Grandparents: A Mixed Blessing

An old joke says that the reason grandparents and grandchildren get along so well is that they have an enemy in common.  Grandparents love to give, children love to receive, and parents may seem to both of them like the enemy of gratification.  Mom becomes the one who says, “No”, grandma the one who says, “Yes”.  At least that’s what it feels like to the parents.

The mother of a two year old spoke to me recently about feeling stressed by a visit from her husband’s parents.  In-laws are a subject in themselves, as all the mother-in-law jokes can testify.  Although there certainly are important differences in the way parents feel about their in-laws compared to their own parents, their feelings about them as grandparents have many similarities.

Listening to this mother I was struck by the universality of her complaints.  Working with parents over many years, I recognize familiar words and themes.  But as a grandmother myself, I have also experienced and heard from other grandparents the other side of that same set of feelings.  As a friend of mine said, “The grandchildren are wonderful; it’s their parents who are the problem.”

What I hear a lot from mothers is the feeling of being undermined and criticized by grandma.  The mother I refer to above was angry that grandma gave her daughter soda and let her watch tv, two things mom had made clear were not allowed.  When the grandmother later said to the child, “Mommy says no,” the mother felt she was being made the bad guy, and that this response undermined her authority.  The implication (and the reality) was that grandma would allow it – it’s mom who won’t.

A grandmother I spoke to said, “Our children are so sensitive.  They think they’re being judged all the time. But actually, they are judging us all the time.”  Apparently, both mothers and grandmothers each feel judged and criticized by the other.  And maybe they are.  But what is this really all about?

Many mothers say that while they appreciate the help of grandparents, they have more work afterwards getting their children back to the parents’ own rules and routines.  But this generational conflict runs deeper than the conventional wisdom that grandparents like being indulgent, while parents have the real responsibility of daily life.

     This truism is a surface reality which speaks to the more profound changes that are taking place.  Having a child becomes musical chairs in which everyone moves up a place.  The child is now the PARENT.  Instead of being the child of your parent you are now the parent of your child.   Our own feelings of dependency are challenged by having someone who is dependent on us.  The feeling of being responsible for another life becomes central.

The idea that one is no longer the CHILD is difficult both for new parents and for their parents.  Grandparents may feel that their experienced words of wisdom should be heeded.  But when they expect the parents to listen to their advice they are making them children again – which is kind of unnerving when you are trying so hard to be a parent.  New parents are working hard to win their parent credentials, while grandparents may be trying to hold on to their own.

In many ways this is a continuation of the developmental process in which children move toward greater independence and struggle to establish their own identity.  For parents there is always the question of whether to hold back or to let go.  There appears to be a universal impulse to protect one’s children, which often becomes trying to keep them from making what seem to parents to be painful mistakes. 

Grandparents want their children to learn from their (the grandparents’) experience – just as they wanted them to when they were growing up.  Parents often are trying to correct the things they think were wrong in their own upbringing.  Grandparents get this, and they often take it as a criticism of themselves.  Both parents and grandparents often use the same words in talking about being made to feel incompetent by the other.

Parents are learning how to be parents – just as their parents had to learn.  And grandparents have to learn how to be grandparents.  That learning is the hardest part.  What grandparents can’t stand is feeling that the parents are learning at the expense of their grandchildren.  What is hardest for parents is what they experience as a lack of respect for their role as parents.

Perhaps the important lesson for grandparents is to let their children learn in their own way.  For parents who have fond memories of their relationship with their own grandparents, perhaps they can derive comfort from knowing that their children may also have such memories in the years to come.

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