Grand-Parenting: beware of skipping a generation

The story of Helen who had put all of her focus on her relationship with her grandchild and had stopped working on having an adult relationship with her son

Helen had awaited the birth of her first grandchild with excited anticipation. She had begun shopping for baby items and imagining holding this little piece of her own genetic make-up in her arms. Life was going to change for Helen. She had reduced her work hours and looked forward to being an active grandmother who looked after her son’s child a few times a week. She wondered what the child would be called — would her name be in there somehow? Would this little one call her Nanna or Gran?

When I first met Helen she reported that her life was falling apart. Her grandson was nearly one and she barely got to see him. Her son, Aaron, would bring him for short visits but not leave him with her. Her daughter-in-law, Sarah, was not speaking with her and had given the impression that Helen wasn’t welcome to visit. What had gone so wrong at a life transition full of so many positive dreams?

I asked Helen about how she saw the problem that meant she wasn’t feeling like she could be a grandmother. ‘It’s all Sarah’s fault,’ she said. ‘She’s so possessive and controlling of Aaron and is taking away my rights as a grandmother. I tell Aaron that it’s just not acceptable. My life feels like it’s been ruined by this awful girl.’

As Helen sobbed in my office I wondered how to help her think her way out from this hurt and blaming position. I asked her about her relationship with her son since he had married. How often had they had contact and what kind of things had they shared with each other? ‘Aaron has seemed distant to me for years now,’ Helen answered. ‘He’s been very dutiful in visiting me but he doesn’t let me in on what’s happening in his life. He didn’t tell me about his relationship with Sarah until he’d already proposed to her.’

I asked what Helen’s response was to the news of his marriage. She replied, ‘I was thrilled about the marriage. I’d worried that he was leaving things too late to settle down and start a family of his own. My first thoughts were that finally my son was going to give me grandchildren. I’ve looked forward to this moment for all my life.’

Helen’s responses revealed that she had put all of her focus on her relationship with her grandchild and had stopped working on having an adult relationship with her son. Clearly Aaron had not made it easy for her by keeping a dutiful but distant relationship, but Helen had certainly played her part in this superficial relationship. Rather than working at being interested in Aaron’s life as opposed to pursuing him, Helen had put all of her relationship energy into planning for grandparenting. It isn’t surprising that the intensity of these expectations, combined with the distance between mother and son, led to an upset between Helen and her daughter-in-law Sarah.

Initially Helen wanted to get Sarah to come to counselling so that she could be ‘sorted out’. But as she began to see how Sarah had become caught in a triangle because of what had not been addressed between herself and her son, Helen decided to invite Aaron to come to a session to talk things through. Aaron was keen to get some help as he was feeling like the meat in the sandwich between his wife and his mother. He acknowledged that he had been more focused on keeping the peace with both these important women in his life than in defining his own views to them. Helen’s efforts went onto shifting her focus away from her grandson and back to her own son. She could see how much she’d assumed about her role as grandmother without asking Aaron what he thought. Helen also could see that she had put too many relationship eggs into one basket and needed to invest some energy in her broader network of friends and family. One of her biggest challenges was to stop using her friends as allies to take her side against her daughter-in-law. This triangle detour had helped her to temporarily feel better but had certainly not helped her to address her own part in the difficulties.

At any phase of life our immaturities can be assessed by asking ourselves how much we gain strength through being needed by others or through knowing ourselves and being steadied by our principles. How much do we use children, grandchildren or work to steady us instead of taking responsibility for our own growth?

*When I think about relating to grandchildren, do I override the importance of working on my relationship with my son or daughter?

* Adult children – if you are experiencing tension with your parents – ask yourself how well have you been making genuine contact with them?  Dr Bowen’s quote speaks well to this:

‘There are also those who kid themselves into believing they have “worked out” the relationship with parents and who make brief formal visits home without personal communication; they use as evidence of maturity that they do not see their parents.’

Bowen, M. 1978, Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, Jason Aronson, New York, p. 494.

