Grandparents need to find the delicate balance of helping out without shutting out either parent
When Pam’s daughter, Marlie, had her first baby, Pam was lucky enough to get to be there for the birth. She flew from Ohio to Arizona just in time for the delivery, and then stayed with the new parents for three weeks to help out during those exhausting early days.
By Pam’s account, her visit was everything she could have hoped for. She was by Marlie’s side as she was laboring and got to hold her first grandchild shortly after his birth. She’d always been close to her daughter, and it seemed as if Pam sometimes knew what Marlie needed before she even asked. Since she was a light sleeper, she even helped out in the middle of the night. She felt honored to be able to play such a huge role in her grandson’s first weeks of life.
Marlie was incredibly grateful to have her mom there, too. She was happy to see grandma taking over the baby when she was overwhelmed. She knew she could rely on her mom for anything she needed, and having Mom’s experience and round-the-clock presence was a blessing in those early days.
The two weeks Pam spent with the new family were pure joy for her. Bonding with her grandson as she held him was magical, and watching her daughter gain confidence as a mother filled her with a new kind of love.
You know who wasn’t happy? Marlie’s husband, Hunter.
After waiting for years to become a father, Hunter felt completely shut out of the experience. He had hardly gotten to take in his son’s features before he was asked to hand the newborn to grandma. For the entire time Pam was there, every time the baby needed something, Marlie or Pam jumped in. He felt like Marlie and Pam were the parents, admitting, “It was like I was just the sperm donor, and they’d invited me to watch them raise their baby.”
This is why some parents don’t let anyone visit at first. For them to forge a strong parenting team, they need the chance to figure it out together. Allowing them the space to rely on each other will strengthen their relationship. Leaving them to figure out what to do when the baby is crying will give them confidence as parents. Letting them have the privilege of those early days of bonding will not weaken your own bond with your grandchild, but will strengthen the family as a whole.
If you are lucky enough to be included in the early days of your grandchild’s life, here are some guidelines to make sure you don’t inadvertently become another Pam.
Concentrate on helping by keeping the household running.
Instead of diapering, feeding, soothing and bathing the baby, volunteer to cook, clean, shop, or walk the dog. See more suggestions here.
Never step in to care for the baby without being asked.
You may know exactly what to do, but jumping in prevents new parents from figuring it out. They’ll be far more likely to ask for help if you aren’t offering suggestions when they don’t want them.
Always give both parents the chance to care for the baby before stepping in.
Notice that the baby needs a diaper change while mom is in the shower? Let dad know there’s an opportunity to hone his diapering skills.
Watch to make sure you don’t spend more time caring for the baby than either of the parents.
There may be circumstances where you do need to step up, but if both parents are healthy and present, they should be doing most of the baby care. Let them know you are there to provide a break if they need it, but that you are confident they can handle it.
If your daughter is turning to you instead of her partner, ask him or her to help.
When she hands your fussy grandson to you to burp, pass him along to dad, asking how many ways he knows to burp a newborn. Sharing your experience this way will help him gain the skills and confidence he needs so your daughter will see him as a valuable partner.
Unless you are moving in full time, doing too much baby care while you are there will just make it harder when you leave. Instead, spend time setting parents up for success after you depart. Fill the freezer, stock the pantry, weed the garden—do whatever you can to make life easier for the parents both during your visit and after your departure.
Sometimes the best way to help is by just stepping back.
What do you think? Do you agree? Let me know in the comments!
Today's post is written by Winston (Winn) Egan, author of Grandparenting on Purpose.
First, let’s begin with a BIG disclaimer. Not everything you do with grandchildren needs to be purposeful. There’s great value in just “hanging out” with your grandchildren—listening to what they have to say, enjoying spontaneous conversations and outings, and just having fun with them.
However, I think there is much to be gained from being intentional and purpose-driven in providing experiences and activities for grandchildren. Here are two illustrative stories about our attempts to make family activities more purposeful and meaningful for our grandchildren. We hope they’ll be helpful to you.
