Do Maternal Grandmothers Really Have It Better?

Columnist Barbara Graham attempts to answer the eternal question

By Barbara Graham

Being the mother-in-law is the hot-button subject paternal grandmothers tend to dwell on — and I'm no exception. I included essays on the subject in Eye of My Heart. I've written columns on about feeling left out as a result of my in-law status.

Obviously, I'm not alone. With more than 1,400 members, Mothers-in-Law Anonymous is the largest, juiciest discussion group we've got going. Clearly, many in our ranks feel excluded and disenfranchised.

Still, I wonder: What about grandmothers on the maternal side? Do they really have it so much better than we do? Are they spared walking on eggshells around their adult daughters? Is their access to the grandkids as freewheeling as those of us with in-law after the word mother imagine? In other words, are the old myths really true?

The answer is yes — and no. To borrow the title from a recent movie, like everything else related to grandparenthood, it's complicated. Here's why.

Myth No. 1: Maternal grandmothers have easier access to grandkids than their in-law counterparts.

Well, maybe … sometimes. But there are many mitigating factors. Geography, in our very fluid society, is one. "Despite the wonders of Skype, I'm less close to my daughter's family in California than her in-laws are," says Martha Horne, a retired social worker and grandmother of seven who teaches a course in grandparenting at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute in Washington, D.C. "Regular contact is very important to children as they are growing up." And though Horne is grateful that her daughter's in-laws are on the scene and able to help out, she wishes she could see her grandkids on the west coast more often. "Each grandchild is unique," she says.

There are other factors, too — even when the whole clan lives in close proximity. For example, some paternal grandmothers are retired and more available to babysit than maternal grandmothers, while others are kept from being involved due to poor health.

Sanity and family dysfunction are also key. Even nanas who live in the same burg as their daughters may not enjoy an open-door policy when it comes to the grandkids. This is true of my friend Lily, whose daughter-in-law barely speaks to her mother, whom she considers borderline psychotic. Instead, she confides in Lily. Which brings us to….

Myth No. 2: Daughters rely on their mothers for advice and emotional support.
Myth No. 3: Maternal grandmothers don't feel left out.

In both cases … sometimes. It all depends on the relationship between mother and daughter. For some daughters, becoming a parent can trigger old issues with their mothers. In Eye of My Heart, Jill Nelson writes: "Whatever the reasons, my daughter and I … are stuck refighting tired battles. As much as I would like what binds me to my grandson to be simple and clear, the connection between us gets tangled up between my daughter and me. My love for my grandson roils what I thought — or wished — had been resolved, forgotten, or forgiven."

And even though many daughters get along well with their mothers, they frequently consider Mom's views on child-rearing obsolete. Instead, this younger generation of mothers tends to depend on their friends, as well as the staggeringly abundant information now available online.

Myth No. 4: Maternal grandmothers don't have to walk on eggshells.

Not! If you are a grandparent — maternal or paternal — who never bites your tongue, never says the opposite of what you really mean, never pretends to approve when you don't, or never in any way tiptoes around your highly sensitive adult children, please contact me at once. I want to learn from you!

Julie Bondanza, a Washington, D.C., psychologist and maternal grandmother  explains, "Unless you witness child abuse or some other drastic situation that puts your grandchildren in peril, criticizing your daughter's parenting style will only make her defensive. Tact, respect, and letting go of the small stuff will result in a much healthier relationship."

Myth No. 5: Maternal grandmothers are kept in the loop by their daughters.

Again, many are — but many others are not. Take my friend Alice, whose daughter refuses to speak to her. Alice depends on secret phone calls from her son-in-law to fill her in on the activities of the two grandchildren she adores but rarely sees because of a strained relationship with her daughter.

Geography plays a role here, too. The grandparents who live closest or are most involved with the kids generally are more in the know, regardless of which side of the family they're on.

