Home About Dr Gayle Counseling Services Speaking Services Online Seminars Articles Press Room Books Contact

Ask Dr. Gayle

Sorting Out New
Mother-Grandmother Relationship

QUESTION: I raised three wonderful children who are now lovely adults without any problems. My first and only grandson is nine months old now. Before his birth, my daughter-in-law and I were very close, but now it seems as if everything I do is wrong. The most recent upset was when we bought a stroller to take our grandson out for walks. We did this because it would be easier for the baby and us, and so the parents didn't have to drag things over to our place and pack them up again. My daughter-in-law thought we were trying to be the parents. It just seems that I can never do anything right. All I want is to be a good grams and enjoy my grandchild. Am I doing wrong? My mom always had things at her house for the grandkids.

ANSWER: You are not doing "wrong"; you are just following the course set out for you by your own mother! Your daughter-in-law, however, did not come from the same family. Her mother-daughter relationship may reflect a family culture quite different from your own. These differences must be appreciated and respected, if a supportive relationship between a new mother and a new grandmother is to evolve.

To add to your pain, this is your first grandchild. You are excited and enthusiastic about playing a role in your grandchild's life. And you have lost a friendship with your daughter-in-law to boot! No wonder you are feeling so bereft. Despite your disappointment, however, do your best to understand the fuller picture, and do not draw negative conclusions about yourself -- or what your role will be in the future -- at this time. Instead, reach out to your daughter-in-law and do your best to re-establish some of the connection you used to enjoy together.

Let your daughter-in-law know that you are still interested in her, independent of your grandchild. Tell her that you miss your relationship with her, and see if it is possible to go out to lunch together, just the two of you. Reconnect and slowly develop a relationship that includes your new roles. After all, she has never been a mother before, and you have never been a grandmother! There is much that is new, and even more that is yet unknown between you about how to best approach these new roles with one another. Discussions that explore feelings and experiences must come before assumptions, which will only blow up, rather than secure your relationship.

If you feel comfortable doing so, ask your daughter-in-law about her relationship with her mother. What are the things she wants to pass down to her child? Or the things she does not want to pass down to the next generation? Share with her your own struggles with your mother (there must have been some when you first became a parent!) and make it clear to her that although you may have been more enthusiastic than she was ready for, you respect her authority and want to be available to her when she is ready for a break and wants you to take her son on a walk.

Bear in mind that although you had a close relationship with your mother, your daughter-in-law may not have had this benefit. If so, she may need the space to develop her own identity as a mother because she does not respect the example her own mother offers. This could be a time of great inner work for her, and she may need to do more of it alone than you might wish. In time, she will no doubt be able to enjoy what you have to offer (which sounds wonderful!). But in the meantime, she may feel your desire to be involved an intrusion until she finds her own course.

Although it seems natural to you to extend your good will in the same way that your mother did, it may feel to your daughter-in-law that you are overstepping her boundaries. Rest assured that with time, she will become more confident in her own mothering style, and you will be less threatening to her. But you will also likely come to understand that your automatic -- although well-meaning -- assumptions about taking your grandson for a walk or buying a stroller may pre-empt decisions she wants to make (such as when she is ready to separate from him and whether she wants him carried instead of pushed in a stroller, for example).

Keep in mind that a new mother can sometimes find herself overshadowed by the greatness and experience of an elder. A young tree in a forest cannot grow too closely to an older, well-established tree without threatening its own growth. Perhaps your daughter-in-law just needs some space to grow!

Do your best to remain connected rather than "put off." Peer through your disappointment to see what your daughter-in-law may be experiencing. Take it slow! Have meaningful discussions with her over lunch, or during a walk with the baby (or without the baby!), and develop a true intimacy based on understanding each other, rather than making assumptions. With luck, she will get to know you better, too, and enjoy the energy you have to share in your role as a grandmother.

Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

Return to Dr. Gayle Peterson's Home Page

Copyright 1996-2003.  Gayle Peterson All rights reserved.

Send Comments and Inquiries to Dr. Gayle Peterson at gp@askdrgayle.com