In our community, a savvy company sells ice-cream sandwich seconds, Fat Boy[s]. The sandwiches are seconds for a variety of reasons. They’re missing something—the top or bottom of the sandwich. Or the sandwich is incomplete in some fashion. However, they appear to be the same because of how they are packaged. If you were to look at the packaging, you would think there is nothing wrong with these sandwiches. So, when the company sells them in our area, I buy a lot of them—sometimes 40 or 50. They are cheap. They taste great. And my grandchildren and our neighbors love them.
So, how did I use these sandwiches with my grandchildren and their parents? It was simple. At the end of a family dinner, I told the grandchildren I had a terrific dessert for all of them. I suggested it was a one-of-kind treat we’d never served before that evening. Of course, the grandchildren were very interested in the dessert. Take note! Curious grandchildren are more attentive when you are trying to make a point or teach an important life concept.
I removed my box of frozen Fat Boy[s] from our freezer. I then provided these instructions:
Our grandchildren were quick to observe the differences among and between their sandwiches. At this “peak” moment, I asked questions like these:
It’s tempting for grandparents to buy too many gifts for their grandchildren, especially when they don’t see them often. The main reason I don’t might surprise you.
I was having lunch last year with a friend whose second grandbaby had just been born. When we finished lunch, she mentioned that she had to pop into the boutique next door to get gifts before she went to visit her grandchildren the following week.
“What’s the occasion?” I asked her.
“No special occasion—I just always bring them something when I come visit!”
I didn’t want to rain on her parade, so I just smiled and accompanied her to the boutique, which was almost certainly designed specifically to appeal to grandmothers. It was full of adorable toys and clothes and books and gadgets, all artfully displayed and temptingly priced.
I won’t tell you what she bought, but I was a little shocked by the pile of things she accumulated as we browsed. When I saw the size of the bag she carried when we left the store, I briefly wondered if I should share my own philosophy about bringing gifts when I visit.
I decided against it, but I’ll share it with you now:
I don’t bring my grandchildren gifts when I come visit.
One reason is that they have enough stuff, and their parents don’t want any more.
Another reason, let’s face it, is that I’m cheap and hate throwing away money on things that will quickly be cast aside.
But neither of these are my main motivation.
My main reason for arriving without presents is so that my grandchildren remain excited to see me. I don’t want to be greeted with, “What did you bring me?” I want the focus to be on each other, and not what may be tucked away in my purse or hiding in my suitcase.
What I do sometimes bring: a book we’ve been reading together, so they can see it in real life and we can pour over the pictures side-by-side. Recently, it may be a chapter book we are in the middle of, that I’ll finish while we are visiting. Or maybe I’ll bring a game we can play together, one that I’ll likely take back home so we can enjoy it at our house when they come visit us.
When he remembers, Pops brings treasure: a fake jewel and a pirate doubloon for each of them, which he’ll leave under their pillow to be discovered when we leave. This way, it’s a reminder of our visit, and a way to soften our departure.
What do we always bring? We bring hugs and time to give our full attention to these small people and their parents (who sometimes do get presents when we come, like tea and chocolate and books!). While I may change my strategy as my grandkids get older, for now, I don’t bring them gifts.
When I come to visit, I consider the visit itself a gift—to all of us. And when I arrive, I usually hear these words, “DeeDee! I missed you so much!”
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A Guide to Navigating the Joys and Challenges of Being A Grandparent Today
One thing many grandparents overlook in their excitement over becoming a grandparent is how it changes the relationship with their adult children. The rules and habits of decades must be entirely re-shaped—sometimes quite suddenly. If there is any tension in the relationship, this change can amplify it.
Unconditional Love is a must read for all grandparents who want to ensure they are tending to the relationship with their grandchild’s parents. It will help you understand the complicated family dimensions that are created when a new baby arrives. Whether you have a strong and wonderful relationship with your child and their partner or not, Isay provides solid advice for forming the bond you wish to form with your grandchildren.
Her acknowledgement of the conflicts, problems and politics of family life provides a framework for creating a healthy relationship with your grandchildren and their parents. Through interviews, research and her own experience, Isay provides plenty of food for thought for anyone who wants to make the most of being a grandparent.
