THE SPECIAL TIE: GRANDPARENTS
By Connie Denham
STEPFAMILIES, Winter 1992
"My daughter just remarried and suddenly I'm a stepgrandparent. What am I supposed to do?
"How can I continue a relationship with my grandchildren now that my son's ex-wife has custody of them?"
"My grandchildren are now in a stepfamily with two stepbrothers. Can I be a grandmother to all the children?"
These and many other questions are being raised by today's grandparents, as divorce and remarriage have increasingly forced them out of the comfortable roles that have traditionally been associated with "grandmother" and "grandfather."
Dr. Fitzhugh Dodson, author of How to Grandparent, believes that the key to the development and maintenance of positive relationships in such family situations is flexibility. He emphasizes, "Many problems can arise if grandparents fail to find creative ways of relating in their particular families."
Since grandparenting relationships can be extremely important to the welfare of the grandchildren, the efforts of grandparents to maintain and enrich bonds are certainly worthwhile. The support of grandparents can be invaluable as children face adjustments to new family situations and are dealing with feelings of uncertainty and loss.
When Amy and Daniel Simpson's parents divorced, for example, it was Grandma Abigail who provided the comfort that helped them to overcome their feelings of grief. She spent as much time as she could with them, listening and encouraging them to let their feelings out. Trying to stay as impartial as possible, Abigail also served as a buffer between the hostilities occurring with the parents, and the children. Abigail says, "I tried to get the kids to realize that even though their parents weren't living together anymore, they both still loved them and always would. I did my best to stay out of it and not lay blame ~ anyone or anything. As a result, my former daughter-in-law and I are still friends. That has really helped us all!"
Christy Parker explains how her husband's parents helped strengthen relationships in her new stepfamily. "When Tom and I married, my two children and his two children couldn't adjust for quite awhile. My two were especially resentful. It wasn't until Grandpa and Grandma Parker made an effort to get close to them that they finally began to come around." Christy observes "I think my two felt that since our marriage had brought them two ‘neat' grandparents, our stepfamily couldn't be all bad."
While admitting that it may not come easy for some people, Russell Clark, stepgrandfather of six, feels the formula for successful stepgrandparenting is "love and caring." When Russell's stepdaughter Barbara recently wed, he and his wife Dorothy became "instant" stepgrandparents to Jason, age 11, and Stephanie, age 8. "We've developed relationships with them by taking an interest in what they are doing," says Dorothy. "We try to go to their school functions, ball games, and music recitals. We just generally try to show them that we care."
Russell and Dorothy emphasize that the children's parents have helped the relationship to grow. "They encourage the kids to be thoughtful to us as grandparents," Dorothy explains. "The children often send us ‘grandparent' cards on special days and call to invite us over for holiday celebrations." Like the stepgrandparents in these families, research has shown that the role grandparents play in the lives of grandchildren transcends any biological bonds. That special tie of the "younger" and "older" generations can also develop between totally unrelated individuals. Indeed, relationships can flourish, especially with the right dose of encouragement from other family members.
Rather than limiting the definition of grandparent to a "parent whose children have children," a wider definition can be an "emotionally involved part-time parent." Stepgrandparents, too, can be warm, loving caregivers who have the luxury of spending time with the children and then giving them back to their parents. After remarriage, family members sometimes worry needlessly that the grandchildren may be confused by the addition of steprelatives. They may fear that too many sets of grandparents may be upsetting or that the new stepgrandparent relationships may diminish the importance of the biological grandparents.
Researches have found, however, that children do not think of relationships in terms of numbers and probably won't be upset by having a large network of relatives, both biological and step. According to Suzanne West, human development specialist for Cornell University Cooperative Extension, ‘Divorce doesn't really end a family, it rearranges it." The children's pain, fear and anxiety during divorce and remarriage can be eased by caring grandparents on all sides of the family.
What happens to grandparenting relationships in families of divorce and remarriage depends on many factors, but of major importance is the quality of the previous relationships between family members. Who has custody, where the children live geographically, and what other adults are important to the children, will greatly affect relationships too. With all of these complexities, grandparents and stepgrandparents may need courage, perseverance, and above all an attitude of acceptance, to build bridges of understanding in post-divorce families. As in all stepfamily relationships, grandparenting bonds may take a long time to build. Given time and creativity, however, expanded stepfamily networks that include many sets of grandparents can be a reality.
As eight-year-old Staci, who has three biological grandparents and four stepgrandparents, observed, "We're lucky we have lots of grandmas and grandpas." "Yeah," her five-year-old sister chimed in, ‘We're real lucky."
How Parents and Stepparents Can Help
Remember that although you need to separate from your former spouse, your children very much need to continue both parental and extended family relationships. Encourage your children to maintain close ties with their biological grandparents.
Be patient with your former in-laws and the parents of your partner's ex-spouse. Maintaining harmonious relationships is in the best interests of your children and stepchildren. Recognize that grandparents and stepgrandparents need time to adjust to family changes that have occurred.
Think of stepgrandparents as expanding the family network not as replacements for the original family. Your family can benefit enormously by numerous sets of loving grandparents.
Provide opportunities for ‘instant' stepgrandparents to get to know their new stepgrandchildren. They shouldn't be expected to accept - and even love - the children without having the chance to build relationships.
When possible, promote new relationships by encouraging your children and stepchildren to invite all their grandparents to special events and activities.