I have very fond memories of my grandmother reading me the Sunday newspaper comics when she visited on that day. She seemed to have a congenial relationship with my parents and, certainly, I felt her love. Little did I, as a child, know that these family relationships can be fraught, with boundaries often unclear or ignored. So, the advice in this article by Barbara Graham, a Grandparents.com columnist, is helpful.
On the one hand, it was so simple. There was a new baby, Isabelle Eva, and there was nothing to do except love her. That was the one hand. The other hand, belonging to her parents, held all the cards.
I soon learned that I could love my granddaughter fiercely, but I had no say — in anything. She was mine, but not mine. Although this is perfectly natural and should not have shocked me, it did. For many parents used to being in charge, deferring to the rules and wishes of our adult children and their partners is humbling. Here are seven guidelines that — so far — have kept me out of hot water:
- Seal your lips.Even if you’re an expert, your adult sons and daughters will assume you know nothing about childrearing. Your advice and opinions will not be welcome, unless directly solicited. (Even then, it’s iffy as to whether the new parents really want to hear your answer.) Tread lightly.
- Love thy grandchild as thine own — but never forget he or she is not thine own.I was confused about this in the beginning. I was at the hospital when Isabelle was born, and I thought we were all one big happy family. Not. I had to win over her parents. They loved me — I knew that — but did they trustme? In the early days I felt as if I were auditioning for the part of grandparent. Did I hold Isabelle properly? Didn’t I know that you never put a newborn down on her stomach? It took me a few blunders to secure their trust — which must be renewed every so often.
- Abide by the rules of the new parents. The dos and don’ts of childrearing change with every generation. Had I listened to my mother, I would have held my son only while feeding him (every four hours) and not a second longer, lest he turn into a “mama’s boy.” These days, with all the childrearing information online, most new parents are up to speed, but we grandparents definitely are not. Baby slings? Mutsy Slider Stroller? Who knows what these are or how to operate them?
- Accept your role. If you’re the mother of a new father, you may not have the same access to your grandchild as a maternal grandmother, at least initially. New mothers are often the primary caretakers of babies and tend to lean on their mothers for support. This is not a problem, unless you think it is. Your grandchild will love you too. Anyhow, all grandparents — whether on maternal or paternal side — are at risk of being shut out if they fail to observe any of these commandments. Think of yourself as a relief player in sports game: on the bench until your adult children call you up; then do as they say if you want to stay in the game. (We’ve already covered this, but I think it’s key.)
- Don’t be surprised if old issues get triggered when your child has a child. For many people, feelings of competition with their grandchild’s other grandparents provoke traumatic flashbacks to junior high school. This is especially true now, given the proliferation of divorce and stepfamilies. Not only that, some grandparents are able to lavish the kids with expensive gifts, while others live much closer to the children than their counterparts. Still, a little goodwill goes a long way. The heart is a generous muscle capable of loving many people at once, and most of us are able to get past the initial rush of jealousy to find our special place in the new order. (Yes, of course we still secretly hope that our grandchildren will love us more than those other people. We are, after all, human.)
- Get a life. Sometimes I’ve become overly embroiled in my concern for my son and his family; at other times my desire to be an integral part of their lives has taken precedence over things I needed to do to maintain my own sense of well-being — and I’ve paid the price. Hence, my mantra: “I have my life. They have theirs.” We are close and connected, yet separate. Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries.
- Let go of all expectations. When Isabelle Eva was born, she lived around the corner from us, but when she was two months old her parents moved overseas. I was heartbroken; my expectations about my involvement in her life were turned upside down. Yet once I was able to let go of my agenda — it took some doing — I found I still felt deeply connected to Isabelle and vice-versa. Now we visit her as often as we can and, in between visits, Skype and talk on the phone. There are bound to be unpredictable plot twists in every family narrative, but unless you are raising your grandchildren, your adult children are writing their own story. Who knew that grandparenthood would offer so many new opportunities for personal growth?
Ultimately, the good news about being a grandparent, and not being in charge anymore, is that nothing is your fault, either. Roxana Robinson wrote, “It’s like being told you no longer have to eat vegetables, only dessert — and really only the icing.”
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, which tells “the whole crazy, complicated truth about being a grandmother in today’s world.”