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Grandparents: A Field Guide

By Amalah

So you’ve gone and had yourself a baby. You’ve officially created your very own new family unit. A wacky spin-off, as it were, with occasional Very Special Episodes featuring cameos from the crazy family members from the original series. Only for November sweeps, though. And then major holidays. Maybe the occasional long weekend or unannounced pop-in. The next thing you know you’re living directly across the street from them and everybody keeps calling your husband RAAAAYYYYMOND and you’re wondering whatever happened to that “very own family unit” idea you once had.
Having a baby can really complicate your relationship with your parents and in-laws, is what I am saying. Once you come into possession of TEH GRANDBAYBEE, things change, and you may feel like you’re blending into a new family all over again. As a helpful guide, I’ve identified and classified four of the more troublesome varieties of grandparent.

The Meddlers.

Also known as the “UR DOIN IT WRONGS,” this variety of grandparent cannot resist telling you exactly how you are screwing up (usually based on the way they did things some 30-odd years ago). You may catch them going explicitly against your stated wishes, at which time they will feign shock and surprise and tell you how they did things some 30-odd years ago, when child raising was perfect and practically down to a science. They know everything about all of the following topics: breastfeeding, bottlefeeding, sleeping, feeding, burping, dressing, leaving the house, colic, and diaper rash. They will not ever figure out the straps on your carseat, but that’s okay because they just duct taped babies into Moses’ Baskets back then and their kids turned out just fine. Of course, THEIR babies got extra bottles of water and wore waaaaay more pairs of socks than yours does, so that probably had something to do with it. Learn to pick your battles and delegate ultimatum-delivering with your partner, because TRUST ME, it doesn’t end after potty-training. (Which you’ll want to have done by 12 months old. In a day. I mean, it’s so easy. I don’t know why you’re having so much trouble. Hmmm.)

The Competitors.

Also known as the Checks & Balancers. These parents and in-laws lock themselves into a deep mental game of grandparent oneupmanship. Who saw the baby first, who saw the baby the most. Who gave what gift and how much they spent. Where you spent Thanksgiving and how many days you spent where at Christmas. Particularly common in families that feature divorce and remarriage, or where one set of grandparents have a geographic advantage. Quite often, the competition only exists in a single grandparent’s mind, but as far as I can tell they plan to keep on playing until they outlive all the other grandparents by SHEER COMPETITIVE WILL ALONE.

The Non-Sitcommers.

But hey, doting-but-misguided is better than disinterested, right? Some grandparents can break your heart by being the complete opposite of what you hoped to have for your child. Traveling to see you is too darned inconvenient, except for that one Alaskan cruise they planned for the same week as your due date. They never really want to hold the baby or hear about the baby and refuse to open your photo attachments because you might give them a computer virus. Some of them, given enough time, may warm up to your child once they become a person and thus less of a disruption in their home and routine, but for some it might be worth finding some surrogate grandparents in the form of some kindly neighbors or nursing home residents who will THRILL at the sight of your baby. It can be hard to swallow and say “it’s THEIR LOSS” when you don’t get the relationship you were expecting or craving, but…it really is.

The Toxic.

Oooh, way to end on a down note, Amy! But again, sad but true. Sometimes bad parents become bad grandparents. These may be folks who insist on smoking in front of the baby, or who can’t be trusted to not drink themselves into a stupor while babysitting, or who believe in spanking and to hell with your wishes. Your mother-in-law may have always disliked you, but now that there’s a grandbaby she seems beyond hellbent on splitting your marriage up, in hopes that she’d be awarded custody in BizarroDementiaLand. Your father starts chastising your sensitive son with homophobic slurs. You (or your partner) may suddenly have a firmer grasp on abuse you suffered as a child — stuff that now you realize you could never in a million years do to your own offspring. You may be torn and conflicted about cutting them off or restricting access to their grandchild, but here’s the thing: Your role as your child’s mother trumps ALL ELSE, including your role as your parents’ daughter.

