop collection/Alamy

My parents and my parents-in-law are making inappropriate comments about my three-month-old baby. They comment a lot about her being chubby, about her having small lips, praising her for having white skin and making other fat-shaming, racist, quite inappropriate remarks.

My parents are constantly saying that she is extremely smart and are super focused on her intellect, and my mother-in-law is focused on her looks. I find both types of comments inappropriate as it puts unnecessary expectations on my baby. I am worried that she may develop insecurities or anxiety, or may become racist or judge other people herself.

My mum and mother-in-law also comment a lot on my postpartum weight. Last time I asked one to stop, she turned to my then two-month-old and told her, “Don’t worry, your mum will lose the weight.” I told her a couple times that this topic is not for discussion. It doesn’t stop her. Should I address this type of offensive (in my opinion) comments or should I let them go?

Eleanor says: I don’t know why people feel entitled to speak to women who’ve given birth, or to new babies, as though they’re communal property. It’s like they forget that your body (and for that matter the baby’s) contain a person.

You mentioned that you’ve already told her this isn’t a topic for discussion, but that this doesn’t stop her. Unfortunately sometimes we get put in a position where our only options are “accept this treatment” or “escalate”. That’s what happens when the first (or second, or third) attempt at gently asking goes unacknowledged. If you want this to change, that means your only option is to tell them in a more drastic way.

Sometimes to get through to people, you really need to bang a cowbell and clash some cymbals around your request.

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That doesn’t mean you need to be confrontational. In fact, the quieter the moment, the more likely it will be effective. You can just say: “I’ve mentioned this before, and it hasn’t been acknowledged, but we need the comments about appearances to stop.”

Perhaps, after that, you could implement some incredibly straightforward sanction: if they make a comment about the baby, you take her back. If they make a comment about your weight, you end the interaction. It’s frustrating to be put in the position of managing your interpersonal relationships with the equivalents of liver treats and time-outs but sometimes these kinds of brute responses are the only things that force a change.

They may go into paroxysms of reassurance, telling you that’s not what they meant; of course they’d never judge a baby; it’s not fat shaming. It will be important to acknowledge that they don’t mean to be doing any harm. They will feel terribly wounded if they’re accused of deliberately being cruel to you or to this beloved child.

Equally, intention isn’t all that matters here. You are allowed to have rules about how you and your baby are treated. In fact, as both a person and a parent, that’s an important part of your job.

Doing this will feel awful. You will feel like the villain. But try to hold on to the knowledge that you aren’t the one who made your only choices “accept” or “escalate”.

One small note of caution: I’ve written before that the curse of parental love is that it comes with a dose of worry, and that – naturally – our worries go looking through our own histories to learn what to be vigilant about.

If you’ve been getting these comments from your mother for a while, it’s hardly surprising that you’d want to shield your baby girl from them. But the risk is that by blocking these kinds of comments too strongly, you’ll inadvertently teach your daughter to pay attention to them. Being defined in opposition to something is still being defined by it.

As your daughter grows, perhaps the thing to do is to shift focus; praising her for things completely unrelated to looks or intellect. That way, she won’t only learn that she scores well on these axes of evaluation – she might learn to care less about them altogether.


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