rhonaberensIt’s one thing to like your mother-in-law. It’s quite another to want to stay with her on a family vacation. A couple of years ago, iVillage ran a poll about mothers-in-law (MILs). The results were unfortunate, if not surprising: 51 percent of respondents would rather clean than spend time with their MILs, while 76 percent never ask MILs for parenting advice. 

I love my MIL. I’d much rather spend time with her than clean, and while I don’t ask her parenting advice, I appreciate that she doesn’t offer it unsolicited.

Still, whether or not we have a good relationship with our in-laws, staying in their home, and trying to co-parent under their noses, can be daunting.

Preparing for that Visit

Which is why I’ve started advocating that couples do advance preparation before in-law trips. Why? Because our family (we have a 4-year-old and a 9-month-old) just returned from an 8-day stay in San Antonio, Texas, with my wife’s mom and step-dad—yes, I have a wife—and, much to my regret, we didn’t prep in advance.

As a result, we faced challenges and frustrations that could have been avoided, or lessened, had we pow-wowed beforehand. 

Most people get ready for vacations by making packing lists, booking tours and confirming reservations. By contrast, the best way to plan a trip to “the in-laws” is to manage expectations. Here are just a few I wish we’d addressed before we left home:

1)  Babysitting

Theoretically, staying at Grandma and Grandpa’s offers free childcare. Except my in-laws are well into their 70s and, while the will is there, the physical and emotional stamina isn’t, especially since we have an active 4-year-old and a speed-crawling, super-sized 9-month-old. If you have elderly in-laws, you can prep for a visit by reducing babysitting expectations. Or recruit younger relatives to assist, if they live nearby. Thankfully, our niece helped my in-laws one night, which meant we were able to have an adults-only dinner with my sisters-in-law.

2)   Sleep

A week before we left home, we got our son on a decent sleep schedule. If our daughter gets less than 11 hours sleep, she’s cranky and prone to tantrums. Yet, because we didn’t discuss a sleep strategy in advance, we lapsed into “going with the flow” of plans made by my wife’s family, which included outings that lasted well past bedtime. Add the fact that we were dependent on my in-laws to get to and fro, and it’s no surprise sleep schedules flew out the window. By the time we left, we were all cranky and having tantrums. It took us more than a week to start sleeping well again.

3)   Spouse

When many of us spend a lot of time with our parents/stepparents, we act out, e.g., revert to adolescence, get triggered by things they say or do. The same holds true for spouses. While my wife seemed like herself on our recent trip—for which I’m grateful—on previous visits, she acted more like a teen on the cusp of her Sweet 16 than a woman in her 40s. Whether being around their parents/stepparents alters our spouses a lot or a little, in-law vacations benefit from a relationship “free pass.” Our spouses deserve a free pass for navigating the sometimes treacherous return to familial roots, and we deserve one for traveling there with them.

4)   Vacation

If you’re like us and have small kids, try not to confuse this trip with a vacation. I emailed a friend from San Antonio that our 4-year-old was having a blast, holding court with her cousins, aunts and uncles. Our friend wrote back that she was happy we were having fun and getting a break. A break? Who said anything about a break? My wife and I needed a vacation after we got back from Texas!

Parent Advocate and Certified Individual & Relationship Coach, Rhona Berens, PhD, CPCC is dedicated to parents’ wellbeing. She’s the founder of Parent Alliance®, a great resource for parents and expecting couples. With more than 20 years’ experience as an educator and mentor, Rhona delivers dynamic talks and webinars to parents, teachers, expecting couples and doulas. She coaches individuals and couples across North America via phone and online video. Rhona serves on the Advisory Board of The Children’s Project, a non-profit devoted to raising emotionally healthy children. Write to rhona@parentalliance.com to inquire about her speaking at your parenting organization or kids’ school, or to book a complimentary strategy session. Follow Rhona on Twitter @AParentAlliance and join her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/parentalliance.