Confronting Less Than Grand Grandparents

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Hi, Whit:

My parents and my husband’s parents live close to us (mine, around 20 minutes, and his, within an hour), so we are lucky, especially since we have a two-year old daughter, “Kelsey.” Both sets of grandparents have been around for Kelsey’s birthdays, and we can easily go to both houses for Christmas/Hanukkah, Thanksgiving, Mother’s Day, etc. This should be the ideal set-up, right? But it’s not.

The problem is that my husband’s parents don’t really seem that interested in Kelsey. They are generous with birthday and holiday gifts, but they don’t spend much time with her. Even though they are all retired, only my parents are available if we need some help with her. To be honest, we have never asked my husband’s parents because they have never volunteered or indicated any willingness along those lines. They even want to be called “Grandmother and Grandfather” instead of much more affectionate names like “Nana and Pop-pop.”

What really bothers me is that I want my daughter (and any subsequent kids) to know all of their grandparents and have a strong connection like I did with my grandparents. I want her to feel special and loved by my husband’s parents like she does with mine.

I’ve wanted to talk to them so that they know how I feel, but my husband doesn’t see any point because, as he says, “They are just different people” than my parents. I feel like I ought to do something since it’s a question of how her life is going to be with them. I just can’t forget about it because I don’t want her to miss out on something so important. What do you think I should do?

Wants the Best for her Daughter

Dear Wants:

What I think you should do is to refrain from speaking to your in-laws about the way they behave toward your daughter (and especially what they want to be called by Kelsey) Talking to them can only make them feel that you disapprove of them as grandparents, which, of course, will only make them more hesitant to do anything with or for Kelsey.

Don’t use your experience as a granddaughter as the be all and end all of your daughter’s relationship with her grandparents. They are all “different people,” as your husband put it. Don’t try to force your memories into your daughter’s realities. It’s a fool’s errand that parents should resist making, no matter how fond they are of those places in the past.

Children will develop their own feelings, views, and sometimes names for their grandparents. How many times have toddlers originated the names for their grandparents, despite others’ determined efforts? Let her grandparents be who they are with Kelsey, even if they aren’t what you want or expect.

Take my own case as an example of how grandparents’ “best laid schemes…gang aft agley.” No matter how hard my grandmother tried to get me to call her “Granny,” I produced “Gunny,” which stuck, and gave me practice for when I addressed gunnery sergeants in the Marine Corps years later.

A particularly memorable line from an 80s TV show The Wonder Years comes to mind. When the father starts to draw comparisons between his past and his son’s present (as many parents are wont to do), the boy stops him. In frustration he blurts, “It’s my life, not yours!”

My point is this: don’t try to make your daughter’s life a repeat of yours. She is a different person from you, just as her grandparents are different people from your parents and your grandparents.

By all means, do what you think is best for her, but realize that what was best for you isn’t necessarily the same. In fact, given all of the changed circumstances, you really can’t realistically apply your expectations to her situation.

Maybe this slight variation on Santayana’s oft-quoted aphorism will help: “Those who remember the past are condemned to believe they can repeat it.” You can’t. Stop trying.

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  1. Maybe the grandparents don’t want to force themselves on you. Ask them to babysit, they may be delighted at the idea. They may feel you are shutting them out and don’t want to cause a conflict. Everyone loses when there is no communication and everyone assumes.

    • Excellent points about assuming and not communicating, HM. The LW’s kind of communication is, “Why don’t you do what I want you to do?” instead of “What would you like to do?” Listening is always better than assuming.

  2. I think you should wait and see how things evolve as your daughter gets older. Some people are just not “baby people” and feel uncomfortable trying to relate to very young children, especially if they are not their own. It’s also possible that your in-laws are being very careful not to step on your toes. You say they are “not available” to help out, but they could be sitting there waiting to be asked and assuming you don’t think enough of them to put your child in their care.

    • Very perceptive comment, No. What could be at work is two different kinds of intra-family communication. One set of grandparents sees its volunteering as being helpful, and the other sees waiting as being respectful.

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