This blog is an excerpt from Jenny’s book “Growing Yourself Up” Chap.  14. Ageing well Retirement, the empty nest, relating to a third generation

When worrying about a child gets out of hand

Sarah* was a competent health professional. She had years of experience assisting families with their children’s development. In her work life, Sarah was steady and confident. At home with her 3 young children it was a different picture. Sarah was gripped by anxiety about her 6 month old child. She was fearful that her son might have a disability and as a result was constantly monitoring, looking for indications of such a problem. Any number of things became evidence of her fear: when he didn’t sustain eye contact, when he was slow to smile, when he seemed to prefer rolling in one direction, when he was restless….and so the list of possible signs expanded. Sarah had begun to do particular therapy exercises with her son to address any possible delays in his development.

Chatting to Sarah revealed that she previously had similar anxieties with her other children during their first year of life but this current period of anxiety was much more intense and influencing her mood and capacity to maintain her life tasks. I asked Sarah what she could see were the effects of looking for signs of something wrong with her baby boy. She acknowledged that looking for problems wasn’t reassuring her; rather it was providing endless possible confirmations for her worries. As she asked herself “What if there is a disability that needs early intervention?” she was creating a kind of bottomless pit for her anxiety. Sarah had good insight that her monitoring and ‘therapising’ her son was preventing her engaging in simple play and enjoying getting to know her son’s particular preferences and emerging personality. She could also appreciate that. even in the unlikely situation that her child had a factual disability, her anxious parent- child interactions would not be helpful. We discussed how a parent can contribute to an escalating worry cycle where an infant responds reactively to the mother’s intrusive monitoring, which in turn confirms the mother’s worry and increases her fussing around her child, who in turn responds with restless behaviour…and on it goes.

I explored with Sarah what was going on in her important relationships and learned that she had withdrawn from her extended family supports and wasn’t keeping regular conversational connection with her husband. Her elderly father had died a couple of years ago. She had perceived that her mother’s grief meant that she wouldn’t want the load of assisting with her grandchildren. It was likely that this important loss and change in her extended family had added to Sarah’s anxieties with her third child. Certainly Sarah’s growing isolation appeared to be increasing the degree of her fears and her focus on her infant son.

Sarah knew it would be extremely challenging to reduce her worry for her child. There was something quite compelling and steadying for her when she perceived herself as helping her son. She felt stronger as a mother even though she was also frustrated by the effects of her increasing anxiety. Over time Sarah made a range of efforts to break this problematic worry cycle – making herself the priority project, not her child. This involved:

  • Noticing when her thinking was in the ‘WHAT IF?’ category instead of a ‘WHAT NOW?’  factual platform.
  • Noticing how much she was making a ‘fixing’ project out of her child – a project that could become something of a self-fulfilling projection.
  • Working to shift this project back to herself – her self-care, her relating to her husband, her initiating more contact and garnering support from her mother, siblings and friends.
  • Getting clearer about her personal job description as a mother. This was different to being led by every emotion and behaviour in her child.

Today’s parents swim in a sea of anxiety about any number of possible defects and dangers for their children. When I did a Google search on how parents can recognise problems in their child development, 4,960,000 results appeared! Added to this information over-load are the numerous categories where parents can look for problems: Language and Speech Developmental Delays, Vision Developmental Delays, Motor Skill Developmental Delays, Social and Emotional Developmental Delays, Cognitive Developmental Delays….. Such worry generating information can easily drive up the anxiety in many parents. Furthermore a worried parent will significantly influence the parent- child interactions in ways that are likely to confirm their imagined fear. The more a parent is distant in their marriage and/or from their extended family, the more such a worry cycle intensifies. Reversing such a pattern is immensely challenging – it can feel like a denial of the essence of maternal caretaking. Actually, the shift away from focussing anxiously on a child can build a pathway to a more confident expression of a parent’s caretaking instinct and wisdom. It also gives a child valuable enlarged breathing space for their natural growth and development.

*Names and details of this story have been changed