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When Grandparents Are a Grand Mirage

May16

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Advice Smackdown ArchivesDear Amy,

My husband and I have a wonderful 4 year old son who is delightful, curious and full of energy.

A week after he was born, my in-laws announced they were selling their centrally located home and moving around the corner from my sister-in-law and her 2 children. The new home is 90 minutes to 2 hours from any airport and a six to seven hour drive from our house. They spend heaps of time with their other grandchildren.

With us, it is trips every six months for 36 hours that are often canceled the day before or even the morning of because they aren’t “feeling well.” Including the day before his birthday party after they promised to come. While they are aging, they don’t appear to be in frail health.

They recently brought the whole clan to our hometown for a visit and to see us. Okay, really just to do touristy stuff and they stayed 30 miles from our house in a hotel and still expected us to show up for dinner.

Except for when they called 10 minutes after I picked up my son from school to say, oops, no dinner tonight. We’re too tired. And then on the last day, they declined to watch him to a little recital with his cousins, opting instead to have drinks in the hotel bar before dinner.

Now I know I can’t change them. The lack of a relationship with this grandson is their loss.

But how do I cushion the blow to a 4 year old? We’ve tried not telling him when they are planning a visit but they tell him even after we’ve asked them not to. He ends up in tears routinely because they don’t honor their agreements. Unfortunately, we don’t have another set of grandparents to shower him with attention. Is there a book out there “Grandparents Who Don’t Show Up and Seem to Love Your Cousins More?”

Sign me,
Frustrated

You’re absolutely right. It’s their loss. It’s not your job to change them, but yeah, it IS your job to protect your son from their…whatever this is. Flakiness? Cluelessness? General all-around jerkiness?

This, right here, just about broke my damn heart: We’ve tried not telling him when they are planning a visit but they tell him even after we’ve asked them not to. He ends up in tears routinely because they don’t honor their agreements.

Well, you know what, then? They’ve just lost their right to speak directly with your son. Sorry. That’s just…no. At this point, the pattern is clear and established enough for a good ol’ fashioned confrontation-style phone call, the next time they make noises about visits or birthday parties or whatever. “We’re really looking forward to it, but just FYI, we’re not telling Junior that you’re coming because frankly, we’re tired of being the ones to break his heart when you cancel at the last minute, as you’ve done the last (two, three, however many) times.”

*BUT BUT BUT INSERT A DOZEN “VALID” EXCUSES FOR WHY DRINKS AT A HOTEL BAR WERE MORE IMPORTANT THAN A RECITAL AND/OR MYSTERIOUS HEALTH PROBLEMS ETC. ETC.*

“I understand that. But a four-year-old doesn’t.”

If you really can’t bring yourself to be all HAMMER OF THIS ENDS NOW yet, you probably WILL need to figure out how many more chances you plan to give them before you start…well, severing the relationship on your end, too. Because yes, yes, grandparents relationships are wonderful and important…when there IS a relationship in the first place, and when it’s not freaking bordering on emotionally abusive because said grandparents are tone-deaf to playing favorites and/or breaking promises.

Basically, how long do you hope to keep up what is, essentially, a charade for your son? Because he will figure it out at some point. And it might be easier on him if you simply remove all expectations entirely, and stop playing the your-grandparents-are-fun-and-awesome-and-special part on their behalf (“We’re going to see Grandma and Grandpa tonight, yaaay! Oh wait, there’s the phone, dammit.”)

It’d be one thing if you WERE dealing with something temporary — my parents, for example, were not able to be the sort of grandparents they wanted for a long, long time, because of my dad’s very real health problems. They couldn’t visit us, our visits there were frequently canceled because of hospitalizations or a “bad day” or cut short because someone had a cold that could really hurt my father, etc. But still, we kept up…I don’t know. Hope. The idea that Nana and PopPop would one day be able to take them places and be more involved and WERE, in fact, awesome people who loved them more than anything. My dad wasn’t ever able to recover and be all that, but it was not for lack of trying like hell. My mom, now, is ready and able to, so I’m glad we worked hard to keep up a semblance of a relationship even during the rough patches.

Your in-laws don’t get a pass like that. They frankly don’t sound like they deserve one.

