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After Divorce: Grandchildren & the In-Laws

by Dr. Lillian Carson

Discussions today are characterized by adversarial positions that polarize two points of view. Television is filled with people arguing their own ideas and not taking time to think or listen and consider the other's side. Such poor models for conversation and civility are guaranteed to keep us apart. We must be careful not to bring this popular mode of debate into our own lives for it does not lead to thoughtful problem solving or to finding solutions. It closes minds and separates people.

How do we come together? How do we maintain family togetherness despite differences and wounds? First, we must decide that we want to overcome the obstacles. We must be steadfast in our determination to hold the family together no matter its shape. When there are children, there is almost no such thing as total divorce. The children make it necessary and desirable for the divorcing couple and their families to have lifelong relationships.

The stories that follow are inspirational. They are the stories of grandparents determined to keep close relationships with their grandchildren and continue to influence their lives.

Grandma Sarah was determined to remain a presence in her two-year-old granddaughter's life after her son and daughter-in law divorced. It became especially challenging when granddaughter Laura's mother remarried and moved to a remote area of Northern California a long way from New York City.

Sarah made her intentions known to her daughter-in-law at the outset. She wanted to remain a positive force in Laura's new family. For a working woman, supporting herself, this took planning.

Her yearly visits to California were inconvenient and expensive but she persisted. She also remained a continual presence in Laura's life by sending her some important, useful gifts that would send the message that Grandma was thinking of her. She chose items that would be used often, like a computer and a boom box (a tape player/radio). Keep in mind that, for a woman on a limited budget, these gifts had to be carefully budgeted.

The plan has worked. Now in her thirties and married, Laura and Grandma Sarah enjoy a warm relationship. The pleasure of this connection also extends to her former daughter-in-law and her new husband. And Grandma has the satisfaction of knowing that she has strengthened the bonds between Laura and her father's side of the family.

Another story of steadfast support was told to me by Carrie who sells her homemade preserves at our local Farmer's Market. When I asked about her family, she told me that she had her former daughter-in-law and three grandchildren living with her. "My daughter-in-law is a twenty-six-year-old adolescent," Carrie said with her characteristic good nature, "so my son and I decided that it would be best for the children if they moved in with me. This is a twist on the grandparents raising grandchildren stories. Here was a grandmother who was raising her former daughter-in-law as well!

The story really begins in daughter-in-law Peg's childhood. Her parents divorced after her little brother tragically drowned in the bathtub. Peg's mother left her in the care of her maternal grandmother and faded from her daughter's life, so at fourteen she went to live with her father and stepmother in a household of hollering, abuse and acoholism. Carrie described Peg as a person who seemed to have that extra something, "the spunk that helps to pull them out of the muck and mire." Peg saw education as her answer and was attending the community college in her Midwestern hometown when she met Dan, Carrie's eldest son. He admired her determination to have a better life, and they married.

After the marriage, Peg seemed compelled to recreate the violent household of her youth. She admitted to egging Dan on to lose his temper. Finally, as the situation in the household deteriorated, she yelled, "You get out of here," and he did. At this point they had two daughters, ages three years and thirteen months, and one on the way. Every time Dan went to visit, she would explode and throw things, making it impossible for him to move back.

Carrie described her relationship with Peg by stating "from the outset I accepted her. She had no real mother. We both knew I wasn't her mother but I was a shoulder to cry on." When Carrie went to visit after the divorce she found that Peg was not very functional. "I realized she wasn't finding a place to live and was having drinking bouts. I also worried about Dan's loss of weight. I suggested to my son that Peg and the children could come to live with me in California. It meant that he wouldn't see the children, but because of his concern for their health and safety, he agreed that I should invite her.

"When I invited her to come, I gave her three conditions I expected her to meet: get a job, pay something toward the children's upkeep and go for therapy. I thought it was important for her to take some responsibility. The therapy part never worked out. Peg arrived with a chip on her shoulder. Instead of working as partners, I was an antagonist.

