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Claire N. Barnes, MA Headshot

Watch Your Step for Grandparents

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STEPFAMILY
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One of the major parts of our recent, relocation move has been the necessary (and pleasurable) task of hanging pictures. My husband and I love hanging pictures and as we relived travel memories, family relationships and special mementos, we practically covered the walls in our new house. That was in late April.

And then it occurred to me last week: a picture of my (step)grandmother is nowhere to be found in my house. It's like she didn't exist! When in fact, she was the only grandmother I ever knew. How could I have disregarded her memory so significantly as to not even put her picture up? And maybe it means more to me now that I am a (step)grandmother myself.

My mother's mother died when she was a toddler, leaving behind a widower to raise six children -- four boys and two girls. To my grandfather's credit, he kept the family all together and eventually married Jenny Ellis, a County School Superintendent in rural Nebraska. Her sister was also a County School Superintendent. (I wish I could have known them -- they must have been awesome, pioneer women.) Jenny and my grandfather had a son together, raising the total of the number of children in the family to seven.

Jenny was in her eighties by the time I came along. In fact, we even lived with her for a couple of years while my parents were in the process of purchasing a house. To me, she was GRANDMA. I helped her braid her hair because her hands were arthritic; she let me help her with the dishes; she took me to church and told me Bible stories; she helped care for me when I was sick; and she let me eat cookies for breakfast.

After we moved into our own home, Jenny lived with us a little while before she moved into a nursing home. I occasionally stayed home from school on those few occasions when it was better for her to not be alone. It was when she died that all this 'step' business came up and I came to understand she had been a replacement mother to the first six children. I also learned that my mother's older sister had always resented her -- so much so she didn't even come to her funeral.

I am now a step-grandmother. When our daughter married a father with custody of his two children, I sought out the counsel of a very good friend (and therapist) who advised me that the two young children joining our family were now also our grandchildren. They are, after all, just children and along for the ride with the adults. That was very wise advice and my husband and I have tried to embrace them with our own grandson when we are fortunate enough to spend time with the three of them.

It's still hard, though. No matter how much one tries, the blood that binds family members together can interfere with our willingness to love and appreciate those who come into our families by choosing to do so. Because of the high divorce rate in our country, most American children will eventually acquire step-parents and step-grandparents, and become stepchildren themselves. In fact, 33% of all Boomers over the age of 65 are now step-grandparents.

Have you noticed? Step relatives always get the bad rap in fairy tales. Stepmothers, stepfathers, stepsisters and stepbrothers are the cause of the difficulties for our heroes and heroines. The human psyche struggles so much with substitutes, that having difficulty loving replacements for our blood kin has been memorialized for centuries in fables and even in the Bible.

I wish I could include in this Blog some helpful hints on how to make the Step-grandparenting role easier. Instead, I will rely on my dear friend and British Columnist, and Agony Aunt, Suzie Hayman to advise all of us:

I've always been so careful to make it clear that i am my stepson's stepmum, not his mother. I say that he is my son but i am not his mother. It's hard sometimes because his mother is dead and his wife considers me to be his parent. but I was overwhelmed when he told me they were expecting a child because he said, specifically, that I was to be a grandmum, not a stepgrandmum.. and that's the trick -- to be aware of the boundaries but give unconditional love.

Thank you Suzie. I am now signing off to go hang a picture of Grandma Jenny.