Question: I’ve read some of your work on building relationships with your in-laws, and I wanted your input on my situation. It’s simple — my daughter-in-law does not like me! She allows her parents to babysit all the time and never asks me. She says I am too old, and seems to think I cannot care for her child well. But I raised her wife. Of course I can care for children! My daughter is on her wife’s side. She’s always making excuses.
Answer: Since I know neither you nor your daughter-in-law, I cannot comment on the specifics of your situation. But I can tell you that according to National Study of Jewish Grandparents, about twenty percent of us wish that we were more involved in the lives of our grandchildren, but complicated family relationships preclude that option. I doubt it is much consolation for you right now, but others are in the same boat. However, this statistic does illustrate that foundational to any closeness with our grandchildren is cordial relationships with our children and their spouses. I might add this includes with ex-spouses and partners, too, since the divorced parent may have some custody rights of the grandchildren and thus be the gatekeeper of their calendars.
In any relationship, we can only control our own behavior, and never the behavior of the other person. Painful though it may be, you will need to ask if there is a grain of truth in the comments of your daughter-in-law. While many of even the oldest grandparents are still climbing mountains and living active lives, they may not be able to spring into action from the floor in the nanosecond it takes for a toddler to tumble, or their hearing may not be as acute as it used to be. Older people can adapt, but the younger person may focus on seeing the deficits. It is possible you are indeed capable, healthy and active but not in your daughter-in-law's eyes. In one sense this is like a job you or any of us have applied for in which we are well qualified, but the company chooses someone else. In this situation, the rejection hurts acutely because, unlike a job, we anticipated we would be considered qualified by dint of our relationship with one of the parents.
You will also need to ask yourself if you have done anything in the past to warrant the dislike of your daughter-in-law. Reflect on your own behavior, and assess the ratio of compliments to criticisms in your conversations with your daughter-in-law. Ask yourself, honestly, if your comments tend toward criticism. If so, try to change your own mindset by starting to be more curious instead! How does her family behave differently from you? Why? Are there aspects of their behavior you could emulate? You might also ask your daughter how you might be useful and how you can improve your relationship with her wife. You might even ask the couple outright if you have offended them. If so, acknowledge your mistake, apologize and then change your behavior. Even though you may dispute their interpretation of past words or events, you can apologize for your part in the misunderstandings. You can be open with them that you need input! Communication is a mixture of words, actions, interpretation and all the intervening events which affect the way the words are interpreted.
Beyond apologizing, it is key to begin building a positive relationship with your daughter-in-law. Remember, unless one has good relationships with the middle generation, it is extremely difficult to have good relationships with the grandchildren. You might begin by applauding your daughter-in-law for caring about the safety of the grandchildren. The very act of doing this reframes the situation. You are not being diminished — she is being a loving and responsible mother. You might then ask the daughter-in-law if there are ways that you can be helpful, or if there are circumstances in which she would feel comfortable letting you be with the grandchildren. Perhaps you could visit, or hire a grandmother’s helper to be with you while you play with the grandchildren. You could also do something with all three generations, or see if you can attend events at the child’s daycare or school. As the child grows, you could offer to attend performances or games. Ask how you can be useful to them. Remember, we change, our kids change and our grandchildren change. What works or does not work today may not be the same in the future.
It will take a while for relationships to morph. In the meantime, you can send notes, pictures and music to your grandchild, and hope that in time both you and your daughter-in-law will grow so that all can have a more satisfying relationship.
Remember all of us have the capacity to grow and change. We can insist that we are in the right, or we can decide to explore how we might reframe the situation. Your children and in-law children will grow as parents, life events sometimes take over, illness and stress enter our lives, and we all feel differently about allowing/welcoming assistance. Your grandchildren will eventually grow up and you will have another chance to contact them directly. All these progressions in our lives give us opportunities to bond in new ways.
You might find it useful to talk with other grandparents and find ways in which they have found repaired past hurts. Your family is not the first to go through an adjustment period. You might also look back and see how you have readjusted friendships and volunteer or work relationships over the years. You can learn from past successes.
One thing is for sure — in dealing with our children we must be brutally honest with ourselves. We no longer are the deciders about the role we will play in the family. Our well meaning efforts can be misinterpreted, just as we can misinterpret others. If nothing else, we can leave a written legacy of love for our grandchildren.
If you have any questions for Dr. Ruth Nemzoff, The American Israelite’s advice columnist, please send them to email@example.com.