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Staying Connected with Grandchild after Divorce

QUESTION: My ex-daughter-in-law lives very close, but she never calls me. I've never seen my youngest granddaughter, and she's now nine months old. I've never done anything to deserve this. Even my son doesn't get his visitation rights. What can I do short of going to court to establish visitation?

ANSWER: It appears that you have nothing to lose by approaching your granddaughter's mother about your relationship with your grandchild. It is possible that your ex-daughter-in-law feels uncomfortable initiating contact since divorcing your son. And it would not be surprising if the tension between your grandchild's parents plays a part in not inviting you over!

In most post-divorce situations, barring situations of child neglect or abuse, parents should encourage the relationship between children and both sides of the family, as it is in the best interests of the children to know their relatives. Still, your granddaughter is quite young, and with tensions high between your ex-daughter-in-law and your son, your ex-daughter-in-law may indeed need some reassurance from you that contact with you will not exacerbate the tension between herself and her ex-husband.

Consider these guidelines in your approach:

  1. Examine your own feelings. The first order of business is self-reflection on your own anger, which arises from hurt feelings. Because you are feeling a loss, you may be inclined to take sides, blaming your ex-daughter-in-law for might actually result from your son's action or inaction. You must give your her the benefit of the doubt if you are not to taint your future relationship with your granddaughter with tensions of your own. This does not mean that you take her side. Instead, resolve to remain neutral.

  2. Suspend judgment. Be aware that every story has two sides. It can help if you suspend judgment at this time, and consider possibilities other than the one your son describes. For example, your son may perceive himself as superfluous to a baby, therefore not pressing the issue of visitation. Or he may have difficulty maintaining his visitation schedule; for instance, if he is late, he may forfeit his visitation rights for that visit. Either one of the parents may be blind to the other side of their story and what they can do to remedy it. You are hearing only one side! To keep your grandchild out of the middle, you must remain non-judgmental. It is your son's job to address his visitation problems. If he fails to do so, do not respond by pointing the finger at his ex-wife.

  3. Use a soft approach, and focus on your grandchild. Once you have examined your own feelings and found a way to keep yourself out of an overly judgmental role, you may be ready to approach your grandchild's mother about getting to know your granddaughter. It is in your grandchild's best interest to enjoy family members who can love and cherish her as she grows, and paternal grandmas are no exception! But adopt a soft approach that clarifies that your intent is to know your grandchild, without getting in the middle of any conflict between your grandchild's parents. Do assure your grandchild's mother that you will not talk about the divorce or your son, but instead stay focused on your grandchild, and sharing the wonders of her development.

  4. Identify yourself as a resource. Clarify your desire to know your granddaughter and communicate your intent to be a resource. (This could make geographic proximity a plus, as long as you respect boundaries!) Your ex-daughter-in-law may indeed need the help. For example, once trust is established, she may welcome a break by asking grandma to babysit.

  5. Make an overture. Consider using the age-old tradition of showing your grandmotherly attention by buying a special present. Rest assured that giving a gift does not mean you are "buying love." This is something grandmas do and communicates your love and genuine interest. You will likely find that you enjoy it, and it could be the peace offering needed to break the ice. You might even use the occasion of a holiday or birthday to introduce the subject of a visit with your granddaughter. Ask the mother for a picture of your granddaughter that you can put up in your house, and invite them over for tea or even to take a special picture of your granddaughter.

Do not wait for your daughter-in-law to initiate contact. Take responsibility for making the extra effort to reach out to her (with a focus on your grandchild), in her time of need. After all, isn't this what grandparenting is about?

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.

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