'M Y FIRST baby was born in May,' said Kate, 'By June my mother-in-law and I had come to blows.' Motherhood is full of surprises: bright yellow nappies; the bewildering choice of vests; and how feelings about mother-in-law can become politically very incorrect.

'She became so critical,' Kate added. 'She drove me mad with nagging comments like, 'You spend far too much time stimulating him. He's overstimulated, put him down,' and then she'd be off overstimulating him elsewhere.' Scarlet's mother-in-law was always trying to tell her how to look after her baby. 'If she was on her back she'd march over and without asking me would lay her on her tummy saying, 'Babies shouldn't sleep on their backs'. I'd say, 'Babies do sleep on their backs now.' 'Oh, no,' she'd say, 'babies choke on their backs.' '

There is nothing, it seems, like having a baby for opening up the doors to advice from all quarters. But what is unexpected is that although a new mother can take or ignore 'advice' from friends and her own mother, she hears the same advice as criticism when it comes from her mother-in- law. Monica even hated her mother- in-law touching her baby. 'I don't know why. I always felt guilty about it after she'd gone, but if she tried to suggest anything, something inside me bristled and I thought, no, no, no.'

So why does the arrival of babies make this relationship so fraught? Genes are partly to blame. The baby is part of the mother-in-law; the new mother is not. She 'belongs' to a different family. This puts her in a difficult situation, particularly if, like Kate's mother-in-law, who 'never took any pictures of me and the baby, just my husband', behaviour starts to become territorial. 'She was always saying how he looked like her aunt, her mother, her father, her grandmother, her whole family. It was as if I had nothing to do with him.'

Sandra's mother-in-law was so keen to see the baby, 'She'd ring up and if he was asleep she wouldn't bother to come around. When she did visit she'd just get the pleasantries over and get on and see the baby. She'd love it if I wasn't there; she could have him all to herself. It used to really annoy and upset me. I knew I was overreacting, but I couldn't help it.'

Babies can bring any underlying family tensions to a head. And babies can also make their new mothers unexpectedly touchy. Many set out intending to be relaxed parents only to find that something much more primitive and complex takes hold - an almost pathological possessiveness. 'I wanted her to love me, and I mean love me, me alone,' Scarlet said. Equally, new mothers can be insensitive to the changes that new grandmothers are going through. Marching over to the cot and getting stuck in is one way of compensating for feeling redundant or left behind. But rivalry and competition over whom the baby belongs to and who knows best is often really about something much more fundamental - the son. If mummy hasn't let go of her 'little boy', there can be real battles ahead.

Sophie and her mother-in-law have reached the stage where 'I neither ring her nor does she ring me'. Her husband is an only child and his mother a widow. 'She didn't seem to object when we were married, just when the baby arrived and my husband had to spend more time at home to help me. She felt I was taking even more of her son away. She would make the occasional comment about it being too cold to take the baby out, or not letting him sit in the draught and make it obvious that she didn't approve of me as a mother. I would stew and worry over everything she said. I suppose I should have sorted them out at the time. Now it's too late.'

While other members of the family are advised to remain neutral during 'debates' between mother and daughter-in-law - a son in particular should resist being lured into supporting his mother over his wife - dealing with problems head on is one way of avoiding any long-term ructions. Although finding a way to talk so that it doesn't come out in confrontations and 'atmospheres' can be hard.

After weeks of needling from her mother-in-law, Kate finally blew up in the car. 'She was going on and on about how I hadn't got him christened and I just said, 'Look, butt out, it's none of your business,' and then burst into tears. She said, 'Whatever's the matter?' and I said, 'I can't do anything right, you're always telling me I'm hopeless and I'm a useless mother.' And she said, 'Oh no, I never meant that at all, you're doing really well.' I think she was just going back to how she did things and it came out in a critical way. She is much more careful now, or perhaps we've both got more used to the baby.'

Establishing ground rules can be the secret of getting along with a mother- in-law - 'When the baby's asleep, I'd rather you didn't wake her up'. And once a new mother has found her way, she will feel confident enough not to feel threatened. And in the long run it's worth trying to remain connected and attempting to stay one big happy family. Cute babies turn into troublesome toddlers and then scowling adolescents - and then a mother needs all the help

she can get.

(Photograph omitted)