"She stayed with me for a year-and-a-half and filled my house with negative energy. I ended up with the full care of the children, doing all the cooking, dishes and cleaning. It was emotionally and physically sapping me. She became abusive and physically lashed out at me, accusing me of trying to take the children away from her. As she became more and more unpredictable, it became clear that she had a drinking problem. I even ended up reporting her for child abuse after I overheard her hitting the four-year-old, leaving a hand-shaped welt on the little girl's face.

"Each morning I would brace myself to go forth from my bedroom by reminding myself, I'm doing this for the children. Peg is now attending the local university and has moved to student housing with the kids. She remains angry, alcoholic, abusive and in total denial. She is also very skillful at eliciting sympathy from others. Meanwhile, Dan has filed with the courts for custody of the three children. The court-appointed evaluator seemed to grasp the situation accurately, and we are 'cautiously optimistic' that he will get the children. If he does gain custody, the children will move back to the Midwest with him."

Grandmother Carrie is planning to help with that transition by returning with them. She will aid them in getting established, finding schools and day care, cooking and settling them into a routine. "My daughter is willing to keep my business going and work the market. We are a family working at this," she stated with pride.

"You must worry," I said sympathetically. She answered quickly. "No, I don't worry. I can't do any more than I've done. I can't worry about things I can't change. I've gone to a therapist and to Al-Anon for support. I've grown and learned some things about myself.

"You're very strong, Carrie," I responded in admiration. "My parents loved me. They gave me strength. And I had grandparents who believed in me."

Grandma Carrie's story is an example of a family's strength and resolve to help each other and keep the welfare of the children their priority. The next story is yet another example of heartwarming family solidarity.

"My son is moving back home today," a grandmother volunteered during my grandparenting class. "Right now, he and my daughter-in-law are telling their daughters (ages nine and twelve) that he is moving out." When we met again a few months later, her son was still living at her home.

"Before he moved out, we were at their home. My daughter-in-law was clearly distraught and crying as we did the dishes. She confided that they were having problems and that Jonathan wouldn't see a counselor. I took a risk and suggested, 'Maybe you need to see a counselor.' She didn't take offense and actually began to see one. When Jonathan moved out and asked to move back home, we were devastated. We knew they weren't happy but, after fourteen years of marriage, were hoping that with counseling they would work it out.

"When Jonathan arrived he was crying a lot and very depressed. The nice part is that we, my husband and myself, reestablished our relationship with our son. The three of us cried together, held each other and bonded again. Those first few weeks were difficult and exhausting with a lot of talking and crying.

"I hadn't spoken to my daughter-in-law, Lee. Jonathan reported that she felt terrible that we weren't taking so I called her. She was very pleasant but obviously guarded. It was a bit of a strain. Over time she told me she was learning that her relationships were always at a superficial level due to her difficulty getting close to others."

According to Grandma, "The grandchildren seem to be doing well. They haven't had to make any changes other than to get used to their dad not being there. They see him often. There was a lot of unhappiness in the marriage and the children see their parents growing hopeful that they'll get back together. The older one is pretty closed about it but the younger one asked me if I were mad at her. Maybe she is mad at me?

"I have questioned what I could have done differently that might have helped. Jonathan was unhappy for a long time. Should I have been more confrontational, more honest about what I saw? I didn't want to meddle.

"When Jonathan moved in with us I told him up front, I don't cook much anymore. You're welcome to have meals with us when we're home but you're on your own. And when the grandchildren come to be with him, I let him take responsibility for them and try to give them plenty of time to be by themselves.

"I feel a need to be there emotionally for the grandkids. Our communication is good and we spend quality time. They spend time working with their grandpa in his studio and we go golfing. I'm alert to their moods, and when they seem down I try to get them to talk about it. The other grandparents act like nothing has happened. They don't talk about it. We've never really had much in common.

"If this separation continues, we'll expect Jonathan to find his own place. As nice as it is to have him with us, I don't think it's healthy for him to stay indefinitely."