The Spoilers.

Not really one of the four “troublesome” types, because really, if the worst thing my kids get at Grandma and Grandpa’s house is two extra books at bedtime and some high-fructose corn-syrup yumballs and effusive praise for their EXPERT AND OBVIOUSLY GIFTED dismantling of the vacuum cleaners, I think that’s actually pretty okay.


Photo by Shyald

Published November 16, 2009. Last updated June 24, 2018.
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


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 Ama...

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 [email protected].

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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  • Natalie

    November 17, 2009 at 10:44 am

    Omg, you don’t put enough socks on either??! My mother is forever telling me that my daughter is freezing. (She is not.) And feeding her bananas when she’s… NOT EATING FOOD YET. *sigh*
    You forgot the “terrified of doing something wrong” grandparent. My mil is terrified of me, terrified of doing something wrong. It’s exhausting.

  • HereWeGoAJen

    November 17, 2009 at 11:18 am

    The Meddlers. YES. And combined with a healthy dose of the Competitors. All in one lovely woman.

  • Suzanne

    November 17, 2009 at 12:07 pm

    Sadly, all the grandparents in our family are non-sitcommers, although it may be more the fault of geographic distance than actual disinterest. Plus I think my my mother is so terrified of being seen as meddlesome that she can’t bring herself to offer anything even remotely resembling advice about the baby. Even when I specifically ask for her opinion she’s all “Oh I did it like this but that was a long time ago and might have been wrong and so you do it another way don’t listen to meeeee!” I’m hoping lots of family time over the holidays will give everyone more of a chance to interact with the baby and hopefully spoil him.

  • andrea

    November 17, 2009 at 12:38 pm

    Funny and fabulous! and all very true to life.

  • Nicole

    November 17, 2009 at 12:45 pm

    Oh the carseat. Try a “Oh you don’t need one right away! You can get that a few weeks after the baby is born!”
    Except for that little matter of taking the baby home from the hospital. For real: a conversation I had with my dad:

  • crabbyappleseed

    November 17, 2009 at 1:20 pm

    I have an extra-special competitor- she competes with ME. She knows my daughter as well, if not better than me, she’s taught her every new trick she learns, she has just as many clothes/hats/toys, and she’ll even show me how my daughter likes to play with books! It’s…awesome.

  • Meghan

    November 17, 2009 at 1:42 pm

    my MIL routinely refers to herself as “the pro.” a nickname she has awarded herself from working part-time at a daycare center in the infant room. it mainly was used during the first year of my son’s life during feedings, diaper changes and getting him to sleep. as far as category? she doesn’t fit in just one. she actually posesses some qualities of each one. we’ll be spending 4 days with her over thanksgiving. awesome.
    unfortunately its comes at us from both sides. my mother is always after me to put my son in undershirt for fear of being too cold and apparently at just shy of 2 years we should be well on our way to potty traindom.
    what would i do with all this unsolicited commentary?

  • Jenn

    November 17, 2009 at 1:49 pm

    Wow, we cover almost all of them! Actually, my stepmom and dad are kind of competitors just with each other about when they get to see the baby (it’s pretty hilarious). My mother-in-law is a touch of the meddler, but not bad at all. My stepmom is great because she’ll actually ask my advice for my other siblings who have kids or flat out say, “You know/remember more about this than I do.” She and my dad were out of town when little E was born in August, but they came to see her as soon as they could. The only grandparent problem we have is actually my mom and stepdad. They are totally non-sitcommers (mom likes to talk about my sister’s new baby ALL THE TIME while seeming to forget I had one only 6 weeks earlier and they practically ignore my boys while paying tons of attention to their damn cats). Makes it hard to say the least.

  • Libbi

    November 17, 2009 at 2:23 pm

    all my fears rolled into one. i mean, i want kids, but i’m petrified of the grandparent thing. PETRIFIED.