I grew up with just one grandmother and she was IT, and she was AWFUL. And I figured it out that she was AWFUL at some point and liked my siblings better than me and yet wasn’t even all that nice to THEM either, if the mood struck her, and…yeah. It hurt. I think my parents did just about everything in their power to shield me from that hurt — they never openly trash-talked her, or anything, but did make sure to keep my expectations low and my contact limited — but it still stung. But I got over it. I was very quickly able to realize that it had NOTHING to do with me or my parents and everything to do with HER, and because I didn’t really hold any grand illusions about my grandmother…yeah. I was fine. Your son will be too, even if this situation never gets any better. Just…keep him out of the line of fire and emotional disappointment, as best you can.

And who knows, maybe if you (or more accurately, YOUR HUSBAND) have a come-to-Jesus moment with them and point out the pattern of broken promises and cancellations and start imposing some CONSEQUENCES (like refusing to hand over the phone to your son or ceasing with the invites or being busy YOURSELVES the next time they make noises about visits)…maybe, just maybe, they will figure out that they are missing more of their grandchild’s life than they realized and falling down on the grandparent job.

I just…wouldn’t count on it, honestly. But it will still be okay. Your son has YOU, and you guys are enough. There’s nothing to be gained by a “relationship” with serial disappointers parading around as beloved, involved grandparents who aren’t earning that reputation.

About the author

Amalah

http://www.amalah.com
Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy's daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it's pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice@gmail.com.

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.


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24 Responses to “When Grandparents Are a Grand Mirage”

  1. *Stevie* May 16 at 5:19 pm Reply Reply

    This. So totally this. This is my husband’s parents to.a.freakin’.t. Even a come-to-Jesus meeting didn’t help them see the light. But I completely agree with the advice given; it’s nothing but detrimental to that little boy and he doesn’t deserve to have his heart broken over and over again by broken dates and promises – that’s for adulthood, not babyhood.

  2. Melissa May 16 at 5:40 pm Reply Reply

    My parents had horrible parents and both left home before 18. So, my siblings and I had no biological grandparent relationships. My parents worked so hard to end the cycle of abuse and one way was to “adopt” our own extended family. Are there people in your life who could step in and be honorary grandparents? If so, embrace that and invite them – you might be surprised at how wonderful honorary family is!

  3. Jeannie May 16 at 8:04 pm Reply Reply

    My situation is similar but not to the same degree — both sets of grandparents on both sides seem to prefer the cousins on each side. It’s mild, and at the moment not IMO damaging to my kids, but if it were you bet I’d be jumping in to protect them. It IS their loss, and they DO need to step up, and you get to protect your son from hurt, so do what you need to. If they start to step up and be better grandparents then you can stop being protective. Until then, I say do what you need to do.

  4. Nanette May 16 at 8:09 pm Reply Reply

    This makes me sad for your sweet boy. My heart breaks at all the heartbreak they’ve caused him. 

    I think Amy’s advice is great here. 

    Too bad there’s no surrogate grandparent program. I’m sure there are so many non-grandparents who would just LOVE a little guy to dote on and spoil and love and love. 

    You’re a good mama, Frustrated. Hang in there!

  5. Emily May 16 at 8:33 pm Reply Reply

    oh but there ARE surrogate grandparents! All the sweet elderly parents in nursing homes that have no one and would love love love to regularly see a little boy! I know, that sounds… weird. Some larger cities have programs for the elderly similar to that. It’s a good way to teach your LO to volunteer too – take them to a home to pass out cookies or something and see if someone takes a shine to them. Someone in relative good health who’s just there because they can’t move about or something. I’m sorry for your little boy! I grew up with very little extended family because my parents moved 20hrs away to find jobs. He’ll be okay over time.

  6. chris May 16 at 10:35 pm Reply Reply

    My mother does a bit of this to my nieces. They live in another country, albeit 2 hours away by plane. My brother even purchases tickets for my mom to visit, but more than half the time, she cancels for some sad excuse. She, on the other hand, will fly across the ocean to come and visit me and my kids for months at a time. Do you know why? Because my SIL is very unpleasant to be around. So much so that my mother finds it incredibly hard to be around her for the sake of her grandchildren. She did it for years, but she cannot take it anymore. So, sorry to be a devil’s advocate, but there are always two sides to the story. If these grandparents were simply not bothered about any of their grandchildren, I would buy this story. My grandparents were like that. When grandparents dote on one set and avoid the other household, it may be time to also examine one’s own behavior. But yes, do shield your child in the meantime, no matter what the cause.

