managing intense relatives 101

You’re pregnant. Your baby’s coming soon. You’re wondering how you’ll be getting any sleep with a newborn in the house, among countless other things.

The good news is: your mother-in-law* wants to come help! The bad news is: your mother-in-law wants to come help! [*or whichever big personality relative is about to descend upon you]

The thought of it is so stressful you’re ready to bury your head in a platter of macarons and eat your way out.

What can you do? Is there a way to get the sleep you need and maintain your sanity while not totally alienating your MIL?


When managing big personalities, there are some tools you can use.

“back in my day, we did everything exactly the opposite and you all turned out fine!” omg stfu

1. Your partner needs to be the heavy and run interference. She or he is your personal security detail. If you’re a single parent, you may need a trusted friend to play this role—helping you strategize in advance how to manage the visit and distracting the intense relative when possible. Your bouncer needs to step in and protect your space when you say your safe word, like “get your mom outta here before I murder someone.”

2. Brainstorm tasks and activities that can be a useful distraction. What are her skills? Organizing a minimalist nursery? Prepping some freezer meals? Setting up baby gadgets? Running around the city for the perfect new carrier? Planning a bris? Finding the right balance between allowing her time with baby and keeping her busy with tasks she enjoys that make the most of her strengths will benefit you both. 

Maybe MIL can hold the baby so you can get that all too important daytime nap in. Maybe she will help you hire a postpartum doula (similar to a baby nurse, but more mother/family oriented) so you can get more nighttime sleep in those early weeks. See if you can make the most of the things she likes to make the visit more bearable. See if you can find the win-win.

3. Practicing your best nod and smile will be helpful, too. “Thank you for the suggestion!” Repeat ad nauseam. The main key to managing big personalities is remembering: would you rather be right or be happy? Let it slide, as much as possible. Vent to your sympathetic friends later. 

4. Take care of yourself. I know, it is a cliché and triple hard as you adjust to life with baby. But making sure you’re eating, getting rest, and otherwise honoring your needs as much as possible will go miles in terms of helping you survive a challenging visit.

Before you know it, you’ll be getting a fresh pedicure and breathing a sigh of relief to have your space to yourself again. A little planning will help you get through that initial visit during the newborn days, with the sleep and sanity you so desperately need.  

Choose happy, choose your battles, choose a more peaceful way to get through the visit in the best way possible. It will be over soon and you WILL survive. And who knows, MIL may even really step up and surprise you. That would truly be some good news.

Lila Phillips, 1924 – 2016


Lila Tatelman, late 1930s or so.

My grandmother died Monday morning. I want to talk about her as I knew her, as her granddaughter.

Nana was a wonderful grandma in that she was always so full of life and energy and fun. We would go visit her in Miami frequently while growing up in the Midwest, where she lived for over four decades. I have so many fond memories of days at the beach, walks to feed ducks, playing in her pool, getting manicures with her, having the run of her apartment, playing on the balcony and scaring the old folks down below. I can still remember the smell of the building lobby, and the garbage chute, the hallways and her home, and Miami in general. We’d fight over the right to push the button to her floor so my dad would suggest selecting 13. I remember playing with her cats, Sheba and then Rocky. I remember how my legs would stick to the white vinyl dining room chairs around the glass dining table. There were mirrors everywhere— my brother ran into one full speed in the lobby once. I remember meeting her friends, and her third husband who we called Grandpa as he was the only grandpa we’d ever know. I remember my brother Danny and I hiding behind her couch and making a list of every word for “butt” that we knew. I would raid her giant stash of perfume samples in those tiny glass vials. I was her first grandchild, and for nearly 2 decades, her only granddaughter, so she called me Princess until my cousin Sarah came along and the crown was passed down.

I remember when I was in third grade and innocently drawing swastikas not knowing what they were— just copying from a kid in school who probably also didn’t know what they were. The ferocious lecture I got left quite an impression. She would later tell me how awful it was to live through war time, how happy everyone was when WWII was over.

nana balcony
Brothers and I playing on Nana’s balcony, 1980-something.

I remember going with her to interior design shops and later to Raymond’s various places— some rich guy she worked for as an assistant for a time. We even inherited some of his furniture along the way. Her life seemed glamorous. Her hair was always red and her make up always perfect. In the morning, she had to “put on her face.”

I would share her king sized bed with her when I’d visit. She’d snore like a jet engine on ‘roids. There was usually a Reader’s Digest in the bathroom. She took bubble baths.

She could obliterate you in Scrabble. Sadly, I did not inherit the Scrabble gene (also sadly, I did inherit the snoring gene). In fact, she was sharp til the end. She played bridge several times a week and read voraciously, especially mysteries. She was always ready to talk and kid around. Just days before she died, she was asking me what I thought about Trump and telling me that the hospital food was a joke. She had a HUGE infectious laugh. Her favorite book was The Diary of Anne Frank.

When I had a short hospital stay in second grade, she sent me a flower arrangement of lilacs in the shape of a poodle.

If you mentioned that someone wrote a book, she’d say, “I guess she had something to say.”

She lived a long life and had her ups and downs. She was widowed with 4 young children. She also buried a daughter and later a grandson far too young, and of course her parents and older siblings and a niece, and friends. When I explained to her about doula work a few years back, I was curious about her births. She had no memory of any of them. It was the era of twilight sleep.

Like most of us, as I got older, I didn’t see her as often. I did visit one New Year’s in the late ’90s with my friend Betty and her sister. Nana let us stay with her and do our own thing. I saw a whole new side of Miami, with South Beach and Cuban dancing. It was wonderful.

I also went down once to help her out after a cataract removal. I remember being so exhausted that I literally started falling asleep over dinner. She didn’t take it personally and just wondered why I didn’t say anything.

Marc and I went down in the spring of 2007 to visit her and take in some baseball spring training games. I was pregnant with Jonah. We went again four years later with Jonah and I was pregnant with Leo. I’m glad we had those visits. She usually came to visit around Thanksgiving. But this past Thanksgiving, she was unable to make it.

I’m a little surprised at how hard this is hitting me. I wouldn’t say we were particularly close, but we did keep in touch and saw each other once a year at least. It was hard to carry on a conversation as her hearing got worse. She was a huge part of my childhood, and the only grandparent we got to see regularly. As a kid, I didn’t understand why she would cry whenever it was time to say goodbye at the end of a visit. I would think, “What’s the big deal? We’ll see her again soon.” Now I get it, and know we’re only on this earth a short while. To state the painfully obvious, there’s something about death that is just so very … final. You can never hug them again or hear their voice or make a new memory.

Luckily, I had a work trip to Miami last week and added on a few days to visit with her. I didn’t get time with her as I’d hoped since she was unwell and in the hospital.But I’m so glad I got to see her and help a little bit. She was happy to see me, and I am happy I got to see her.

Thanks for being an awesome grandma, Nana.

dad me jonah nana nov 2007
Four generations: my dad, me and Jonah (3 months), and Nana, November 2007.