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Dear Family Whisperer: Overcoming 4 Difficult Truths About Your Grandchild's Parents

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Dear Family Whisperer,

I help out with my 5-year-old granddaughter fairly often, as both my son and daughter-in-law work long hours. We have a great time -- library, dress up, children's theater. Classic grandma stuff. However, it's gotten to the point that when I am with her and her parents, she sometimes prefers me and sometimes acts out to get my attention. My son observes this and, recently, after a day at the pool, asked me not to join them for dinner as we had previously planned. I understood but felt like a bit of a third wheel. How do I find my proper role and feel loved and needed but not overbearing?

--Confused Grandma

Dear Confused Grandma,

Yours is a familiar and common problem, chronicled in a book by Jane Isay, aptly entitled, Walking on Eggshells! In my opinion, though, finding your "proper role" isn't something you can do on your own. You need to have a talk with your son rather than tiptoe around him. To prepare yourself, it might help to acknowledge these fundamental truths about "adult children":

1. They're in control. When our children have children of their own, we have to remember that their lives are not ours to live. Your son has "the right" to circle the wagons around his family, but not to be rude and inconsiderate. Share with him how hurt you and confused you felt when he changed plans at the last minute and, essentially, dismissed you. He has a child of his own now. Ask him to think about how he might feel years from now if his daughter asked him to go home.

2. They want you when they want you. Your son and daughter-in-law have no trouble asking you to step in whenever they need you. Many adult children take their parents for granted. If you're like most modern grandmas, you're probably juggling your own multiple responsibilities, maybe even a job. Share your schedule with them. Let him know that spending time is a conscious and joyous choice, but that you need to plan, too.

3. They sometimes (or often) are jealous. Modern parenthood, most experts agree, is utterly stressful. In contrast, you are living a rich, child-free existence. You get to have good times with your granddaughter -- and go home. Also, the way you "grandparent" is probably different from what your son remembers -- and that, too, can coax the green-eyed monster out of hiding. So, the next time he comes home from work and asks, "So how was she?" try not to say, "She was so easy," or, "She went right to bed for me." Play down how much "fun" you had. As for your granddaughter's "preferring" you, that's out of your hands (or his)!

4. They freeze you in the role of "parent." This is especially true for those who hold onto bad feelings from childhood. One grandmother I interviewed used a six-inch ruler to explain how "unfair" that feels. "I wasn't perfect as a mom -- who is? But now it's like they're only willing to focus on that one inch of their childhood and ignore all the good that's happened since."

In best-case scenarios, both generations realize they have to work toward revising the relationship to accommodate changes in everyone's life. They see each other as a person who inhabits many roles, not just "Mom" or "son." You can nudge this shift along:

  • Talk about what's at stake. Tell him how important it is to you, to him, and to his little girl for the two of you to work towards a new, more respectful relationship.
  • Admit that it's hard to step out of the old parent/child dynamic. Let him know that this isn't a failing on his part; you also have to work at seeing him as a father and as a man. Not feeling blamed, he might be more willing to do his part, too.
  • Be a power of example. Don't take "Mom" liberties. Stop yourself from suggesting a "better" way. Don't assume you know more. Don't limit your conversation to grandma stuff. Telling them about your work, activities with friends, how you feel about current events will help them see a broader you.

If your son is resistant to conversation, start the process with a heartfelt letter. Keep editing it, to make sure that the centered, mature you is addressing the adult in him.

If you at least name the problem and begin to assert your right to be treated as a person, your son might begin to see you in a new light. At the very least, being more proactive will help you be a more secure -- and happier -- grandma.

Have a family question for Melinda Blau? Tweet #DearFamilyWhisperer or email DearFamilyWhisperer@familywhispering.com. Check back next week to see if your question is featured! Real names will not be used, no topics off limits. Adults and children welcome. These columns are brief. You'll find more on this topic in FAMILY WHISPERING, co authored by Melinda and (the late) Tracy Hogg. Also check out the website: FamilyWhispering.com and follow @MelindaBlau.