  7. Rachael May 16 at 11:11 pm Reply Reply

    Okay, the sad little boy in the OP? That’s me. :( But my family was worse/more evil, because it wasn’t just the grandparents, but aunts & uncle too. And I was the first Grand Kid born, so for a few years I was the apple of everyone’s eye. Then my aunts/uncles started having kids (my mom was the wild child who got pregnant at 19)…. yeah. No more birthday cards, let alone calls or fun lunch dates or anything. Then the gradually spread out over the country and it was like I DIED. Or the did. ZERO contact of any kind whatsoever.

    I’m not THAT much older than my next youngest cousins – about 12 years. But still. Mega teen angst and pain. There was no rhyme or reason to it, and it’s taken me this long to sort of understand that, you know what? They’re just SELFISH PEOPLE. Out of sight, out of mind. “family” doesn’t have the same meaning to them as it does to me. They are all more wrapped up in their own lives and dramas and don’t give thought to people who don’t register in their world view. =/

    I’m definitely still bitter and hurt over it. But now with my son? Ugggh I will NOT let them do it to him. The worst thing is my Mom sort of KNOWS what happened, in a peripheral sort of way (her powers of denial are epic), but yet she already seems to be repeating it with my son. He was the 1st kid, but already has a cousin. But one who lives in their town……. ugh. And yes, they already cancelled TWO trips out, one of which was on his first birthday party. Yeah. This stuff ends here. I don’t talk to him about my Mom at ALL. Just, no.

  8. Grammy May 17 at 12:53 am Reply Reply

    Grandparents who are so careless and thoughtless deserve no decent treatment. They shouldn’t be allowed any contact with a child they mistreat so badly. What makes them that way? No one with a heart can possibly understand such selfish behavior. So don’t bother to try.
    Amy’s advice is perfect. Your little boy is lucky to have parents who love him so and will protect him from people who should be good to him (and for him) but aren’t.

  9. Minnie May 17 at 8:09 am Reply Reply

    This story could have been written by my mom, almost word for word. My word of consolation is that your 4 year old will not miss a relationship he never had. My brother and I do not resent my grandparents for so obviously preferring my younger cousins over us. Ever since we were cognizant of being also-rans, we were also aware that our grandparents had their own “issues” directing their behavior. (In our case, our grandparents moved away from my parents who were self-sufficient to be close to another child who was very needy–my grandparents like to feel needed.)

    In the end, it is truly their loss. As the oldest granddaughter, I am currently gestating the only great-grandchild they will live to see. My grandmother frequently complains to my mom that they don’t see me often enough and that I don’t include them in my life…my mom is too kind to point out that 27 years of indifference on their end might be the culprit.

    The point I’m trying to make is that your child will not take this as personally as you are (unless of course, you encourage him to feel hurt and excluded). To him, these grandparents will just be distant figures that he sees at holidays, not hurtful people who have repeatedly slighted him throughout his life. If I were you, I wouldn’t focus so much energy on kindling a relationship with people who are so obviously disinterested.

  10. Olivia May 17 at 8:10 am Reply Reply

    My mother had to sever a relationship with my great-uncle and aunt because they are bigots. During a visit (we live in another state) they said I could visit, but didn’t want my sister over because she’s (half) hispanic (I’m not). My mother said you visit with both or none. They chose none. I was only 10 or so at the time, but a few years later she explained why I didn’t see them anymore and I was totally in agreement with her. Their loss, not ours.

    If you have to severely limit the relationship from your in-laws, your son will be okay and I’m sure he’ll understand why some day.

  11. Trish May 17 at 8:36 am Reply Reply

    I also had surrogate grandparents, as my father was estranged from his father and step-mother (his mother died in her 40s), my maternal grandmother died when I was young and my maternal grandfather battled cancer throughout my childhood. One was a great-aunt. One was a neighbor. Another was a babysitter that we continued to invite to family gatherings long after I was babysitting.

