Are You the Left-Out Grandparent?

The close bond between new moms and their mothers can turn the "other grandmother" into a third wheel

By Barbara Graham

So I’m sitting downstairs in the living room feeling useless while upstairs my daughter-in-law and her mother scurry about, attending to the new baby girl who has just arrived home from the hospital. I have been a grandmother for five days, and this is my first taste of Mother of the Father Syndrome.

Don’t get me wrong. I adore my daughter-in-law and I’m confident the feeling is mutual. We love taking long walks together and chatting over endless cups of mint tea. If we weren’t related by marriage, we would be good friends. I am close to her mother, too.

And yet.

There is a mysterious transmission of accumulated wisdom and babycare know-how that seems to pass along bloodlines from maternal grandmothers to their adult daughters. No doubt this is biology at work, and paternal grandmothers are simply not part of that intimate loop. Still, I successfully raised a child myself and so when my daughter-in-law turns primarily to her mother for advice, I’m caught off guard. Feeling like a third wheel on a hot date is not something I anticipated.

In fact, I only realized I felt this way about two minutes ago when I poked my head in the door of the baby’s room. Mother and daughter were hovering over the wriggling infant, animatedly discussing diaper rash. Having nothing pithy to add to the conversation, I backed out of the room. They didn’t seem to notice.

[photo book max-width=150 align=right]My ego is bruised slightly, but I console myself with three thoughts. The first, which I will not admit to anyone else for fear of ruining my chances of ever being asked to take care of my granddaughter, is that my own babycare skills actually feel a tad rusty. When I briefly had the baby to myself in the hospital, I was so terrified of accidentally dropping or suffocating her that I left the door open so that if anything untoward happened the nurses would hear me shrieking.

The second thought that soothes my insecure grandmother soul is that the baby will never know — or care — which of her two grandmothers was most on the ball about diaper rash, burping, or gas.

But third, and most important, my daughter-in-law’s reliance on her mother is not a rejection of me. As the primary caretaker of the baby, at this early stage of parenthood, when her life — and body — are in a state of red alert, it is natural for her to seek refuge in her greatest comfort zone — her own mother. It's not about you, I admonish myself.

The truth is, I am lucky. Yes, I sometimes feel jealous of The Other Grandmother. Yes, I sometimes feel as though I’m back in junior high when I start obsessing that my granddaughter will love her more. Still, in our extended family, which includes step- as well as biological grandparents, everyone treats everyone else with respect. I know that this is not always the case.

Oh, the stories I hear!

I have one friend, a paternal grandmother, who has been kept at arm’s length since the day her grandson, now 2, was born. "We will tell you exactly when you can see the baby, and for how long," this woman's son told her over the phone from the hospital. The time allotted for her visits turns out to be one hour each week. She’s never been permitted to hold her grandson and has yet to spend time alone with him, although the maternal grandmother is a household fixture. My friend, who previously considered herself close to her son, is furious, confused, grief-stricken.

It kills me to reinforce stereotypes, but in families where the paternal grandmother is made to feel like chopped liver, it’s usually the daughter-in-law who calls the shots. In Eye of My Heart, the new book I edited, Claire Roberts writes: "My grandkids seem to have great affection for me. But to my son’s wife, I am the dreaded abominable mother-in-law." E-mails between Roberts and her two granddaughters, ages 10 and 13, are closely monitored by their parents and the girls undergo a debriefing worthy of the CIA whenever they've spent time with Roberts. She explains that they "understand that there's 'a situation' with Gramma and their mother — and, therefore, with their father, too.

Sometimes it’s not the daughter-in-law, but her mother who asserts herself as Number One Nana. In another essay in the book, Judith Viorst (author of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day) relates this story: "A friend of mine complains that whenever she takes her son's children on an outing, she gets a thank-you note from the other grandmother, full of appreciation for the time she has spent with the boys and services she has rendered to the family. Though these thank-you notes are gracious, oh so gracious, they leave my friend feeling peeved and patronized. For the way this woman competes, she says, "is to treat me as if I’m some sort of helpful assistant rather than someone who’s on a par with her.’”

Okay, so maybe my mother-of-the-father ego gets roughed up a little every now and then — whose doesn’t? Still, I never forget that I’m one of the lucky ones. I count my blessings daily for not being among the hapless half Margaret Mead described when she wrote: "Of all the peoples whom I have studied, from city dwellers to cliff dwellers, I always find that at least 50 percent would prefer to have at least one jungle between themselves and their mothers-in-law."

A postscript from author Barbara Graham:

I am so moved by the many thoughtful responses to my column that I must comment myself.

No question, feeling excluded does not depend on being the mother of the father. This can happen to anyone in the grandparent constellation — grandmothers, grandfathers, maternal side, paternal side, biological, or step-grandparents. These feelings are definitely not limited to a single group (nor is left-out a title that any of us is dying to claim).

In my first conversation with psychologist Mary Pipher, who wrote the introduction to Eye of My Heart, she noted that for most of us, joining the grandparent club triggers old issues we thought we’d resolved long ago. Sometimes those issues are not so serious. When you suddenly go from being the parent (even when you’ve shared your kids with a stepmother or stepfather) to one of four or six grandparents, the flashback to junior high school popularity contests seems inevitable. But the heart is a pliant muscle and, if we’re lucky, in time everyone makes room for the other members of the expanded family team — or, as we say in Yiddish, the whole mishpokeh.

