by Anna Moore
Overlooked at Christmas, ‘squeezed in’ at family events, with months going by between visits to grandchildren… Anna Moore finds out why even loyal grandparents can end up sidelined.
Married for nearly 40 years, a mother of three and a successful educational consultant, Clare comes across as calm and wise, well-practised in the art of careful communication and certainly not someone to let her emotions get the better of her.
And this holds true in all aspects of her life except one – her grandchildren. ‘Just the thought of them can reduce me to jelly,’ says Clare, only half-joking. ‘I know I should feel utterly blessed that there are these two bright, beautiful girls in the world. But I’m also haunted by the fact that I don’t have the relationship with them that I’d hoped for. Months go by between visits and they’re growing up so quickly – and I’m keenly aware that every passing stage is one I’ll never know. Their other granny is a constant presence and I find that very hard to cope with.’
The ‘other granny’ – the maternal grandma – has been involved with the grandchildren since the start. She stayed with the new family after the birth of their first child to ease the adjustment and when her daughter returned to work, she stepped in to provide childcare two days a week. The girls are now aged four and five and this granny is a familiar face at school pick-up time. She knows their ups and downs with friends and teachers, their favourite books and toys, their latest food fads, the clothes they like to wear (and the ones they don’t) and the funny things they say.
‘I know it’s natural that the first person a mother turns to for help will be her own mother,’ says Clare, 62. ‘The other granny also lives closer and doesn’t have a job. But we rarely get invited over – and when I ask my son if they’d like to visit us, they always seem busy and just about squeeze us in. When we go over for family events, I see how relaxed and informal the girls are with their other granny, how attached to her they are. I know it’s positive that they have someone like her in their life – but I always come away feeling upset.’
UK grandparents are more involved and ‘hands on’ with their grandchildren than ever before. Nearly two thirds provide some kind of childcare and a recent study from Oxford University found that regular contact with grandparents helps create happier children and well-adjusted adolescents. But grandparent duties are rarely distributed equally. Research shows that grandparents on the mother’s side, especially the grandma, typically enjoy double the contact and are also more likely to be identified as ‘best’ by the grandchildren.
It’s hardly surprising that Clare’s pain is echoed elsewhere. On forums and problem pages, grandparents describe feeling sidelined and ‘second best’, being passed over again at Christmas, or logging on to Facebook only to see their grandchildren on yet another day out with their other grandparents. On one grandparenting website, under the headline Are You The Left-Out Grandparent?, a grandma describes attending the birth of her first grandchild. While the maternal granny was in the room for the birth, the paternal grandparents drove two hours only to have to wait in the lobby. ‘After a couple of hours we got a quick peek at the baby while his partner’s mother hovered over. We left after ten minutes and headed back home. I felt like an intruder, as if I had stopped in to see an acquaintance.’
No one, it seems, is immune. According to reports, even Prince Charles has complained that he ‘almost never’ sees his grandchildren – while George and Charlotte spend a great deal of time with the Middletons. When the Duchess of Cambridge struggled with extreme morning sickness, it was her mother Carole who took charge and after George’s birth Kate decamped to the Middleton family home. Carole accompanied the young family when they moved to Anmer Hall in Norfolk and was there to look after the children when William and Kate attended their first official engagement. It was also Carole who orchestrated George’s third birthday party. (Charles went along as a guest.)
Prince Charles could barely contain his excitement about being a grandparent – days before George’s birth, he asked a ladies’ circle in South Wales for ‘any hints’ on how to do it well. He refurbished a treehouse and shepherd’s cottage for George and Charlotte to play in at Highgrove which have remained empty. ‘Charles feels rather left out,’ confirmed a family friend. ‘He has very little time with his grandchildren and I know he gets upset about it because he has said so. He feels William spends more time with the Middletons than he does with his own family.’
Jackie Highe, the former agony aunt on grannynet.co.uk and author of The Modern Grandparent’s Guide, confirms that this is a ‘very common problem. There’s nothing like having grandchildren for the first time,’ she says. ‘You feel this great rush of love, just as you did when your own child was born. But there’s a poignancy and an urgency – you’re older, you no longer have your whole life ahead of you, you have less time with them.’ And this precious time is often guarded and allocated by others. It comes with conditions and boundaries – and there are other grandparents with an equal claim. ‘You’re going to feel passionate and emotional – and it’s quite normal to feel jealous and possessive,’ says Highe.
According to Highe, the paternal grandparents are the most likely to feel second best. After all, as the ‘kin keeper’, it is the mother who usually makes family decisions. ‘And with the best will in the world, a daughter-in-law cannot feel towards you the same way she does towards her own mother,’ says Highe. ‘If she’s got a problem, if she wants support, her mum is probably the most natural person to phone. If you’re the paternal grandparents, try very hard not to see this as a rejection. Don’t take it personally.’