  12. Brenda May 17 at 9:41 am Reply Reply

    I have a bit of a counterpoint story. When I was a little little girl, it didn’t seem like my grandparents were entirely fond of me. I remember not wanting to go to visit. As a small child, I don’t remember doing that much together. Turns out my grandparents just weren’t into little kids. But once I got to be 10 or 12, it was much easier for them to relate to me and we went on to have a wonderful relationship.

    Sometimes grownups – even ones who are related to you – just don’t do well with small children. They may still warm up to more grown children, if the opportunities for connection still exist.

  13. Tracy May 17 at 9:43 am Reply Reply

    Great advice from Amy. These people insist on breaking your son’s heart. Don’t let them.

  14. Kelly May 17 at 11:37 am Reply Reply

    We have issues with my MIL, who has “picked” my nephew and niece over my child repetedly even though we all live within minutes of each other. My son is only 4, but he is very perceptive (this has been going on since he was about 2) and has made comments to us and to my MIL about the situation (DS: Nana, you forgot to come to my school play. Nana: I didn’t forget, I was taking care of your cousin A. DS: But you always take care of A and you never come see me.) She obviously gets very defensive but we always back him up. I’ve noticed that my son has pulled back in his relationship with my MIL and is not as close to her as he is to my mother, who lives hours away but makes a ton of effort. I will also say that my MIL has some issues and I know that nothing I say will change her or the situaion. We just try to minimize the damage she does by never telling my son when she is coming over, as she frequently cancels, and never forcing him to spend time with her. It really is her loss as he is an awesome kid.

  15. Dawn May 17 at 1:08 pm Reply Reply

    I’m kind of seeing that with my kids too but going the other way with my in-laws. My kids are much younger (4.5 years and 20 months) than their cousins and are local; my MIL even took care of my youngest until he was 18 months. My SIL’s kids are older (13 and 10). I know that my MIL prefers my kids – she sees them more often and we are less overly scheduled than my SIL but she loves her older grandchildren dearly as one inherited her mother’s artistic talent and the other is such a neat kid. Does this help, not really and I know my kids are fortunate to be so loved. I can’t even imagine how it would feel to a child to know that you are barely an afterthought. Sounds like you are doing right by your son so that is all that is truly important.

  16. Babs May 17 at 1:44 pm Reply Reply

    Listen to Melissa!
    I had no functional grandparents growing up. 3 had died before I was born and one has Alzheimer’s, so she thought I was just some beautiful kid she got to have ice cream with once in a while.
    What I had was neighbors who were old, and generous with their time and taught me how to make sun tea and let me watch T.V. on Monday nights on their patio with them. They were loving, lovely people, and it’s because of them I work so hard to get my kids and my parents together as often as possible. (This is hard to do because of our circumstances, not relationship problems.)

  17. Hillary May 17 at 2:46 pm Reply Reply

    Sounds like you will have good results if you minimize interactions between your in-laws and son, but I’m worried about the comment you made about the cousins. Are you close with your sister-in-law’s family? Since they live so close to the grandparents, do you often see them all together? If so, just a word of caution as you consider the ramifications of limiting contact with your in-laws – you may also inadvertently reduce contact with relatives that your son really adores. Might be easier to just explain to your son as things evolve and he asks more and more questions about his grandparents that some people aren’t reliable but it doesn’t mean they don’t love you.

  18. Louisa May 17 at 7:42 pm Reply Reply

    This was my husband’s story, and that of his siblings as well. They could never figure out why his mom’s kids were constantly overlooked at holidays and birthdays, while her brother and sister’s children were doted upon. Over a decade after her mother passed away, and her father was living in Primary Care at his local VA, he confessed in a senile rant that my husband’s mother (who at the time was 60) wasn’t his biological child. She’d been conceived with a married man while the man my MIL always thought was her father (and was, in every way that matters) was gone to boot camp. This was in 1947. When he came back, he felt sorry for my MIL’s mother and married her out of pity. Nice, right? Her mother was always guilty about it and her (adoptive) father was always pissed about being played.

    (So all that to say that, yeah, there might be some reasons for them to be nice to one [or two] other sets of cousins and not to your particular set that have nothing to do with the actual people involved.)