This is not to say that everyone gets equal time or attention. For one thing, geographic proximity (or lack of it) makes that impossible. (My son and his family live in Italy, where my second granddaughter will be born in June.) Still, if we’re lucky, we each find our place in the family constellation and play to our strengths. At this point, I accept that my daughter-in-law will turn to her own mother when she’s concerned about the health and well-being of our granddaughter. Though occasionally I may feel slighted — after all, I did manage to raise a child without any major mishaps — when I can step back, I realize this is not about me, it is simply the natural order of things in our family. However, I can assure you that if I were not encouraged to be as involved in my granddaughter’s life as I possibly can be while living on this side of the Atlantic, I know I would suffer.

Clearly, many people who shared their stories are dealing with very serious issues.

Once when I was upset about a situation in my son’s life, a friend, who happens to be a psychologist and a meditation teacher, offered me wise counsel. She reminded me that I raised my son well. He is a sensitive, thoughtful, and kind human being. My friend suggested that, if instead judgment and fear, I conveyed to my son in words and actions my trust in his innate wisdom, it would help him find the wisdom within himself.

I have discovered that as the parent of an adult — and especially now as a grandparent — there’s little else I can do.

Barbara Graham is the editor of  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."


My son got very involved very fast with a girlfriend with a baby girl. We believed all her stories and let the two of them live with us until the three of them got a place. Then she got pregnant. Had a huge fight with my son & her mother did something absolutely reprehensible, a lie, that nearly cost my son his career. Since the baby was born we are shunned. Have no idea why .But following the same pattern of behavior that she described to me about her daughter's grandparents. She has blocked me on FB, and ignores my texts, unless it suits her. Won't come to our house, refused to come over to see my family-was just a no show, and wouldn't "let" my son bring the baby over. She encouraged a grandparent relationship with us and her older daughter, so that is hard too. Breaks my heart. It's hard not to just hate her and throw in the towel. Her mother & aunt treat my son and the other baby daddy like they are just wallets. Not sure how my son feels, if they are back together or what. He hardly talks to us now. Seems he is always walking on eggshells. Thanks, I feel better that I'm not alone.

sunnym on 2014-02-09 22:01:18

Thank you for this article. My daughter-in-law's mother is very "domineering" with both her immediate AND extended family (our son's words) and competitive to boot. So when the grandchildren arrived, she was determined to be the favorite grandparent and actually said so. She and her husband live two hours away, and she was all worried about the time we "could" spend with the grandchildren since we live "only" 20 minutes away. However, they are the grandparents who spend weekends with the kids, both at their own home and while visiting my son and DIL, take them overnights for days at a time (one time we had asked weeks in advance to spend one day with them - and no one but us remembered). The MIL even plans week-long destination family vacations and announces the plans as if command performances. Our son and DIL rarely make any effort to see us or include us in their lives unless they need occasional childcare on the weekend because they have to work. They never come over just to spend the time. We do ask them to dinners and birthdays, and they do come, thank goodness. Holidays are "shared", with our time an afterthought, fit in around the time planned with DIL's extended family. My husband and I try to not take it personally, but it makes us so sad. It feels like if we saw them more frequently, my DIL's mother would somehow find out, and there would be a problem. So we see everyone perhaps once a month, but only when we initiate it, and if they can fit us in. She has us all dancing to her tune to keep the peace.

SnapdragonFQ on 2014-01-25 07:19:59

Our son and his g/f had their first baby yesterday her mom was there the whole time to watch the event. We drove 2 hours to sit in the main lobby. After a couple of hours our son came to see us, we got a quick peek in the room leaned over to have a quick look. While doing this his g/f's mother hovered over
We left in 10 mins headed back home. I felt like an intruder, like I had stopped in to see an acquaintance
Who just had a baby. Upon coming home I tried to feel a bond but just couldn't. The next day I texted our son and told him we wouldn't be returning today but will wait until things settle down.
My biggest issue is the g/f's grandmother was actually less than thrilled when she was told of the pregnancy. She had little to do with the gf as a mother. She sent me, my daughter and my mother an invitation for a baby shower she was throwing. When I RSVP she said she had invited 40 of her and her daughter's friends and a few of our sons family. I find her to be using this baby as a possession to be on display. Needless to say I have politely declined this offer. My son advised me the invitation was out of consideration.
I guess I'm asking a few things not feeling any connection to this beautiful baby what do I do.
To make matters worse she named the baby after her brother, father. My parents the great grandparents asked for the legacy of a middle name that our son, my dad, my grandfather, my great grandfather all carried continue. But no such luck. My parents are heartbroken. The wedges are being built. It is horrible. Our son is very very close to my dad I'm sickened by the events.

So tell me where do I start? It is our first grandchild.

Paula67 on 2013-09-23 22:20:43

I am the Mom too, and feel left out as well. My son-in-law has always wanted my daughter to be a part of his family. He has never shown an interest in being a part of her family. When the first grandchild was born my son-in-law made me feel uncomfortable whenever I held the baby. Things have not changed much in the past 4 years. I will not cause trouble for my daughter, so I am trying to keep my distance from him and his family. Sometimes the attachments between a son and his mom are worse than the attachments between a mom and her daughter.

CrazyNonni on 2013-08-03 13:39:35

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