  • Erin

    November 17, 2009 at 2:41 pm

    Wait! You didn’t say how to HANDLE these grandparents!! Please advise. I have a “competitors” situation on my hand, as my own mother said to me “If they’re getting a week at Thanksgiving this year, I better get a week next year, and you better believe I’m keeping track with little BAYBEE in the picture.” [insert fake, passive aggressive smile here]
    Can you please please give advice on how to handle these types of grandparents in a future bounceback? I refuse to do the “avoid telling her when we’re visiting the in-laws” that I did when it was just my husband and me — I don’t want to set a lying example for the baby, but seriously, I do not know how to handle this going forward. Help please!

  • Cheryl S.

    November 17, 2009 at 2:57 pm

    Wow. Reading all of these, I realize how lucky I am. My parents are wonderful! Believe me, there are days when I want to punch them because, of course, I’m “doing it wrong”, but as a rule, they are spoilers if anything and they help me immensely!

  • Mouse

    November 17, 2009 at 4:11 pm

    My son’s only cousin is 3 years younger than he is. When my mom and I were chatting about my sister being pregnant, she said, “I’m excited about becoming a grandmother.” Stunned silence on my end. Due to geography, she gets to spend a lot more time with my niece, so there’s that. At least she’s started to make a few more overtures.

  • Marnie

    November 17, 2009 at 6:06 pm

    While I’d certainly rather have the spoilers than any of the other types, there is a downside. Every time my daughter spends any alone time with my in-laws for any length of time, there’s always the “grandparent detox” that follows. The duration of the grandparent detox is directly proportional to the amount of time she spends with them, and involves a lot of “I don’t care if grandma buys you things just because you say you want them” and “Grandma and grandpa might let you eat ice cream for breakfast, but that’s not what you’re eating before school” and “yes, you absolutely have to go TO BED at your BEDTIME.”
    It is nice once they start talking. My then 2-yr-old daughter was all excited that grandpa let her sit in the front seat of the car – no car seat – while they drove down down the block. It wasn’t far, but he got a bit of an earful.

  • Jen

    November 17, 2009 at 8:52 pm

    My husband’s parents are divorced and remarried, so we have 3 sets of spoilers! We have had to set limits…

  • Jo

    November 18, 2009 at 6:27 am

    Same situation as Natalie, my mother-in-law was terrified of doing anything wrong and was so nervous and worried around the baby, it drove me crazy. So I was kind of mean, but I plunged her in the deep end– the husband and I took a much needed weekend away and left my daughter (age 1) with MIL for 3 days. By the time we got back, MIL was so much more comfortable and now babysits all the time without giving herself (and me) an ulcer. Daughter is also so much closer to them now. Such a relief to us all.

  • jive turkey

    November 18, 2009 at 9:33 am

    Oh, the GRANDPARENTS. It’s like I didn’t give birth to ONE baby, I GAVE BIRTH TO FIVE.
    I am actually the person who wrote the question in the “Child of Mine” link, and I am happy to say that I am now the mother of an AWESOME 7 month old baby girl who makes me insanely happy. My parents and I are STILL butting heads over the baptism thing (they are currently not speaking to me), but I am holding my ground. Not easy, but I don’t want to teach my kid that it’s OK to back down on important issues just to be “nice” and keep the peace.
    (Also, my MIL is always taking my daughter’s socks OFF. WTF?)

  • Brenda

    November 18, 2009 at 10:08 am

    Every once in a while I’m reminded just how blessed I am. My folks take the kids for a whole week in summer, during which time they take excellent care of them. They’re interested and offer advice when appropriate. My mother-in-law visits regularly and flew up for a week (on 2 days notice) when my daycare suddenly fell through. During that week in addition to taking care of the kids and going clothes shopping with me, she painted the kitchen. She may not always agree with our way of doing things, but she always complies.
    They talk lovingly with their grandchildren, gently offer advice when requested or when they notice something, and praise our parenting to us and to others.
    You need another category of grandparent: the awesome.

