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."


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

What to do if your tarally misunderstood from your DIL my grandkids are 11 and 8 and it's been 9yrs and my DIL doesn't even know me she only knows very bad things that my Ex and My Ex mother in law has falsly passed on to her and I'v have made every polite attempt to try and break the ice and she will not budge I know my son truley hates it But he stuck in a rock and hard spot. And so I have sat back and don't know what to do from here. My son now doesn't even call anymore nor does he except my calls. What would you do or what would you not do??? I truley need some advise because I know my grandson asks about me . And my son has said he wants the kids to have a relationship with me . But it's just been left as that. on 2013-08-22 22:16:06

My son is getting married soon and I am already experiencing some of the maternal mil problems.
I've accepted the fact that my son will honor his wife's wishes, and I am going to honor that no matter what happens. I never want to be separated from my son. I didn't expect the maternal mil to run the show though. On several occasions now my son has made plans with us and somehow, my future dil's family try to change those plans and they will do so by calling us up to tell us about those changes. So, my husband called our son and told him that this is not how we raised him and that he needs to remember that if he makes plans with someone he should be committed to following through and at the very least be the person to call and discuss any changes with. This last time he himself didn't know of the changes to his plans were. I know we are just going to keep letting things go for now and see how our son handles things since we've talked to him but I am seeing a pattern with my future dil and her family and it's kinda scaring me. Any suggestions?

tgrueb on 2013-08-14 14:08:27

After 8 yrs of marriage,our dil will refer to us.when the kids are not around as "mr or Mrs.
I find that disrespectful.
Would like to hear others thoughts on this on 2013-07-24 08:41:54