Other times, the sidelining could be down to different factors. ‘It could be a simple question of proximity, or that one set of grandparents is more pushy,’ says Highe. ‘It could be that one is younger or healthier or more mobile. Perhaps one of the grandparents had a difficult relationship with their child and is now inclined to keep a distance.’
This seems to be the case for Sally, 60. Her daughter’s teenage years were rocky and they never had the time or space to fully recover.
‘Emily went to college miles away in London and rarely came back,’ says Sally. ‘Her teens had been horrendous – she rebelled in every way possible and calls from the local police in the early hours were not unusual. She has grown up into a lovely, successful young woman but there’s still a tension between us. I find myself treading on eggshells and feel that everything I do annoys her.’
Now married with a six-year-old son, Emily and her husband have settled close to their in-laws. ‘They visit us once or twice a year,’ says Sally, ‘and never invite us to their house. If we are going to be anywhere near, we ask if we can stop by. It’s a three-hour drive and when we get there, we’re never offered a meal, just a cup of tea. Within these parameters, we’ve tried to get to know our grandson as best we can. We Skype him, we send little cards, we try to follow his interests. The fact that his other granny seems to be a much-loved regular visitor makes it doubly hard.’
So what should you do if you find yourself sidelined? First – and most important – think tactically and act tactfully. If your objective is to see more of the grandchildren, the worst way to achieve it is to cause a scene or fall out with the parents.
‘If you accuse or moan, then you put the parents on the defensive and you’ve got a situation,’ warns Highe. ‘Don’t wait to be asked. Lay some ideas down. Try, “Can we offer to have the children for the weekend while you two have time away, or do some decorating?” Or say, “I know we don’t get to see the children as much because we work/live further away, but we’d love to see more of them.”
‘If you have offered and been refused, then maybe you can sit down with your own child and have a word,’ Highe continues. ‘Even then, it’s not about pushing for what you want but about what the children will get from you; about the memories you want to build, the stories you’d like to pass on.’
Suzie Hayman, agony aunt and author of How To Have A Happy Family Life, agrees this is crucial. ‘Talk to the parents about the opportunities: how the children benefit from having another adult who cares for them, is close to them but isn’t the parent. Say, “I’m here to support, what can I do?”’
At the same time, try not to set yourself up in competition with the other grandparents. This can create pain and bitterness, family breakdown, winners and losers.
‘Making comparisons is very dangerous,’ warns Hayman. ‘It’s not about competing, but finding your niche, making your own relationship. As children get older, they make their own decisions over who they connect with best. My grandma was either in South Africa or Israel when I was little and only moved to the UK when I was 16. She died ten years later, and for four of those years I was away at university. Yet she was the most important person in my life – I adored her. Something clicked between us. She was interesting; she bought art and my tastes were framed by her. She talked to me as an equal.
‘Look at what your grandchild is interested in and think about what you have to offer,’ Hayman continues. ‘It’s about finding what you can share, ways to connect – not comparing your relationship with others.’
Highe agrees. ‘You have to be the person you are,’ she says. ‘Text them, WhatsApp them. Get on Snapchat, send little cards. Nothing long, just let them know you’re thinking of them.’
Use the same strategies to stay connected to your children. If you spend time with them, find practical ways to be helpful and let them know you’re thinking of them, they’ll be more inclined to include you in grandparenting duties.
‘Grandchildren don’t discriminate,’ says Highe. ‘They’ll love you just as much.’ And research suggests that while the maternal grandma tends to be the closest in the early years, as the grandchildren grow and make their own connections and decisions, other relationships find room to bloom.
DOS AND DON’TS
● Do think long term, especially in the months after the birth. This is when maternal grannies are more likely to become permanent fixtures while paternal grandparents might remain at arm’s length. Remember, the baby won’t know or care who changed the nappies or did the night shifts.
● Don’t take it personally: often it’s not about you. Keep in mind the range of likely factors: including distance, practicalities and thoughtlessness on the part of the parents who are adapting to a mammoth life change.
● Do offer to help. Don’t wait to be asked or invited. Explain that you’d love to support them and how that will benefit your grandchild – offer suggestions and put dates in the diary.
● Don’t create a scene. Resist moaning or accusing, however unhappy you are. The most likely result will be a strained, more difficult relationship than you have already.
● Do find your niche. Look at your grandchild’s interests and character and find ways to connect. Think about what you have to offer – whether it’s a home in a city close to museums and galleries or a country bolt-hole; a love of gardening and baking or cars and fashion.
● Don’t compare or view this as a competition. Avoid dwelling on the other grandparents’ role and what they do and don’t have. Focus on your relationship with your grandchild, not theirs.
● Do remember to work on the relationship with your children, too. If they continue to feel loved and supported by you, a stronger bond with your grandchildren is far more likely to follow.
By Suzie Hayman