    My husband feels no loss with regard to his grandparents. He’s dumbfounded by the way mine act because they’re awesome, though. LOL I doubt your little boy will mind once you cut off contact, just from observation.

  19. Michael May 19 at 7:51 am Reply Reply

    Melissa (above)- honorary grandparents, with you all the way. And the most wonderful thing about them is that the love and bond is unconditional. My little girl loves them so much. I do not understand why people tolerate family members who make unreasonable demands and who play emotional roulette with the lives of children and grandchildren. Young children are innocents. Why is it that people so often overlook this?

  20. Amy May 19 at 2:26 pm Reply Reply

    The best thing to do is manage expectations. I think we all have this idea that grandparent should dote on our children, go to their school plays, send birthday cards, etc. but this is not always the case for a variety of reasons.
    My kids’ grandfather is local and they’re lucky to see him a couple of times a year while their other grandparents they see much more often and get a lot of love and attention from them. This does not hurt my kids’ feelings because they don’t expect any more from him than the occasional get together.

  21. Beth May 19 at 2:40 pm Reply Reply

    This is not a grandparent story but the situation is similar. I took care of my husband’s 10 year old cousin for a summer once. My then 4 year old daughter would wait at the door for her and was so excited that she was “coming to play.” Frequently she was dropped off hours after the agreed time and sometimes never came at all with little to no warning due to the extreme flakiness of her parents. My daughter would get so upset and cry or wait for hours by the door until the cousin eventually turned up. After a few weeks of this I started telling her “your cousin is supposed to come today, but we’ll have to see what happens. You know sometimes she doesn’t get to come.” As the summer went on it got easier and easier for my daughter to brush it off when the cousin didn’t show. I just reiterated that it had nothing to do with her, or the cousin for that matter. The cousin’s parents were dismayed when I declined watching their kid the next summer but I just couldn’t take the stress of not knowing when or if she would show up (which is sad because she’s a lovely kid and had a great time here). Now even when they’re coming over for a visit my daughter will say “I hope theyre coming but sometimes they don’t. I guess we’ll see.”

  22. TCD May 19 at 3:57 pm Reply Reply

    I was the kid in one of these situations. I had one set of grandparents who lived in a different town as we did, and one set that lived in the same town. The ones in the same town would do this to me growing up all the time — my grandmother would promise to come over and visit me, or pick me up and take me somewhere, or invite me over to spend the night with them, and then would just completely flake out. My mom said I would be heartbroken when she didn’t keep her word, especially because most other adults in my life DID keep their word.
    As a result, I just functionally didn’t have much of a relationship with them (especially my grandmother) until I was basically old enough to understand that it was her, not me. I didn’t NOT get along with her or dislike her, I just didn’t care too much.
    The funny thing is, in talking to my cousins, each of us always felt growing up that she favored all the others over us. (That’s good grandparenting.)
    Amy’s advice and your instincts are good – your responsibility is to your son and protecting him. He’ll figure out soon enough that these people aren’t to be trusted.

  23. jamie s May 21 at 7:41 pm Reply Reply

    f you decide against a confrontation, I really like Beth’s suggestion “Grandma is supposed to come but we’ll see what happens. You know sometimes she doesn’t get to come.”  Managing expectations is important here.
    My “grandmother” cared much more for my cousins, but it wasn’t always that way, when I was young we spent a lot of time with her, but something changed.  We would go to family christmas and we would all exchange gifts, later i would find out from my cousins that granny had stayed with them christmas eve and given them other nicer gifts.  We were still very young.
    I decided to sever the relationship in highschool and prefer to avoid her and have no contact.  I encourage my mother to not waste time on someone who is so obviously selfish, but it is more complicated for her.  It is her mother after all.
    I had much closer relationships with “surrogate grandparents,” neighbors and elderly family friends.  Even if you do keep a connection with biological grandparents, the more people a child has that love them and teach them about life the richer his world will be. 

  24. Janine Jun 09 at 10:19 am Reply Reply

    This is heart breaking for me.  My grandsons mother kept him from us for 8 months because of her own ignorance.  I would give anything to be able to be close to my only grandchild.  Some people just don’t appreciate what they have.

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