The Dark Side of Grandmothering
By Victoria Duncan

Round up a bunch of mothers of adult children and the conversation eventually turns to the subject of grandchildren. Now, crank it up a notch so that the same group of women also happens to be comprised of mental health therapists from varying disciplines. Bring them together at a professional conference for a workshop entitled “The Grandmother Journey.” Mix it up and see what happens.
Facilitated by Barbara Graham, author of a soon-to-be-released book about this subject, the workshop touched upon both the delights and the dilemmas of being a grandmother. Dropping below the social chit-chat of the very real pleasures of grandchildren, these 35 or so women introduced themselves in turn. Professional masks slid away as they confided their stories and challenges.
The barely acknowledged dark side of grandparenting is an almost taboo subject. It is the not-so-pretty stuff that suggests concerns about insecurity, role confusion, boundaries, fear of abandonment, economics and competition. Nope, you won’t find these themes on a Hallmark card or in a fluffy article about 12 patriotic crafts to do with your grandchildren on the Fourth of July.
As the conversation turns serious, Sherry’s comments bring the first round of heads nodding in agreement. In her excitement on the birth of her first grandchild, Sherry experienced unexpected grief at what she calls the true ending of her daughter’s childhood. Thinking that she resolved these feelings when her daughter married several years ago, Sherry now enjoys her freedom and reduced responsibility. Yet, something about the passing of the mantle of motherhood speaks to her of a poignant finality mixed with nostalgia for her own early mothering days.
Encouraged by Sherry’s candor, several therapists participating lamented the absence of any appropriate role models to guide them. Yesterday’s grandmother probably did not work outside the home and many lived nearby. Today our grown children may have more or less expectations for grandparents and perhaps view us more as peers rather than the authority figures we saw in our own parents. This muddies the waters and leads to role confusion when we step into grandparenting our children’s children.
Paternal grandmothers most frequently blamed their concerns on the often delicate and tenuous relationship between a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. They spoke about the experience of walking a thin line between offering support, but not being intrusive, and backing off at the risk of being labeled disinterested or uncaring. It’s a dance that is difficult to learn, dicey at best and impossible to master, but very worth working at because it is the only way to keep your family close.
Janet confessed that she felt painfully left out as she sat in the waiting room during her grandson’s delivery whereas her daughter-in-law’s mother witnessed the birth and held the baby at length during his first hour of life. Only after mom and baby settled in their room and finished the first feeding was Janet able to secure a few precious moments to see her new grandchild, while the maternal grandmother remained as a watchful presence. Although Janet empathized with her daughter-in-law’s need for privacy and accepted that this experience was not about her own feelings, it still stings, but remains unsaid, that one grandmother alone received such privilege. More importantly, from the get-go, Janet believes that this set a precedent for which grandmother would be most important in this baby’s life.
With tears in eyes, Susan relates virtually losing the right to even see her new granddaughter. During the pregnancy, the maternal grandmother-to-be unexpectedly passed away. Rather than drawing closer to her husband’s family, her daughter-in-law found Susan to be a painful reminder of the loss of her mother. With the baby now six months old, Susan’s overtures and offers resulted in a cold and stony refusal for visits, leaving a gaping hole in Susan’s heart and helpless feelings of loss and grief.
Just when it appears that maternal grandmothers occupy the cat bird seat of complacency and contentment, Deborah speaks up. The problem with being a maternal grandmother is that the mother-daughter relationship is so loaded with expectations on both sides. In her case, Deborah prided herself on raising two independent daughters. Now, she reflected that perhaps she did her job too well as her expectations of being a hands-on grandmother are rebuffed. On the other hand, Sylvia struggles to balance the needs of her therapy clients, her own aging mother and her daughter’s expectations for Sylvia to help raise her autistic grandson. She revealed that she often feels criticized unjustly despite her sincere efforts to be supportive.
