Being a grandmother is not as innocent or blissful as many people may think. There’s actually a murky little secret about having a grandchild today: the competition.
The jealousy and one-upmanship that exists between grandmothers is rarely acknowledged. So the next time you see a bunch of gray-haired people surrounding a little kid and getting along swimmingly, know there’s subterranean rivalry and an internal dialogue going on.
How do I know this? When my first grandbaby made her appearance eight years ago, I was blindsided by the perplexing swirl of emotions. Holding that warm little bundle in my arms unleashed all the dormant maternal feelings that are called forth when infants are so dependent. In the glory of the moment, I didn’t think about the other people in the equation — more precisely, the other grandmother who likely felt the very same way I did.
It is why, for grandmothers, there are suddenly dark feelings nibbling at the edges of your euphoria.
Like when you’re told the other grandma bought that expensive play kitchen.
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Or is planning an extended family vacation at the beach.
Or is keeping the grandchild in designer duds while you’re shopping at garage sales for kiddie jeans and snow boots.
The problems are magnified when one set of grandparents lives closer to the child than the other. You find out they’re visiting every two months even though they live halfway across the country. The next thing you know, the distant “grands” are paying for trips to Disneyland or sending hefty birthday checks.
It’s hard not to feel competitive and jealous. Grandparents must perform a complicated dance just to be in the grandchild’s life.
Alica Thiele, 59, of Brandon, South Dakota, thought she’d have three or four grandchildren in her life by now. But that isn’t likely to happen at this point. Both of her adult children are in their late 30s. Her daughter doesn’t want kids and her son is divorced.
When Thiele’s kids were little, she saved a selection of baby clothes and toys to give to her future grandchildren. That’s the first thing she thought of when her daughter-in-law announced she was expecting. Thiele was excited to finally see her future granddaughter play with the toys, wear the clothes her kids had worn, and use the highchair she had saved for years.
But it didn’t turn out like that.
After the baby was born, “the parents didn’t like the clothes or the highchair,” Thiele said.
The clothes were too dated and the highchair didn’t meet safety regulations. They wouldn’t even take the items home.
Though hurt and disappointed, she made peace with her situation. Still, there is a complex living arrangement she has to deal with, one increasingly common these days.
“My granddaughter lives with her other grandmother in Omaha,” said Thiele.
The mother and daughter moved there after a divorce from Thiele’s son — and Omaha is a three-hour drive away from Thiele’s home.
Proximity is powerful. Naturally her 6-year-old granddaughter, Scarlett, will have a closer relationship with the other grandmother, Thiele conceded.
“When she was a little younger, she would talk about her grandma because she lives with her. I would say, ‘I’m your grandma, too,’ but she would say, ‘No, you’re not. You’re Grandma Thiele.’ It hurt.”
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Last summer Thiele was again reminded she was not part of the first string when all four grandparents spent the Fourth of July with their granddaughter. They were outside lighting sparklers when a spark landed on the little girl’s arm and she ran to the other grandmother to be comforted.
As Thiele watched, she felt tremendously sad.
“She sat on her lap and they cuddled,” said Thiele. “She never cuddles with me or sits on my lap.”
Thiele told LifeZette, “You want the love of the granddaughter. You want the granddaughter to look up and smile at you, at least as much as she does with the other grandma. The important thing is to not let it eat at you. Acknowledge it, but don’t obsess about it.”
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Now she fosters other connections to her grandchild.
“I still have all my Nancy Drew books. Scarlett loves to read, and I can’t wait until she’s older and I can give them to her,” she said.
Thiele also became self-nurturing: She started teaching 3-year-olds in a Sunday school class.
“It’s a good way to get my ‘grandma fix,'” said Thiele.
So don’t let your hard feelings affect your relationship or how you treat your grandchild, Thiele told LifeZette. Also, don’t be overbearing. That’s a sure way to push kids away.
No one can predict which grandchild will bond more easily to which grandparent. Furthermore, “you can’t focus on how it is at the other house. You have to develop your own interests and connection to your grandchild,” Thiele said. Always act in the best interest of the child, and don’t say bad things about the other family, she advised.
These days Thiele concentrates on playing board games with Scarlett. She also recently made headway with her granddaughter. Scarlett was at her home recently and told her, “I like coming here.” She was moved.
“On the outside, I said, ‘That’s nice.’ On the inside I jumped up, yelling, ‘Yay!'”
In my own case, three of my five grandchildren live in town, while the other two live out of state. The sheer number of grandkids limits the amount of time and money I can spend on each.
I see the grandchildren in town regularly and the grandchild in Minneapolis every couple of months. The one in California I see far less, about once a year, though we FaceTime nearly every week.
Just after Christmas, my son in California told me they had decided to visit his wife’s parents in Iowa this summer rather than coming home to South Dakota. It wasn’t the first time. Later I told him I was going to make the six-hour drive to Iowa to see my grandson when he was there this summer. My reasoning was flawless. After all, the other grands fly to California three times a year and also pay for my son’s family to travel back to Iowa. It’s only fair they share the grandson with me.
Then my son told me the other grandma had been in the hospital for a week with a lethal diagnosis, and the summer plans would likely change based on her fragile health.
My jealousy, resentment and competition completely evaporated.
Does it really matter how many toys the other grandmother buys our grandson or how many times she visits him, even if it’s twice as often as me? Instead of grumbling about the money they spend on him, now I pray the other grandmother will live long enough for her 3-year-old grandson to remember her.
In the end, it doesn’t matter which grandmother he likes best. Our job isn’t to compete for his affection, but to love him unconditionally, accept him wholeheartedly and guide him gently.
And the more people he has around to do that, the better off he will be.