When Grandparents Are Shut Out

When Grandparents Get Caught In The Crossfire
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Donna M. is a long-distance grandmother. Through technology she has been able to maintain a relationship with her sixteen-year-old grandson. She pokes him on Facebook and, a couple of times a month, they visit on Skype. When her son and daughter-in-law started having marital problems, Donna kept trying to reach out to Jared. She avoids mentioning anything having to do with the D word. Recently, communication is mostly one-sided.

Donna's experience is not unique. When parents divorce, grandchildren typically get caught in the crossfire. Divorce sparks loyalty issues. Jared may have heard all kinds of stories, some true, some false, about the role his grandmother played fanning the flames of his parents' marital problems.

Let's face it. Parents are the gatekeepers to their children. Too often grandparents get the short-end of the stick. One of our greatest fears is losing access to our grandchildren. A question that keeps us up at night is: How will the breakup affect my relationship with my grandchildren?

While there are no pat answers, sociologists Cherlin and Furstenberg (The New American Grandparent, 1986) say that grandparents are more likely to maintain or even enhance their relationship with their grandchildren if their daughter's marriage breaks up. If it's their son's marriage, their relationship with the grandchildren is likely to be diminished in quantity and probably in quality as well. Even with joint custody, the paternal grandparents are usually the ones who suffer unless the couple has worked out an equitable split.

Many grandparents assume more responsibility for their grandchildren and grow closer. But far too many find themselves left out in the cold.

Case in point:

It was a family tradition for Phil and Rita's grandchildren to spend one week in Maine visiting their grandparents. Grandpa looked forward to those fishing expeditions; Grandma always took the kids blueberry picking. This year the kids wouldn't be coming. Even though their former daughter-in-law explained the children needed time to adjust to their new home before staring school, Phil and Rita were certain they were being punished for something they might have said or done while the parents were hammering out their settlement. They appealed to their son who said he had more than enough on his plate right now. They felt betrayed by him as well.

It's easy to assume you're at fault when you are denied access to your grandchildren. The barrier may be your own child or your ex-law depending on the relationship you had with either one during the marriage, and how you conducted yourself when things got hairy.

While it may be difficult to pinpoint the reason you are being "shut out," know there is bound to be a certain amount of family reshuffling post-divorce. Grandparents who cling to the way things "always have been" will have difficulty accepting the changes.

Suppose you are having problems around visitation. Unless the court steps in, the reality is visitation is a gift not a given.

Here are some tips if you're having a tough time seeing your grandchildren:

Don't push too hard in the beginning. Newly single parents will find it a strain if you insist on frequent and long visitations. Wait to be invited. Visit when it's convenient for the newly single parent who, remember, has lots of balls in the air.

If you anticipate having the door shut in your face, discuss your concerns frankly with your child and ex-law. Let them know that, above all, your interest is maintaining a positive relationship with your grandchildren. Some divorce settlements make provisions for grandparent visitation.

Expect realignments when your child (or the ex) remarries. Once the honeymoon is over, the newly forged couple will have to establish a firm foundation. If other children are brought into the new union, they will be learning how to co-parent, delineating step-parenting boundaries, and negotiating with former spouses who may or may not be sharing custody.

As a grandparent you will be dealing with the whole package. It's possible, like Donna, the long-distance grandmother I referred to at the beginning of this blog, you will find yourself upstaged by an inherited relative. Donna was planning on attending her grandson's high school graduation. "I was furious when the invitation wasn't forthcoming. My son explained they only had four tickets. Mary's mother (who lives in their town) saw my Jared getting his diploma. They sent me the video!"

Today's families have many branches. If you are willing to bend, you stand a better chance of not getting lopped off the trunk. Take a cue from Adele and Mitch who were not asked to participate in the service or the candle-lighting ceremony at their granddaughter's bat mitzvah. They knew their former daughter-in-law's parents were footing the bill. The two sets of in-laws had never gotten along before the break-up. Rather than burden their son or granddaughter with their complaints, they suffered in silence and thanked their former daughter-in-law for letting them share the day.

The pain cannot be minimized for those grandparents who have to go the legal route in order to see their grandchildren. Fortunately, many ex-sons- and daughters-in-laws agree that it only profits their children to have multiple sets of loving and caring grandparents who can provide stability and continuity in their lives.

In terms of the work that lies ahead when your son or daughter gets divorced: expect to tough it out. You are a known. You were there when your grandchildren needed you; let them know that still holds true. Anticipate some pulling away. Do not assume you are not wanted.

Tips on rebuilding the family excerpted from Your Child's Divorce: What to Expect ... What You Can Do. (Temlock, Marsha. Impact Publishers, 2006.)

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