If you are just starting your grandparent journey, or are a veteran grandparent who is experiencing any tension in your relationship with your adult children, this book is a must-read. You can likely find a copy at your local library, but it’s well worth buying, as it will be a useful reference in the years to come.
Purchase a copy now from Amazon.
(Did you know that if you make a purchase from Amazon through our links, we get a small commission even though it doesn’t cost you anything extra? That money goes to help cover the cost of creating and maintaining everything More Than Grand does. It’s an easy way for you to help keep our website up and running, and we appreciate your support!)
Choosing a grandmother or grandfather nickname is just the first step in establishing a healthy habit of respect and communication between parents and grandparents.
It took me by surprise when one of my readers admitted that she hated the grandma nickname her daughter-in-law had chosen for her. She shared that she was afraid to rock the boat, so she just accepted it despite her discomfort.
I was so sad for her: sad that she should feel so powerless in something so personal. And I was a little confused, too. Was it common for the parent’s to choose the grandparent’s nickname? I thought that part of the fun of becoming a grandparent was figuring out what you wanted to be called!
So I did a little poll and discovered that over 10% of the grandparents who responded have a name that the parents chose. Luckily, most of them are fine with it.
One follower, Andrea, said she had some input, suggesting a name she liked but letting the parents make the final choice.
Christie said her grandchild’s parents gave her a few options, and once the baby started talking, they agreed on the right name. “I just did not want Meemaw, that was my only rule!”
In both of these cases, though the grandmothers didn’t make the final choice, they were included in the decision process. That wasn’t how it happened with Connie, who was told that the baby would call her…Connie. She was crushed not to be allowed to be called Nana, as she’d always imagined. She was also more than a little taken aback by the idea of being called her first name by her grandchild.
Most parents, however, feel it’s up to the grandparents to choose—with the possibility of parental veto if it makes them uncomfortable. Parents have told stories about grandmothers who want to be called Momma, or who choose a name they feel is ridiculous and then get upset when they refuse to use it. One parent said the name her father-in-law wanted to be called was the name of her own grandfather, with whom she had a complicated and unpleasant relationship. Her father-in-law was more than happy to choose a name without any negative baggage.
Like everything else, the only time it is a problem is when parents or grandparents don’t feel they can talk to one another about the subject. Connie was afraid that if she kicked up a fuss, her daughter-in-law would cut her off before the baby even arrived. One new mom said her own mother insists on a name she finds so silly that she’s never been able to bring herself to say it out loud. Instead of having a conversation together, both of these families have defaulted to “Don’t talk about it (and maybe it will go away).”
Choosing a grandmother or grandfather nickname is just the first step in establishing a healthy habit of respect and communication between parents and grandparents. Smart grandparents will say, “I’d like to be called ______, but I’d like to know what you think.” And smart parents will ask the grandparents what they’d like to be called.
If you are still trying to find the perfect nickname, have you downloaded our list of 242 Grandmother Names? It’s got lots of ideas, plus tips on finding the right one for you!
For what it’s worth, I completely agree with the mom who vetoed “Momma”, but I’m less sure about vetoing a name just because you think it’s ridiculous. What do you think? Let me know in the comments!
Play your part in setting and keeping grandparent boundaries
When her first grandbaby was born, Jackie was thrilled to be close enough to help out. Her daughter, Lizzie, was thrilled, too. Having mom around to help with laundry, soothe the baby and keep the family fed was a godsend.
Until it wasn’t.
One day, when Jackie stopped by, Lizzie had just gotten the baby to sleep and was looking forward to some time alone. Instead, she found herself listening to her mom’s cheerful chatter until the baby woke up. Because she was so grateful for the help she’d been getting, she found it hard to tell her mother that she needed some space now.
Jackie’s visits continued as the baby grew, often coming at inconvenient times. The more time that went by, the harder it was for Lizzie to speak up. One day, she snapped at Jackie, who had no idea what the problem was. Unkind words passed between them, causing the first rift they’d experienced since Lizzie was a teen. After days of struggling with hurt feelings, they finally sat down together to talk about boundaries.