The talk continued with issues facing all who are present, such as struggles dealing with our own aging and ambivalence about how much we should be involved as grandparents. We question how to handle differences of opinions about childrearing with our adult children. We ache to be consulted; but fear giving opinions. And, of course, we talk of our deep and abiding joy for these precious little people who capture our hearts.
Sometimes the voiced concerns surround the question of how many, if any, grandchildren will arrive. Sandy owned up to being a grandma-wannabe and fretted that her daughter, who is so involved in a demanding career, will choose not to have children thus depriving Sandy of a role she desires. Josephine was disappointed when she discovered that there would be no more grandchildren than the one living on the other side of the country. And Lorraine, an involved grandmother to six, worries that she may have nothing left for the newest grandchild on the way.
Then, there are the complicated family situations that comprise contemporary life. Diane’s son and daughter-in-law divorced and then each remarried, bringing two more step-grandmothers into the equation, further dividing time and loyalty. Lydia explained that her gay son and his partner used an egg donor, sperm from each partner, and a surrogate mother to birth their child. All of these players claim a place in her granddaughter’s life so she wonders how to relate to each of them, as well as to her granddaughter. And how is Theresa to make peace with her home being used as a drop-off zone between her son and his ex-girlfriend as they bitterly exchange custody of her two-year-old granddaughter each week?
Distance and proximity are two sides of the same coin and both may create trials. Some budding families live almost next door which, while convenient, can test the ties that bind. Adult children living at a great distance from the grandparents pose different challenges. When it is far and expensive to travel, visits can be too infrequent, too costly and sometimes even too lengthy when either party overstays. All along the spectrum of distance, families negotiate, modify and continue to try to get it right—-or at least try to not get it wrong as far as visitations go.
Finally, consider what we might call the dirty little secret of grandmotherhood: competition with the other grandmother. In some cases, economics evoke insecurity when one grandmother enjoys greater financially security and can afford more treats. Laurie summed this up by admitting that she feels caught up in a sibling rivalry cascade of emotions, Mary agrees and discloses that she senses an “uncomfortable and unwelcome popularity contest unlike anything since high school.” She wants no part of this competitiveness, but finds it nearly impossible to avoid. Despite an uneasy agreement between the paternal and maternal grandmothers that the competitive edge belongs to the mother’s family, grandmothers from each side of the fence confess to feelings of rivalry on more occasions than they like to admit.
As the workshop concluded, our facilitator, Barbara Graham, read from her book, Eye of My Heart: 27 Writers Reveal the Pleasures and Perils of Being a Grandmother. The book, rising out of the author’s own experience, wrestles with the issues that we discussed and, as well, honors the loving and funny moments that accompany the role of grandmother. The book was due out last month, and it promises to reveal the true stories that usually remain untold. If the successful writers who have contributed essays are as honest and gutsy as the women in my workshop, this is book to track down and read.
No, you won’t find many of these issues in greeting cards or in sappy sentiments. However, articulating these concerns allows us to stretch ourselves beyond clichés and stereotypes to more fully and authentically embrace this complicated, joyful, frustrating, awesome, and important role. Speaking candidly of this dark side of grandparenting brings these concerns into the light of day, away from the shady corners of shame and denial, letting us know that we are not alone in our challenges, and giving us strength and joy for the journey.
Lessons from “The Grandmother Journey” workshop:
• Being a grandmother is a multifaceted, crazy, complex, and rich experience
• Therapists, trained in communication and relationship skills, also face challenges in this role
• Old baggage and challenges may be triggered in these new relationships
• We’re not alone. Other grandmothers struggle with similar issues.
• It’s not about us. This is our child’s journey, we are not in control, and our role is to let go once again.
• Outdated role models no longer suffice. Our job is to forge and nurture new types of relationships with our children and grandchildren.
• Our fierce and deep love for our children and grandchildren trump the challenges.
To attend a similar study group:
• The Osher Lifelong Institute at American University in Washington, DC, offers a non-credit course in contemporary grandparenting. For more information, the Web site is

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