In healthy relationships, a new baby can bring people closer together. People love holding and snuggling babies and getting pictures and videos—especially family members. It makes them feel involved in this new person’s life and like you are connected to them and so is your child. 

Also, babies are an easy conversation topic because there are a plethora of questions about a child’s life—what are they doing, what are they saying, what foods do they like/dislike, how are they sleeping, etc. 

But, sometimes, in unhealthy, broken relationships (especially with family) a new baby can be treated like a pawn for manipulation or a peace offering.

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(FYI: I’m not just talking about other people using my child to repair a relationship, I’ve been guilty of this, too.)

My husband and I have some unhealthy family members in our life with serious, unresolved issues. Issues like manipulation, emotional abuse, and gaslighting.

After my husband and I announced we were pregnant, these people started sharing how they expected to have a close relationship with our child and be very involved in her life. They claimed it was their “right” as a family member to know her and experience her. (And yes, they used the word “experience,” and I thought it was creepy too.) When our child was born, it became worse. Their unrealistic expectations and toxic behavior became an intense burden. 

Sure, it was easy to send pictures of our daughter with her perfect little face, dressed in cute outfits to quell the tension, but it didn’t solve the problem. Sure, I allowed those people to visit us and our newborn earlier than I wanted because it seemed to create peace, but it didn’t repair the relationship.

I quickly learned I was letting my daughter be used, and I had to stop it.

Sending a photo of your child or letting someone spend time with your child doesn’t make up for a bad relationship. In fact, it makes it worse. It creates a momentary distraction from whatever the real issues are, and it puts your child in an unfair place.

I sent photos and videos of my daughter to people we didn’t have a good relationship with because it appeased them and gave us something to talk about. I knew, at the moment, it made them happy, but it didn’t suppress the tension. It only delayed it.

The famous children’s book, “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie” shows us this important life lesson: if you give people an inch, they’ll take a mile. For us, it was if you send a couple of photos, they’ll want to visit every weekend.

Eventually, the serious issues with these family members couldn’t be ignored and we had to address them along with the unrealistic expectations we’d let fester. We couldn’t allow their toxic behavior to continue—especially around our daughter.

My child isn’t a gambling chip or a peace offering. She’s not just an easy conversation topic or a doll to be passed around or a trinket to be marveled at. She’s a person. 

After that experience, I vowed to never use my child or allow her to be used like that again. She is a person, not a pawn. She is a child who needs to be safe, loved, and protected, not an object of affection or a shot of happiness for others to revel in.

Look, I know how easy it is to focus on the baby rather than face the issue(s) in a relationship. It’s easy to placate people and make things comfortable for the short term, but long term, it will wreak havoc. A dysfunctional relationship won’t magically become better because you have a baby.

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Let’s treat our kids as the living breathing humans they are and adults they will one day be—worthy of respect and autonomy. Our kids aren’t bargaining tools. They can’t be the basis of your relationship with someone—not a spouse, a family member, a friend, or an in-law.

And, they can’t heal a relationship.

Our kids aren’t crutches to lean on when a relationship isn’t going wellthey can’t be the glue that keeps relationships together. Deal with the dysfunction and then decide who is appropriate and healthy to have in your child’s life, and how much you want to share with them.

Your child might not be able to talk yet and assert themselves, but you can, and you should. You are the parent and you, my friend, know better.

As the wonderful and wise Maya Angelou put it: when you know better, do better.

Abigail Granner

Abigail Granner is a work-from-home mama with one rambunctious toddler. She is also a Certified Personal Trainer via the American Council on Exercise and an uncertified coffee and coconut milk expert. She writes about health, wellness, and other topics as a freelancer and for fun on her blog, abigailgranner.com. Connect with her on Instagram: @abigailjoyg