Grandparents: know the boundaries and keep them
Boundaries around visits and helping will look different in every family. Where some new parents will want their entire extended family at the birth, others want no visitors for a month. Some parents want to do everything with minimal help, while others welcome all the hands and laps they can get.
While many parents are clear about the boundaries they need to keep, others have trouble speaking up to grandparents. Worse, some grandparents don’t respect boundaries even if parents spell them out.
Boundaries are the cornerstone of a healthy parent-grandparent relationship. No matter what the new parents have communicated, here are some tips for new grandparents that will make sure you are a welcome visitor.
Don’t show up unannounced. Even if you’ve been in the habit of dropping in on your son and daughter-in-law in the past, now is the time to stop. Always call or text to see when or if a visit is welcome, and be willing to accommodate their schedule. While it may be frustrating that you can’t stop by after work, supporting new parents often means putting their needs and desires ahead of your own.
Come to an agreement in advance, and check in regularly to see if it’s working. Before the baby is even born, talk to parents about how involved they’d like you to be. So often, tensions rise because a grandparent’s expectations differ from a parent’s. Misunderstandings can be avoided by discussing some of the common areas of disagreement. New Grandparent Essentials includes an entire section to help facilitate your discussion, with conversation starters and advice on establishing a supportive partnership with parents.
Respect new parents’ need for time alone. New parents need time alone, and time alone together. If the baby is sleeping when you arrive for a planned visit, ask if you should come back another time. This can be tricky if you are visiting to help with a new baby, but make sure you give new parents time without your presence. Make a grocery run, take a long walk after dinner, or go hang out at the library. Even if your visit is short, you are more likely to be invited back if you respect their space.
Remember you are not a co-parent. With a few exceptions, grandparents are experienced parents, and they are eager to share their expertise. Sometimes the son- or daughter-in-law feels sidelined by a grandmother who takes on the role of co-parent. Especially if it’s your daughter who has had a baby, make sure you aren’t crowding out her partner in your eagerness to help. Step back and let them figure it out together.
Respect privacy. While this is your grandbaby, there will still be parts of its life that will be off limits to you. Let parents take the lead in what they want to share, and how much they want to integrate you into their home. Nursing mothers may not want an audience, and some parents don’t want you taking photos of the baby being bathed. Be sensitive to their wishes.
Being a grandparent is a supporting role, and that means you will often be watching the star of the show from the wings. The best way to avoid real-life drama is to know when it’s your turn on stage, and when the director wants you to fade into the background.
Read more about boundaries:
What your pregnant daughter-in-law wants to tell you.
You’re probably thinking about what your role as a grandmother will be. You might be wondering how this baby will affect your relationship, especially if you aren’t close. Or you might be searching for the best gift for your pregnant daughter-in-law and son.
Whatever brought you here, I promise your daughter-in-law is glad you found this post. In fact, the best gift for an expecting daughter-in-law might be reading it.
Here’s what she would tell you if she felt she could.
I am so excited about giving you a grandchild! Actually, let me rephrase that: I’m not really giving you anything! What I should have said is that I’m so excited I am having a baby, and that my baby will have you as a grandmother.
I know you are excited, too, which is why I wanted to tell you a few things that will make it more rewarding for you.
I know you successfully raised (insert number) children, and I really want to thank you for bringing up my (husband/wife/partner). We’ve been reading up on how to be good parents in the digital age, and so much has changed in the last 20 years! We’ll probably do some things a lot differently than you did, and I hope you realize that’s not a reflection of your parenting. I’m happy to share some of the research we’ve done with you—just ask!
Grandparents are so important in a child’s life! Did you know that children who have a close relationship with a grandparent have better mental health throughout their lives? We want our child to have a loving relationship with the entire family, especially you. I’ve seen a lot online about grandparents who don’t respect parents’ boundaries. It’s sad, because a lot of the time it ends up with a situation where the parents get fed up and just limit contact with the grandparents.
