A nervous mother-to-be. A mother-in-law who's a heavy smoker. And a phenomenon known as thirdhand smoke, which is a real thing. Sounds like a potential recipe for an explosive family confrontation, doesn't it? That is probably why this "worried daughter-in-law" wrote into Slate's parenting advice column asking how to approach this very delicate situation.
"I am expecting my first baby soon," this mom-to-be writes. "When the baby is born, my in-laws will be coming for a visit." However, her mother-in-law is a heavy smoker. Although she's not worried about her actually smoking in front of the baby, she is worried about thirdhand smoke. We all know what secondhand smoke is. We've all walked down a city street and been subjected to a puffy cloud of someone else's tobacco smoke.
But the concept of thirdhand smoke was new to me. According to a paper published in the National Center for Biotechnology Information, "thirdhand smoke is a result of combusted tobacco, most often from smoking cigarettes, pipes, cigars, or cigarillos. Thirdhand smoke remains on surfaces and in dust for a longtime after smoking happens, reacts with oxidants and other compounds to form secondary pollutants, and is re-emitted as a gas and/or resuspended when particles are disturbed and go back into the air where they can be inhaled."
Basically, thirdhand smoke is bad for you, just like secondhand smoke and actually smoking. It lingers in the air, clings to dust, and gets into our lungs where it doesn't belong. And this mom-to-be doesn't want thirdhand smoke from her mother-in-law infecting the lungs of her brand new baby. Understandable.
That's why she and her husband decided that, after she smokes, grandma has to shower and change her clothes before she can pick up the baby. The expectant mom recognizes that this is a potentially sensitive subject and a big ask, and she doesn't want to hurt her MIL's feelings. So she asks, "How can we still be welcoming and let her know we are excited to have her around while setting these boundaries? Also, how long should we remain strict about the issue? How should we handle this when we are visiting my in-laws?"
Slate's Care and Feeding correspondent Carvell Wallace said that while his first instinct was not to worry too much about thirdhand smoke, he does realize it's a real thing and should be taken seriously. And he recognizes that her MIL might feel ostracized no matter what when she and her husband bring up this issue. But he said something magical: "You are perfectly within your rights to ask for what you want; her response to that is her business, not yours."
Isn't that freeing? This couple should feel free to do what they think is best for their infant. They can and should try to soften the blow by not making it personal and making sure she they say to her that they're excited for her to be part of the family, but beyond that, there's nothing they can do to try to control her reaction. She's either going to understand or not. All that matters is that ultimately, she respects their decision.
"With any luck," Carvell writes, "this will spur her to take a second look at her relationship to smoking and maybe even cause her to let go of something that is clearly standing in the way of being with her grandbaby."
I know that my own grandfather used to enjoy smoking a pipe, but he gave it up the minute I was born. I'm not sure if there was a conversation with my parents that inspired this decision, but this may be the kick she needs to give up the habit once and for all. If not, that's OK too. But she still has to respect their wishes if she wants to interact with her grandchild.
Now, Carvell does admit that things change a bit when it comes to the new parents visiting their in-laws. "When she's visiting you," he writes, "I think you can be strict about this. When you are visiting them, I think you have to, for necessity's sake, be less so. It's not possible for them to clear all residual smoke and nicotine off of everything in their home. You may want to stay in a hotel for that reason."
It's going to be tough, but if they approach the conversation with as little judgment as possible, I think they might be OK. This is not an indictment of her life choices. It's just what they are choosing to do to keep their baby as healthy as possible.