These stories really expose the emotional pain that grandparents experience during divorce and their tentative relationships with the in-laws. They also serve as models for the careful thought and diplomacy necessary to keep communication open and judgments and frustrations to oneself. One grandmother told me of the mutually reciprocal arrangement she enjoys with a friend. They have agreed to call each other to unload their frustrations about their kids so they can avoid saying or doing something they might regret later. Let's face it, being an in-law can be precarious.

It was easy to understand why the Hills truly adored their daughter-in-law Annie. She was lovely. Talented, kind and easygoing, she was also a devoted mother to her three children. When she and their son, Kent, announced their intention to divorce, the Hills were shattered and literally unable to talk about it. It seemed to hit Grandpa Howard the hardest.

What has been interesting to observe over the more than fifteen years since this breakup is the way Annie has truly remained a member of the Hill family. She is included in family gatherings and continues to be a devoted daughter-in-law. In fact, now that the Hills both have medical problems, Annie is the family member on call in case of an emergency. Neither Annie nor Kent has remarried, so new mates are not an issue, although Kent has had a girlfriend for many years who is also included. They have all put their interest in the children/grandchildren and their truly bonded relationships ahead of personal hurt. This inclusion is a model for a family remaining together despite the difficult circumstance of divorce.

Tips for Maintaining Your Relationship
with Your In-Law Kids

Reach out to your in-law child and state your intentions.

Let him/her know that you want to remain involved with the grandchildren.

State your desire to continue to have family celebrations.

Indicate that you'd like to help out (give specific suggestions).

offer to volunteer in your grandchild's class.

Express your sympathy for the situation.

Don't place criticism and blame.

Avoid getting in the middle.

Don't burden them with your own feelings.

Display your good will.

Forgiveness: An Act of Courage or Self-Denial?

To err is human, to forgive divine.
Alexander Pope

This oft-quoted saying recognizes the difficulty of forgiveness, for it must come from a deep place within ourselves, a place that accepts the imperfections in human nature while choosing to rise above them. It also comes from a determination to forge ahead toward higher goals by encouraging growth and a willingness to learn from life's lessons.

Why, then, is it so difficult to forgive?

Because, somehow, at the base of forgiveness are the seeds of self-denial. If we forgive, if we let go of our anger and indignation, we experience a sense of betrayal to ourselves. Holding on to anger becomes a trap that hinders us from reaching our goals.

"I always had a pleasant relationship with my son-in-law, and now that he and my daughter are divorced we keep in touch. He came to visit me with his new wife and I look forward to meeting his new baby. I sent them a baby gift; after all the baby is my granddaughter Ashley's half-sister, and I don't want Ashley to feel that her two families are entirely separate.

The Other Grandparents

The in-law grandparents also require thought. Even if you are not very close it helps to give them the courtesy of a call or note to acknowledge the divorce and the change in the family. It is easier for the grandchildren when the two sides remains friendly.

On the other hand, if you have a relationship with the other grandparents it behooves you to reach out to them. It may be awkward but, unfortunately divorce creates many awkward situations. Like the predicament of grandparents Sid and Barbara. They enjoyed a special relationship with their daughter-in-law's parents Hannah and Jim. The four of them enjoyed each others company, going out to dinner, playing cards, and traveling together. It was a united family. The divorce of their kids was a shock. They were all heartbroken. It also precipitated a personal dilemma about the cemetery plots they had purchased together. They felt a joint gravesite would be easier for their children when, someday, they visited the cemetery, and also represented a symbol of unity between families. Now Sid and Barbara felt estranged from this notion and after much deliberation decided to sell their plots and purchase new ones in another cemetery. It was a sad loss for the family. Another rupture resulting from divorce.

The four attempted to hold on to their former camaraderie but their relationships were obviously strained by their kids' divorce. They still enjoyed comparing notes about the grandchildren but couldn't help but experience discomfort as the divorce progressed and controversy between their children surfaced. In divorce, the grandparents are often the forgotten casualties.

(c)1999 Dr. Lillian Carson. All rights reserved. Reprinted from The Essential Grandparent's Guide to Divorce by Dr. Lillian Carson. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the written permission of the publisher. Publisher: Health Communications, Inc., 3201 SW 15th Street, Deerfield Beach, FL 33442.

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