Grandparents or other close relatives can mean the world to children in divorced families. "I love to visit grandpa's house," the sad little 4-year-old whose divorcing parents were fighting over his custody whispered, "'Cause they have so many laps there."
"My grandmother saved my life," a young woman confided a decade after her parents divorced. Over and over I heard from children and young adults about grandparents or other family members whose love and friendship brightened and, in many instances, stabilized their lives.
Divorcing parents are warned repeatedly, "don't fight." Or at least "don't fight in front of the children," and many try. But parents are rarely advised that the divorce often ushers in one of the loneliest times in the lives of their children. While divorcing parents are preoccupied with attorneys, moving, finances, employment, and resuming their social lives and seeking new connections, children are often left with strange sitters, in new homes, new neighborhoods, away from longtime playmates and familiar activities. The children recalled, many years later, that the time during the divorce, and the years following, were the loneliest of their lives. They worried about being forgotten or abandoned: "I had no one to play with. No one to talk to," they opined.
This is when grandparents and other close relatives can play a critical role. Of course, it is easier if the relative lives close by and has the time. One teenager told us how she used to take refuge in her grandmother's garden. She recalled her pleasure and relief at being surrounded by the quiet beauty of the setting. Sometimes she sat happily all afternoon, doing homework or just unwinding on the garden bench. When her grandmother joined her, they would converse softly about the events of the day. "I felt restored," she reported.
In families where the grandparents lived at a distance, telephone calls to the child, simple notes, and remembering birthdays and holidays, as well as major or minor triumphs or disappointments in the child's life, supplemented with brief or extended visits, remained critical during the youngster's early years. When the children grew up they remembered those contacts with love and deep appreciation.
The other major task for the grandparents: staying absolutely clear of the issues that divide the parents Taking sides would likely end the relative's helpfulness. Probably it would increase the child's pain. The helpful grandparent is the child's ally and the child treasures that confidence. The unique contribution of this relationship is in providing an unwavering, neutral, caring presence for the child of divorce who is required to adjust to multiple changes in her family and new environments during her growing up years.
Can the divorcing or divorced parent encourage a grandparent or other relative or even a close friend to take and maintain this role? I have seen this only rarely, but perhaps it is rarely tried. Maybe the lapsed tradition of Godparent should be revived within the new context of the divorced family and reshaped to help the child maintain her faith in the constancy and faithfulness of unconditional love.
For more guidance for divorced parents see:
Wallerstein, Judith and Blakeslee, Sandra. What About the Kids? Raising Your Children Before, During and After Divorce. 2003. Hyperion.
Wallerstein, Judith, Lewis, Julia, Blakeslee, Sandra . The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce. 2000. Hyperion.