Care and Feeding

Control Freaks

Ever since I got pregnant, my parents have become completely overbearing. How do I tell them to back off?

Photo illustration of an unhappy pregnant woman covering her face and an older woman looking at her.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by JackF/iStock/Getty Images Plus and Milkos/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m six months pregnant with my first child and I need some help dealing with incredibly overbearing parents. I love my mom and dad to the bitter end, but ever since I’ve gotten pregnant, I simply can’t handle how many unsolicited opinions they insist upon sharing and how they blatantly disregard my requests, always justifying their behavior with “it’s because we’re so excited about the baby.”

My husband and I first told them we were expecting when I was at the eight-week mark, and I asked them both to please keep it to themselves until we were past the traditional three-month window. Having experienced her own eight miscarriages, I thought my mom, of all people, would totally understand my hesitation to share the good news until it seemed safe to do so. Wrong! Within 24 hours, she’d told our entire extended family, all of her friends, even the person who does her dry cleaning! It was to the point where near-strangers were texting me and sending me Facebook messages of congratulations. The excuse? My parents were just too excited to keep it to themselves.

Over the past six months, this behavior has only gotten worse: ordering nursery furniture and maternity clothes and shipping them directly to our house as well as stocking up on baby bottles and other items we won’t need until the child is actually here. After returning all the gifts, I’ve repeatedly asked my mom to wait for our lead on these things, but she’s ignored me. She and my sister asked to throw me a baby shower—something I really don’t want—but I reluctantly agreed, as long as it would be a small, very casual affair. Luckily, they shared details with me before invites went out and the “casual” event is my definition of a nightmare. From what I understand, it’s a catered party starting at my parents’ house (yes, they hired an outside caterer) with a head count of over 60 people. Not one of my friends was on the invite list. I had a bit of a meltdown and said maybe it’s not a good idea to have a shower after all. This launched an ongoing battle between my family and myself, resulting in some pretty nasty exchanges and lots, and I mean lots, of tears.

According to my family, I’m very ungrateful and supposed to prioritize my parents and their wishes above everything else. My dad recently texted me to let me know that I’m selfish and “ruining this pregnancy” for my mother. No one seems to understand that their behavior is ruining this pregnancy experience for me, as well. Because of all this, I’ve recently asked my family to give me space—no phone calls, etc.—with the understanding that I would text them any baby updates or information they need to know. This, as expected, has not gone over well. I receive daily calls, which I ignore, and voicemails that tell me what a terrible mother I’m going to be thanks to my selfishness. I, of course, want my parents to be involved in my life, but at what cost? I don’t know how to patch things up, and I refuse to be bulldozed by their opinions at the sake of my own sanity. My husband fully supports my decision but doesn’t want to get in the middle of the arguing. How do I get my family to respect my boundaries?

—Pregnant Under Pressure

Dear PUP,

I am truly sorry (and PISSED on your behalf) that your parents have chosen the most emotionally and physically challenging time in a woman’s life to behave like entitled jerks. The fact that your mother has experienced a devastating number of lost pregnancies makes her behavior even more unconscionable; though it may also explain why she’s so fixated on preparing for and celebrating the birth of your first child, her past experiences do not give her, nor anyone else, the right to any control over how you and your husband (but especially you) choose to bring this baby into the world.

The ugliest part about all of this—even more so than the decision to tell people that you were expecting before you were ready to do so, and more so than trying to force clothing, furniture, and a big splashy party on someone who didn’t want a baby shower at all—is the way you say they have reacted to you requesting some space. Repeatedly contacting a pregnant woman who has asked to be left alone is rude; leaving messages that say, directly or indirectly, that you will be a bad mother is an act of unspeakable cruelty.

I’m not outlining all this to make you feel worse, PUP. I just want you to be truly clear on how toxic this behavior is so that you can best decide how to move forward. Is this unchartered territory, a new low, or simply business as usual for your family? Have you had similar experiences with, say, birthdays or graduation parties in the past? Your wedding? Have your parents often sought to take control of important moments or events in your life and justified it because they felt they were simply doing things the way they “should” be done—“It’s your 16th birthday. You have to have a big party!”—and is this behavior limited to big moments? Or do they always show up in your life like a wrecking ball, destroying whatever doesn’t seem to work for them?

Have you typically stood up for yourself as you have during this pregnancy? Or is there a history of you being treated like a pushover by your parents and other relatives? If this is a long-standing issue, I’d urge you to consult a family therapist as soon as possible about ways to address this unhealthy dynamic before you find yourself subject to the same mistreatment you’ve experienced in the past, plus a likely disregard for your authority as a mother. Do not even attempt to engage with them until you’ve gotten the assistance of a trained professional, who very well may advise you to wait until after your child is born to resume contact.

If things are usually much more harmonious between you and your folks (and not because you allow them to simply do as they please in order to avoid conflict, but because they typically treat you with respect), then I would suggest writing out your feelings in a letter and sending it to your mom, dad, and sister. Explain in no uncertain terms that you will not engage with them directly until they are able to agree to some boundaries and rules regarding how you and your husband want to proceed with this final trimester and the upcoming birth of your child.

Stress and worry are dangerous to pregnant people. What your family has done goes beyond simply being overbearing; they have attempted to take control over a moment in your life that belongs to you—failing to invite your friends to your baby shower made that abundantly clear, and the cruel way they’ve spoken to you since the falling-out may be a sign that maintaining your distance until the little person has arrived may be the best thing you can do for him or her.

Be as selfish as you need to be in this moment and prioritize what makes you (and Baby!) feel as happy, peaceful, and calm as possible. Lean on your husband, and if the two of you feel comfortable doing so, establish a way for him to keep your family abreast of any developments without you having to talk to them until you are truly ready.

And please, speaking as a doula-in-training, do not allow these people to come into the delivery room until after you have given birth if you feel they will add to your stress levels in any way. Do not let them exert any unwanted influence over your birth plan. The pregnancy is almost over and it needs to remain in your control until the very end. This is your time, so reclaim it. Blessings to you, to the dad-to-be, and to the bundle of joy in your womb, and I wish you a safe, healthy delivery!

—Jamilah