Navigating intergenerational differences with a baby
One of the biggest challenges we see in our therapy rooms when people have a new baby is the disconnect between the way that they were parented, and the prevailing parenting ideas of today. Differences can centre around anything from discipline, body autonomy, breastfeeding, sleeping, and settling. We know that in the last 80+ years, ideas about parenting have shifted dramatically as the research into parenting continues. This is evidenced by events like Infant Mental Health Awareness Week (run every June) that promotes the importance of attachment and sensitive caregiving for infants. Such an initiative has only been around since the early 2000's.
We are currently parenting in a time when there is immediate access to information on any topic or question we might have- who hasn’t Googled ‘Is green poop normal for a baby?’. Many older family members might interpret our desire to read up on everything as a sign of uncertainty or even a luxury compared to when they were raising children.
Generational differences can create a sense of retrospective disappointment in the way we were parented (when previously we might have felt it was fine) but can also cause relationship issues with key people in the here and now. When we look across the generations, we can see key parenting differences:
Kids raised by The Silent Generation (1927-1946) were pretty much left to their own devices while their parents worked hard amidst financial insecurity and world conflicts. Providing for family was the number one goal for these parents. Obviously, in that era it was less common for women to work, extended family helped more with child rearing (it takes a village) and parents got information about parenting from the hospital and advice from friends and loved ones.
Baby Boomers and Gen X kids (1945-1980’s) reacted to this hands-off parenting by becoming overly involved in their kids’ lives when they became parents; micro-managing every aspect – termed helicopter parents.
Millennial parents (1980-2000’s) have rejected the helicopter style they experienced and are more likely to be involved, but non-directive and more responsive to the emotional needs of their kids. They are also likely to prioritise balance, ensuring that they have a life outside of parenting themselves.
Obviously, there are many generalisations when looking at generational styles and patterns, but it can help us in the here and now to understand how family members may be reacting to our requests for help or our parenting choices.
Pregnancy, childbirth and parenting have also had their fair share of ‘fads’ – or, concepts that seemed cutting edge at the time but would now be considered unusual- think a nip of Brandy on the finger to help bubs sleep, Jolly Jumpers, smoking during pregnancy and Measles parties to name a few. Breastfeeding is also a great example of how dramatically things can change over time – in the past wet nurses were the norm (especially with the upper classes), then mums were encouraged to feed their own babies. During late 60’s companies were developing milk-alternatives (including condensed milk!) which contributed to the development of infant formulas that we see today. Formula feeding became very popular in the 70’s and 80’s as companies attempted to increase uptake by providing free formula and bottles to hospitals. As a result, many women were encouraged to feed their newborn baby commercial formulas whilst still is hospital. When we look back at the history of just this one aspect of parenting, we can see how quickly the norm can change and how influential the world around us can be on parenting choices.
Knowing this information can be helpful if you are finding that your parent(s) is giving dubious advice or is not supporting you in a way that you find helpful. When these parenting ‘generational’ differences start to emerge, you will often hear people say “well, we did xyz…. And you turned out okay”. We can recall our parent’s way of thinking by considering the common sayings in your house growing up. For example, for people raised in the 70’s or 80’s you might have heard things like:
“Do as I say, not as I do”
“Children are seen and not heard”
“I’ll give you something to cry about”
“There are starving children in Africa, so you better finish that whole plate”
Are there any that you can think of from your childhood? These statements can help us understand the context with which our parents parented but can also highlight what were the major social and political issues at the time (sponsoring an African child was all over the TV when I was growing up- hence finishing all my dinner!).
The differences might play out when you have a new baby and many people come to therapy wanting to know why the grandparents don’t help out more, give strange/outdated advice or seem to be overly critical/ judgemental of current parenting ways. This can be incredibly distressing especially if you had thought that your parents would be supportive with new baby around. There are a few things you can do if you are struggling with this issue:
Talk to someone – sometimes venting to a friend can help to put the challenges into perspective and may stop you from damaging an important relationship by getting frustrated, angry or resentful.
Work out what your non-negotiables are- what parts of parenting are you unwilling to budge on? Are there things that you partner feels strongly about that they are unwilling to budge on? Discuss the things that are important to you both so that you can identify where you need to have clear boundaries and those issues that you could be more flexible on.
Come up with a short script that you can use at those times when family are disagreeing with your choices. Some examples are given below:
Your mum: “I breastfed all of my babies, I don’t see why its so hard for you- why don’t you try again?”
You: “I appreciate you love Baby J too and care about his health. We have decided as a family that formula feeding is what’s best for both him and me. Given our choice I would prefer we not have this discussion again”.
Your MIL: “My kids would go straight to sleep in their cot at that age. Even if they cried, we just left them, and they turned out ok”
You: “I know you want the best for us, but we have decided as a family that responding her cries is really important to us right now. I appreciate your reflections on this, but views about sleep and settling have changed since then.”
Your dad (to 3yr old): “Oh come on no need to cry about it! Stop crying, it didn’t hurt”
You: “Dad, I heard you talking to Ethan before and I want you to know that in our house it is okay to cry and in fact we encourage the kids to express all emotions.”
Your dad: “Well boys shouldn’t cry like that… I would always tell your brother to stop and he’s ok”
You: “We sure did turn out ok, but that is an old-fashioned view of crying. It’s important to me that both our kids know that all feelings are valid- if you could remember that next time, I would appreciate it. Maybe you could just pick him up and give him a cuddle instead?”
Having a script can help you to clearly articulate the boundary and ensure that you communicate it with kindness and assertiveness. It can also help you to respond calmly even if you are feeling angry, are sleep deprived and stressed. Knowing this information about the generational differences in parenting can help us to see our well-meaning family members in a new light. It can also help us to see that we can choose which bits of information to take on board, and which parts to dismiss. It can also take the sting out of some of these comments as we can take a step back from them, not taking them as personally as we previously might have.