When I first had a baby, I asked everyone I knew for advice about navigating the relationships between me and my parents and my in-laws. I was surprised by how dramatically those relationships changed, practically overnight, after my husband and I became parents. We were no longer the children…our child was. Expectations changed too. For instance, we were now expected to host family holidays and other visits rather than traveling to our parents as we’d always done. I felt an unspoken shift in the power dynamic as well; we controlled access to the thing they cared most about: their first grandchild.
I won’t sugarcoat it: based on my experience and that of all of my close friends, this transition usually doesn’t go smoothly. Almost every mom I know admits that when grandparents come to visit, they end up bringing unwanted toys, enabling bad behavior, getting kids off schedule and spoiling them with sweets, often making the already strung-out mom’s job even harder. My midwife told me an anecdote about one of her clients whose mother-in-law came to visit after her grandchild was born. The grandmother told the new mom, days after delivery, that she would hold the baby while the healing mother cleaned the bathroom. There are at least two things wrong with this offer, but unfortunately the sentiment is fairly common. Most grandparents are so focused on and excited about their role as grandparents that their role as parents takes a back seat.
Obviously, everyone is entitled to decide where they place their priorities, but hear me out. If you, as a grandparent, decide to focus on your grown children during the first few difficult years that they’re parenting babies and toddlers, you will strengthen that relationship for a lifetime. You will avoid so much of the strain, hurt feelings and resentment that’s unfortunately so common today within families. And you’ll set the tone for a wonderfully healthy, loving relationship with your grandchildren as they get older.
I’ve given a lot of thought to this transition from my perspective as a new mom, and I’m sad to see how prevalent the rifts and resentments are that stem from them. The fact is, some of the stress is inevitable, but I’m convinced that most of the conflict is very avoidable. Below are a few practical suggestions for navigating the new relationship with your child and their partner to minimize conflict and improve communication,
1. Prioritize the support they need, not the support you want to give. It’s only natural that when grandparents come to visit, they want to spend time with their grandchildren, but it would go a long way to also consider what their parents need. Do they want a break from cooking and cleaning to spend some quality time with their children? Do they need a break from kids to run errands or have a date night? Do they need someone to take their older children to the library so they can get quality time with the baby? You could ask what they need, or better yet, make a few offers and see what they take you up on. Sometimes it’s hard to ask for help, after all.
2. Don’t create more work. The parents of children, particularly young children, are exhausted and overwhelmed. And in today’s world of social media, the pressure to make it all look easy and go above-and-beyond is enormous. In most cases, they probably feel like they’re barely getting by, much less getting everything done on their mental to-do lists. The simple act of adding guests to the mix, however helpful and low maintenance they are, automatically creates more work and planning for the parents. One of the best ways to avoid feelings of resentment is to mitigate that impact as much as possible. For instance, offer to bring food with you when you visit and/or coordinate ordering and picking up takeout meals. Help with preparing and cleaning up after meals. If you’re staying overnight, treat your “check out” like you would an Airbnb: strip the sheets off the beds, put your used towels in the washing machine and take out your trash. This might not be behavior that was modeled for you by your elders, but I urge you to try whatever version of this feels authentic and manageable for you. Even small gestures can go a long way.
3. Get informed about their parenting approach. If you plan to take an active (or more active) role in helping with your grandchildren, having a solid understanding of their daily life is critical. This doesn’t mean you need to check parenting books out of the library! But it does mean having a basic foundation for things like how your grandchildren are put to sleep, what they are/aren’t allowed to eat, their daily schedule, their nighttime routine, how much screen time they can have and whether or not they get disciplined. An easy way to begin is simply to ask their parents, without judgement or comparison to how you raised your children.
Be prepared to take notes; parents today are inundated with new and old parenting methods, expert opinions and the latest research results ranging from vaccine interactions to speech development…and that’s just on Instagram. Within two weeks of having my first baby, my husband and I saw a midwife, chiropractor, occupational therapist, lactation consultant and pediatric dentist specializing in tongue ties — all of whom shared different opinions, suggestions and resources to find out more information. And that was for a healthy baby! As a result, it’s easy to accidentally become an expert on any number of topics and trends as a new parent and to become particular about how your children are raised and what they’re exposed to.
It’s a tremendous help when grandparents can help reinforce good habits and maintain a sense of continuity and predictability that help children feel safe. For instance, my mom knows that we’re trying to encourage language development with our toddler, so when we pick her up, we say, “up, up, up!” My mom adopted that phrase and also says “down, down, down” when she’s done holding her. And that’s so important. Grandparents can create so many new traditions and habits and memories with their grandchildren without undermining the foundation set by the parents.
4. Be conscientious about gift giving. Sadly, I think one of the most common points of contention among my friends is the amount and type of gifts given by grandparents to their kids A friend of mine told me recently that her husband has been getting increasingly agitated about the gifts his mom brings to their two sons when she visits. After many warnings, she arrived at their house for a visit with tons of presents in hand. Her husband immediately stormed out of the house with the gifts, took them out to the street and left them on the curb. In this situation, everybody means well but the conflict and tension are completely avoidable.
The first step comes from tip number three: get familiar with their parenting style. Whether or not they’ve shared gift-giving “rules” or preferences with you, knowing what they value as parents will only help you buy gifts that their children will use. For instance, if the family is modeling a Montessori approach, they likely don’t want the children to be inundated with toys; instead, the children have access to a few toys that are rotated in and out of circulation regularly. These parents might prefer that you give the toys directly to them to put into circulation gradually rather than the children receiving a bundle of new toys at once; in this case, it’s less about what you’re giving the children than how you’re giving it. But the what can be important too; some children have learning and/or sensory needs to take into consideration. And there’s always the issue of duplicates; this year, my daughter received four xylophones for her birthday.
Although on the surface the act of gift giving seems straightforward, it’s actually quite complicated and should be given the consideration it deserves. I urge you to have the conversation and ask questions to understand motives. A little compromise might be necessary, but ultimately, the end result will be happy children, parents and grandparents.
5. If conflict arises, seek professional advice. The transitions of becoming parents or grandparents are challenging — life altering — although as a society we don’t always honor them the way we should. Typically, we receive a few Hallmark cards, maybe read a book as preparation and consider our work done. But these transition can be incredibly triggering for people, particularly those who haven’t adequately dealt with experiences and emotions from the past. For instance, a woman see her new role as grandmother as an opportunity to make up for how she raised her own children; she wants to undo what she perceives as her previous shortcomings and prove her worth as a mother and grandmother. Or in another situation, a young man wants his parents involved in the lives of his children, but he’s resentful and angry towards them about his own upbringing; he subconsciously uses the new power dynamic as a way to punish his parents and make them feel inadequate as grandparents. Or a mom who exerts extreme control over her children — their schedules, diets, toys and their relationship with their grandparents — because her own childhood was chaotic and unpredictable; she wants her children to feel because she never did.
Situations like these are complicated and bound to generate extreme emotional responses from everyone involved, even over seemingly trivial conflicts. Until the underlying feelings — inadequacy, guilt, anger, resentment — are resolved, each interaction will carry a painful memory and an unspoken significance as old wounds are reopened and new ones are formed. If you or other family members are struggling to resolve issues, I strongly encourage you to see a therapist. Healing and forgiveness can end cycles of family conflict and help create healthy environments for children. Do it for yourself and for the generations to come.