  • Anonymous

    November 18, 2009 at 3:18 pm

    Oooh, according to this I have one “Competitior” in part due to the fact that I live with a borderline “Meddler”. It is interesting to note that when these two strains of grandmother mix, they produce over-the-top play kitchens for Christmas, that outshine anything Santa ever brought *me*.

  • Anonymous

    November 19, 2009 at 9:00 am

    I just got married. A few weeks ago my parents went out to visit my in-laws (long story, such a stress-filled weekend of “fun”…) and while my Mom, MIL and I were out running an errand the MIL informed me that when we have kids, wearing bicycle helmets is something that “She will just have to insist on and I can’t do anything about it.” I was so astounded that (in front of my own Mother…) I told her she was welcome to have rules at her house but as far as OUR kids go, we set the rules and nobody gets to insist on anything. That said- I’m kind of uptight. Of course my kids will have helmets. But who does she think she IS?

  • Anonymous

    November 19, 2009 at 11:59 am

    I second the idea of a post on how to deal with these types of grandparents. The toxic, former in-law grandparents already destroyed my marriage and apparently think my daughter actually belongs only to my ex and his mother… Help!

  • Jamie

    November 20, 2009 at 9:26 am

    Isn’t it funny how one “competitor” can make everything so much harder, even when the other three are “spoilers”? Ugh.

  • Jo

    November 21, 2009 at 2:52 am

    My parents are the spoilers to the core…fine–but I did set some limits there. Just politely explained the boundaries and why and they ppprety much are being responsive (side note: my mother works in a bakery and her and her other grandma-aged co-workers dote and literally s-p-o-i-l my 4 year old son. VIP pass at the bakery to the MAX! Wow. He actually goes in the back of the bakery and has his own little drawer Full of candies, toys, etc.) pretty crazy…she is a good though! My m.i.l. is pretty good, a little of a meddler, but not with ill intent…she insists that I keep tryin to give my infant a pacifyer. My little one just doesn’t like them, only likes the booby. She can’t seem to fathom the fact that I dont mind my child suckling at the breast often (and I mean very often). I’m his mommy, it’s part of my job–no complaints here…

  • Ashley

    November 23, 2009 at 3:48 pm

    My parents are the spoilers and pout big time when we put limits on them. I will pick out my daughter’s Christmas dress and stocking, thanks mom. I wrote about the smoking in-laws and the visit to our house at 2 months went ok. They decided not to come when she was born b/c they were at the beach, so much more important! We visited them at 5 months and things went quickly to hell. We refused to stay at their house since they have smoked in there for 30 years. After the visit MIL ranted and raved to everyone about how mean we were and how we hurt her feelings. Of course her feelings are much more important than our daughter’s health! And just this month MIL has been diagnosed as bi-polar. So of course everyone expects us to do whatever she wants so she doesn’t get upset. Yea sure, we’ll work on that.

  • Kelly

    November 30, 2009 at 6:58 pm

    I’ve got The Spoiler, The Meddler and The Competitor all in one lovely lady…add in a whole lotta passive aggressive, religious zealot and poof, you’ve got my MIL. She talks shit about me behind my back to other family members about my “regimented scheduling” (it is NOT THAT regimented) and then compliments me to my face on what a well-behaved, happy, great sleeping baby I have. She’s pleasant.

  • Anonymous

    December 1, 2009 at 12:34 pm

    The Non-Sitcommers. We are separated by distance. To remedy this we got them a web cam. I researched to get them the best and sent it up as a gift to FIL. We even installed it and updated his laptop. We offered to install their old one on MIL’s computer. I was told she is “not a phone” person. So we went the peer pressure route and got SIL one (who is also out of state but closer) when she got pregnant. When asked what she wanted, she specifically asked for this.
    Our current situation: SIL has never used the web cam, MIL and FIL say when asked, “Oh yea we should do that” all the while routinely visiting SIL’s son a 5 hour drive away.
    My parents give my son plenty of attention thank you very much, and love the web cam which we do weekly for an hour each. My husband is heart broken his parents could care less. I decided to keep the door open for access to their grandson, while focusing on the fact my parents love him: something not all kids have.
    They can explain to him why they don’t web cam with him like his other grandparents do.

