All grandparents have fantasies of their grandchildren being brilliant and wildly successful, Nobel Prize winners and Supreme Court Justices. And shallow as it may sound, we also expect that our grandkids are going to be absolutely adorable from the minute they're born. But that's not always the case.
Case in point: Jane, 63, said her first grandchild, a boy, was rather unattractive until he was about one. A prominent nose and big ears made him less than darling in the early months. "All I kept thinking was, 'I wonder how old you have to be to get plastic surgery,'" she says, admitting a huge amount of guilt attached to this thought. "I mean, it was hard to look at him and see anything cute." Jane isn't alone. Sometimes expectation and reality are very different. And though this scenario sounds petty, the emotions grandparents feel when expectations have been dashed, are very real.
"Grandparents have all kinds of expectations, from what the baby will look like, to what their relationship with the baby is going to be," says family therapist Deanna Brann, Ph.D., author of Reluctantly Related: Secrets to Getting Along with Your Mother-in-Law or Daughter-in-Law. "When grandparents learn that their grandchildren are not perfect, or their relationship with them isn't what they expected, they tend to struggle with that." There can be a lot of feelings involved including shame, embarrassment, and sadness.
How to manage it? Try the following.
1. Admire the positives. In terms of a new grand baby not looking the way you expect, you've got to look beyond appearance and watch your reaction. "More than anything, at this moment the parents just want confirmation that you are into the baby and excited for them," says Dr. Brann. "Find something to say that helps the parents feel reaffirmed, otherwise their feeling are going to get hurt." She suggests commenting on things like the baby's eyes or how tiny their hands and feet are. "You can always connect the baby to their parents and say something like, 'He's so alert, just like you were,'" says Dr. Brann. The last thing you want to do: lie. "People pick up on that immediately." The goal here is to be positive and happy for your kids.
2. Get out of your own head. If you're feeling somehow disappointed with your grandchild, "you need to work through it by looking at your reaction and what that means," says Dr. Brann. Are you embarrassed about what your friends going to say? Ashamed? "Try to pinpoint the feeling that is getting stirred up in you," she says. Once you figure out your feelings, you can better process them. "Ask yourself why you are embarrassed, and why you are assuming, for example, that your friends are going to judge the baby?" she adds. Once you figure out your own reaction, you can understand it better and deal with it, then move on to the feelings you really want to feel—joy and gratitude that you have a new grandchild.
3. Temper your expectations "The first thing that needs to happen, before the baby is born, and after, is that you have to realize that this is not your baby," says Dr. Brann. "We assume, as a grandparent, that we get to see the baby whenever we like and have a say, but we don't." She suggests talking with your adult children before the baby is born about what they expect your role to be. "If we don't have a conversation, we just assume our role, which can be problematic," she says. "Be open about how much you want to be involved and get a clear understanding of where you fit."
How well do you get along with your grandchild and other family members? Want to know if your personalities mesh?Find out here.