Ever since my first granddaughter Isabelle was born three years ago, I have tried to take the high road when it comes to the other grandparents. In our family this group includes my daughter-in-law's mother and my son's father and stepmother, in addition to my husband. We are all kind and sensitive toward one another — most of the time.
But the other day when my ex-husband mentioned over the phone that our son had told him that the Thankgiving dinner they'd shared had been his happiest family gathering ever, I wanted to strangle my ex. Even if our son and his family had preferred the Thanksgiving celebration with his father's brood to the one at my home two days earlier, why was the man telling me this? Was he being sadistic or merely unconscious?
I muttered something about dinner burning on the stove and got off the phone as fast as I could.
Feelings that come with the territory
It's not always easy taking the high road. It's not always easy being the nana in Washington, D.C., when the other set of paternal grandparents and the maternal grandmother live five minutes from our grandkids in California. It's not easy keeping my heart open and my mouth shut when I get wind of the many fabulous weekly visits between these California grandparents and the kids.
I used to think something was wrong with me. I was sure that the fizzy feeling I got in my gut when I heard about all the fun the girls were having with the other grandparents was yet one more sign of my deeply flawed character. But now, a few years into this grandparent business, I've come to the conclusion that feelings of rivalry and jealousy — of an intensity that most of us haven't experienced since junior high school — simply come with the territory.
This makes sense when you consider that when we become grandparents, we suddenly go from being the mother or the father to one of a pack. Love for our grandchildren may unite us, but, like members of any pack, we sniff out the competition and jockey for position in the new order.
Unfair family competition
Inevitably, the playing field is uneven. One set of grandparents may live close to the grandchildren and babysit regularly, another set may be able to afford lavish gifts and annual trips to Disney World, and yet another grandparent may have the zip (and balance) to rollerblade alongside the kids. And so we worry and stew and compare ourselves with the grandparent competition.
In "The Rivals," her hilarious but pointed essay in Eye of My Heart, Judith Viorst writes: "Competition for Most Adored Grandmother seriously heats up when the mother-in-law of our daughter or son, our grandchildren's other granny, stakes her legitimate claim on their affections. Yes, fond though we may be of this other woman, and glad though we may be that she loves our grandchildren, and resigned though we may be to the fact that our grandchildren love her back, we are hoping that our grandchildren love us more. A whole lot more."
If there is any grandparent out there who has never felt the slightest trace of rivalry toward your grandchildren's other (living, functioning) grandparents, I would like to hear from you. I would like to know your secret, which I promise to reveal in a future column.
The good news for the rest of us is that although we may not be proud of our anxious, competitive feelings, we don't need to act on them. In fact, I'm convinced that admitting them — if only to ourselves — makes us much less likely to behave like self-centered teenagers out to win a popularity contest.
Awareness confers power — the power to behave like a grown-up.
Kids who stay above the fray
The other good news is that kids are naturally wise, impervious to gimmicks to win their affections, and they can never get enough love. Remember that old Leonard Cohen lyric about children: They are leaning out for love and they will lean that way forever. They are not keeping score or rating their grandparents.
Every time I see Isabelle and Azalia, her baby sister, I am reminded of this. Even if they've spent many wonderful hours with their California grandparents during the preceding months, they're thrilled to see me — and I, of course, am overjoyed to see them. Best of all, we meet in the present moment and my fears about being low on the grandparent totem pole evaporate like early morning mist.
So, although I may be furious at my ex for his thoughtless remark, chances are I won't strangle him when the whole family — all sides — gathers at my son and daughter-in-law's house for Christmas dinner. (This may be a challenging event, but at least my son won't be able to say that he preferred celebrating the holiday with his father.)
And when I start getting that old fizzy feeling in my gut — as I'm bound to on occasion after I return to Washington — I'll just turn on my Leonard Cohen CD and remind myself that not only are we all leaning out for love forever, but there's plenty to go around.
Barbara Graham, a Grandparents.com columnist, is the editor of the anthology, Eye of My Heart: 27 Writers Reveal the Hidden Pleasures and Perils of Being a Grandmother (Harper), which tells "the whole crazy, complicated truth about being a grandmother in today's world."
How well do you get along with your grandchild and other family members? Want to know if your personalities mesh?Find out here.