  • Anonymous

    December 3, 2009 at 7:58 pm

    thanks for writing about this. thankfully, my non-sitcommer parents are slowly coming around. probably has to do with the fact that my kid is developing quite a personality and they’re worried they’ll miss something. they are really awesome parents, so i’m hoping they can develop into even better grandparents. we shall see.

  • Stephanie

    December 4, 2009 at 1:04 pm

    “Traveling to see you is too darned inconvenient, except for that one Alaskan cruise they planned for the same week as your due date.”
    Okay, so I almost spit up when I read this line. My parents and grandparents were ALL on an Alaskan cruise the week of my due date. But they’d already had it planned before we got pregnant, and my mom was SO upset to be missing the birth that she called every single day spending $18 a minute to see if “anything” was happening. I to this day am not sure my mother left her stateroom for fear she would miss our call. So no they’re not non-sitcommers by any means — more of the I-wish-I-could-be-there-for-every-single-moment grandparent.

  • Anonymous

    December 31, 2009 at 2:57 pm

    You missed an important yet seemingly-often forgotten group. The Departed. My mother, whom I’m sure would have been a fantastic grandmother, passed away before we have children. Thinking about navigating how to tell my future children about the woman who would have loved them more than life itself, and how to handle my feelings of jealousy toward my in-laws, is heartbreaking.

    • Kathy Mousen

      February 8, 2015 at 4:06 pm

      I’m so sorry for your loss. Me too. Now all I’m left with is my husbands rude, childish, competitor/meddler mother-in-law. Adds insult to injury.

  • Laura

    January 20, 2010 at 11:51 am

    The ILs are the awesome. Pick my son up from day care early every day, feed him dinner, and play with him for 2-3 straight hours. It’s why we moved closer to them. They do let him watch a little too much TV but since I don’t have to sprint out of work at 5:00PM on the dot, I don’t really mind. My parents, well, they don’t really fit any of the descriptions exactly. Mostly, they like the idea of being grandparents more than the practical reality. They complain that they don’t see my sister and her son much (they live 1.5 hours away), yet they make no effort to go out there and take a very passive aggressive approach about it, especially since my sister’s ILs are also the awesome. I think they resent that but don’t try to do more, be more involved/helpful. With us, we are so far away, they realize they can’t compete, recognize how great my ILs are, but still get mad that we don’t visit more. Like I want to drag a 2 year old on a two flight almost all day trip? Sorry. Ain’t happening. Ultimately, my father is totally disinterested when we see them, and my mother is all talk, no follow-through. Pretty much how they were when I was growing up. Didn’t really seem all that bad until I see it in this light. The sad part is that they have the resources and time to be great grandparents who visit regularly, etc, but choose to spend their time on themselves. It’s sad, but after 2+ years, I am over it. I can’t change them so I just deal with them as they are. It’s really their loss honestly.

  • Ivy

    March 4, 2013 at 7:06 pm

    And what if your InLaw/grandparents have been every single freaking one of those at some point in your child’s one and a half years of life?
    She was a reasonably terrible/abusive mother, but she’s a barely hanging on flip flopper of a grandma. We actually just did the ‘we’re not taking our child into your toxic household, if you want to see her then you make the effort to come to our house, and you behave like a reasonable human being’ ultimatum. And so far it’s worked, she held out for 2 1/2 months, but recently visited us and behaved wonderfully the whole time. We’ll see how it goes long term, but at least there’s some hope out there for parents who want their kid to have a relationship with their grandparents, but aren’t willing to have it be completely on the grandparents (crazy, nutjob, abusive) terms.