We promise to make our boundaries clear so you don’t have to guess about them. We are happy to share them in writing if that will make it easier to remember them.
We’d love to start with a conversation about how you see your role as a grandmother. That way we can figure out together if we can make that happen. Just like any relationship, we may have different expectations, and it’s best if we can talk to each other before we run into any issues.
Like the birth itself! Let’s talk in advance about what the plan will be, so you know when you are welcome. Friends have told me delivery room horror stories and that seems like a bad way to start off our new venture! I’m going to be pretty busy when the time comes, so settling it in advance seems smart!
There are some other things we should talk about before the baby’s born, too. Like who gets to be the first to announce the baby’s arrival. How and when we are comfortable with sharing photos on social media. When we want visitors.
Actually, I’m going to send you a cool guide for new grandparents that I bought online. It’s going to help us cover all the things we should discuss and help you get ready for being a grandma to this baby!
We’ve got a lot of years of loving the same little person ahead of us. I really want to make sure we are all on the same team!
So, future grandmother, what do you think? Are you ready to be the supportive grandparent who follows parents’ lead? You can get a jump on it by buying New Grandparent Essentials for yourself!
This common advice for new grandparents might be wrong.
A few years ago, I joined a group of women for weekly walks along one of my favorite trails. Like any group of new acquaintances, we traded stories and talked about our families and daily lives. The conversation made the hours’ walk go quickly. Gloria was especially entertaining, as she could talk with little need for response.
One day, she recapped what she’d done the previous day as we were walking side-by-side through the eucalyptus trees. “George and I went out to dinner at Roberto’s. Have you been there? I love their food. We usually get there for the early bird special. I ordered the lasagna, and George ordered the steak. He’s such a creature of habit! But we had to leave before our dinners even came.”
“My gosh, what happened?” I started to say, but she was already explaining.
“My son called and asked us to go get our granddaughters from daycare so he could go to the gym after work. So we just told the waiter we couldn’t stay, and went to pick up the girls.”
“Didn’t you tell your son you were busy?” I wondered.
“Oh, no! We don’t want him to think we’re unreliable and then not let us take care of the girls!”
I hear stories like this all the time. One grandmother told me she was assigned a grandmother nickname she loathed, but went along with it because she didn’t want to rock the boat. Another cancelled a vacation for fear her daughter would find someone else to babysit if she missed one of her regular Tuesdays.
My heart aches for grandparents like these who have absorbed the message that they can’t express their own needs or feelings for fear they’ll be cut off from their grandchildren. In fact, one of the first pieces of advice prospective grandparents are given is to “just zip it.”
I respectfully disagree with the parenting experts who continue to tell grandparents that this is the way to harmony. I understand the dangers in grandparents criticizing and interfering. There are plenty of grandparents who have trouble relinquishing their lifetime of telling their children what to do. Grandparents do need to realize they aren’t in charge anymore. They often need to bite their tongue, but doesn’t mean never talking.
Can you think of any other relationship where the advice for getting along better is to communicate less?
There is a better way to be a loving grandparent and supportive partner to your grandchild’s parents: Establish a healthy, open dialog where everyone feels supported and understood.
Grandparents can be the leaders in this dialog. Before the baby is even born, ask questions that show you want to learn about your adult children’s plans and support their choices. (New Grandparent Essentials includes a guide to the most important questions to ask.) Share your own feelings and hopes about your role as a grandparent. Talk openly about boundaries and what to do if one of you feels they’ve been crossed.
But don’t just talk. Listen.
Actively listening is vital to good relationships. If you are truly listening, your grandchild’s parents will come away with a sense that what they have to say is important. They’ll know that you are a grandparent who wants to listen and learn. More than that, they will understand that they are of value. That builds trust, so that when you have something to say, they’ll know you are coming from a place of love and respect.
Just zipping it isn’t the answer to being a good grandparent. Talking and listening is.
How New Grandparents Can Avoid a Communication Breakdown
When Grandparents Don't Listen to Parents
Don’t Forget the Children