So far I haven't felt one-upped, outshone, or otherwise outdone by my granddaughters' other grandparents. That’s the good news. The bad news is that my son and daughter-in-law are equal-opportunity heartbreakers. They moved to Europe soon after Isabelle Eva, my first grandchild, was born three years ago, leaving in the dust the whole pack of six grandparents who live in the United States.
Still, there are moments when, as the paternal grandmother, I feel, if not exactly excluded, then not quite on the inside track either. I know that my daughter-in-law, whom I love but hardly ever talk to on the phone, speaks to her mother nearly every day. I am certain that this other grandmother, who is also my friend, is privy to all sorts of news about our children and grandchildren that I may never hear. But this would be the case even if our entire tribe lived in the same zip code, so I don’t let myself fret about it or feel left out — well, not so much, anyhow.
This could soon change — if, as they’ve been discussing, my son and daughter-in-law start spending large chunks of the year in California, where the four other grandparents live; if the other grandparents then become deeply involved in my granddaughters' lives in a way that my husband and I, based on the East Coast, wouldn’t be able to; if I let those left-out feelings get the best of me and spread like poisonous weeds in a bog.
That last if is really the only one that matters, since it is the only one I can control.
I can’t control where my son and daughter-in-law choose to live. (Their current residence is up a dirt road in a practically uninhabited village in the Italian Alps.) I have no say in how they raise their children. And I most definitely can’t influence how much Isabelle and Azalia love any of their grandparents — including me.
On the bright side, I am in charge of how I react to events and other people’s behavior — and, ultimately, my own happiness.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned during the past three years, it is that grandparenthood offers one lesson after another in the fine (apparently lifelong; who knew?) art of growing up. Issues we thought we’d resolved long ago get triggered all over again. Envy and jealousy? Check. Old insecurities and anxieties over being good parents spilling over into how we are as grandparents? Check. Feelings of powerlessness? Anger at impossible (and possibly insane) relatives and in-laws behaving badly? Regrets over flare-ups of our own foot-in-mouth disease? Check. Check. Check. Of course, grandparenthood is also graced with sublime, incomparable joys, but that’s not the whole story.
What You Told Me
I, for one, was unprepared for the riptide of emotions I felt when I became a grandmother. And, judging by the flood of comments to my column on "The Left-Out Grandparent," I am not alone.
Happily, several people who responded described healthy — or, at least, reasonably workable — relationships within their extended families. Alas, many others did not. And though my column focused on my experience as the mother of the father, it is clear that trouble can strike from any direction: the maternal side, the paternal side, as the result of divorce, death, remarriage, you name it. Here's a sampling:
"If you want to talk about being left out, try being the stepmom of the mother."
"My daughter-in-law never makes me feel left out. But her mom ... well, that is another story."
"I’m the paternal grandfather of two adorable boys, and it’s really painful to live with the fact that I get a few hours every two-four weeks with them, while the other grandparents see them several times a week."
"I’m the mother of the mother and I’m just as left out as you. My daughter turns to no one but her husband, the internet and her "mommy’s group" for assistance."
"My grandson is a year old and we have spent a total of approximately 15 hours with him. My son and daughter-in-law live seven miles away. When they do come here we feel like it is a court-supervised visit. Never have been left alone with him."
"Try being an ex-mother-in-law to the father who has physical custody!"
You get the picture. To paraphrase Tolstoy, there are as many ways to be hurt and unhappy as there are families. Which brings me back to Point A: We can't control other people's actions and rotten behavior, only our own. That said, there are some things that can be done.
How To Manage
We can ask (nicely) our adult children and their spouses for more time with the grandchildren if we feel we're being shortchanged. (Young parents seem especially possessive and anxious as they feel their way into their new role; if you bide your time, chances are they'll be begging for your help before long.)
We can stop measuring love in terms of hours and days spent with the grandkids and refrain from comparing ourselves with other grandparents, stepgrandparents, great-grandparents, friends, and especially Marian Robinson, Michelle Obama’s mother who lives with her beautiful daughter, handsome son-in-law, and adorable grandchildren in the White House. Comparisons with other people are a no-fail step on the road to self-inflicted misery.
We don’t have to spend time with our grandchildren’s other grandparents if it makes us feel bad or uncomfortable, except perhaps on state occasions. In fact, separate visits should be the rule. Not only does this keep the human jealousy factor at bay, it affords the grandparents the chance to form their own special bond with the kids
We can model kindness, generosity, and respect — and hope that these qualities are contagious.
Sometimes, though, relationships are so charged or life circumstances so difficult that even though you act honorably, others may not. There simply may be nothing you can do — for a time, anyhow — to change the family dynamics. In these situations, it may be wise to step back to gain a little perspective (and lick your wounds), and cultivate other relationships and interests. I recently met a young mother — whose own parents can't be bothered spending time with her kids — who came to a reading of Eye of My Heart with her children's "adopted grandmother," related by love and friendship not blood.
And try to remember: Life is short, we all feel tender and vulnerable when it comes to our children and grandchildren, and — to paraphrase Tolstoy again — every family is utterly impossible and wonderful in its own unique way.
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.