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. Many in mothers-in-law 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 Graham 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."


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Harmony3 on 2015-05-07 02:04:58

Daughter-in-law here. I have *always* seen this kind of attitude in paternal grandmothers. Sometimes, justified; more often, not. But after 6 years of being around my in-laws, attending so many events, visiting, calling to check in on some of them, sending gifts unprompted to my sister-in-law, I am being treated like I'm going to disappear when my son is born in a few weeks. So many e-mails and comments of, "Please don't keep me out of the loop," "Make sure you send our side pictures," "I friended your mom on Facebook because I want to make sure I get to see pictures," and so on.

When I asked that family not post any pictures of my child on social media, my in-laws reacted very defensively. Moreover, they kept asking, "What does your mom think of that?" In other words, it was framed as though I was asking only my husband's side, and not the entire family -- which wasn't true.

I have told all of them countless times that they will have access to their grandbaby; that they will get to take pictures; that we will periodically e-mail or print pictures. My in-laws know that I am civil with my mother, but not in the least close to her; still, they carry this fantasy that my family will have so much more access and they'll be shut out in the cold.

It hurts to know that my sister-in-law, mother-in-law and grandmother-in-law gossip about me and every parenting decision we make (even in utero) as though it's my decision alone and my husband has no say, and I'm just being a cruel monster keeping them at bay. I have thanked them for all they have done until I'm blue in the face -- I have never asked for anyone in the family to do anything in regards to our child, though I'm sure that's now seen as a slight.

I thought that we had a great relationship, and we did, until I got pregnant. Prior to that, my husband brought up that I'm the one who often mentions that we should see his grandparents/parents, which delighted his grandmother.

Now it's like I've become a complete, hostile stranger who is holding them at bay...because of some old stereotypes about how daughters-in-law treat their in-laws in regards to the children. Not because of my own behavior. And despite my addressing this situation head-on, I still get treated like I'm a liar who is going to keep the baby away.

I will eventually be comfortable with my in-laws baby-sitting. My husband and I have mutually decided not to let my parents ever have unsupervised access to our son (which basically means having to ask the in-laws who baby-sit to NEVER acknowledge it to my side). Maybe that will boost the in-laws' egos a little.

RedSpeck on 2014-09-17 08:21:29

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

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