And, as impossible as this may seem, there are some maternal grandmothers who take little or no interest in their grandkids' triumphs and tribulations. These grandmas are out of the loop because they choose to be.

Finally, although paternal grandmothers may have to work harder to establish trust with their daughters-in-law in order to stay in the loop, the trust between mothers and daughters may be broken already by the time grandchildren come along.

... And One Reality

When I started writing this column, I thought I had very little to bring to the subject, since I'm the mother of an adult son. And then I realized that even though I'll never be a grandmother on the maternal side, I am a daughter. Not only did I not enjoy a close relationship with my own mother while growing up, before my son, Clay, was born I moved 3,000 miles away from her and my father. Products of the Great Depression, they seemed to disapprove of every parental move that I — a spirited child of the 60s — made. It wasn't until after Clay became a father himself that my mother congratulated me for having raised such a kind and wonderful son.

Like I said: It's complicated.

Barbara Grahami s 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."


First time grandmother. I always thought I got on very well with my DIL. Her family live in another country and so we have always helped her over the past 7 years with immigration issues, and helped as much as we could. Now ours new grandson has arrived and she has spoken to us. About her feelings that she and my son (although he was not present at the discussion) but should have been. We listened but felt very hurt. I was. I was very enthusiastic pre baby held a shower for them, bought countless big items that we were glad too probably went overboard. I did not even think when my niece told me to give her the Baby Whisperer Book that it would be construed as passive aggressive. Never entered my mind that she would think I was trying to tell her how to parent. The book is new not around when I had my kids it was Dr Spock then. We apologized and advise that they must do their own thing of course. However, still feel hurt, though said nothing else. Now her mother is here from her country and we have stepped back even more. Don't want to lose my son or grandson. Feel very very sa

Harmony3 on 2014-06-01 00:34:45

I would say it is true. I am close to my daughter and while our grandchild has regular visits with the paternal grandmother, I know I am the "go to" grandma. Besides being close to my daughter, I make it a point to be respectful and easy going with my SIL, particularly in his role as a new dad, even if I don't agree with his way of doing things, because I never want conflict causing me not to have access to my grandbaby. I imagine that it is not uncommon for DILs to be closer to their own mothers than their MILs. As a MIL, try not to take offense, if you are lucky to have a close relationship with your daughter, you can expect to be rewarded with a closer relationship with that grand baby. Remember that saying: "A son is a son until he takes a wife, a daughter is a daughter for the rest of your life." ...or something like that...

1maile on 2014-04-10 07:38:13

I should add that while several of the MILs who come into MILA or other Community groups, venting or asking advice about problems with their DILs, many of the moms/MILs/GMs who are so far estranged as to be thinking of/already in court over it are maternal grandmothers. I don't know why or what that means. But I think it shows that the article is right - Moms' moms may have it better, overall - but NOT all the time.

rosered135 on 2013-09-11 07:40:23

My heart goes out to everyone here who has had/is having problems parent/grandparent problems, no matter whether they're on the paternal or maternal side or the parents, themselves. One of the best place to discuss these issues, though, in my opinion, is in the forum that the link in the article brings you to - Mothers-in-Law Anonymous. And I hope those of you who don't already frequent that group will come and take a look at it now.

Since the article was written, the number of members in that group rose even higher. Now, in the new "Community," there is no specific group membership - any member who logs in can read and post in any forum. But MIL Anon is still very active, which shows that, at the same time, unfortunately, many people are facing these issues but also that, fortunately, many of those are trying to find ways to solve them. And that if you're experiencing these problems, whether as a MIL, DIL or other family member, you are definitely NOT alone.

Whether you come over to MILA or the Community of groups, in general, if your email addy and/or first and last names are in your username, you might want to change that for greater privacy. If so, just click on your username (above, right) and change it where shown. (You'll have to log out and log back in again to see the change.) Up to you, of course, but I think it's a good idea.

rosered135 on 2013-09-11 07:37:07

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