Do Maternal Grandmothers Really Have It Better?

by Donne Davis on February 2, 2011

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Today’s guest writer is Barbara Graham, editor of the New York Times bestseller, Eye of My Heart: 27 Writers Reveal the Hidden Pleasures and Perils of Being a Grandmother, which tells “the whole crazy, complicated truth about being a grandmother in today’s world.” We’ve had many lively discussions in the GaGa Sisterhood about who has it better—maternal or paternal grandmas, so I know there’s interest in this topic.

Being the mother-in-law is the hot-button subject paternal grandmothers tend to dwell on—and I’m no exception. I included essays on the subject in Eye of My Heart. I’ve written columns on Grandparents.com about feeling left out as a result of my in-law status.

But, I wonder, what about grandmothers on the maternal side? Do they really have it so much better than we do? Are they spared walking on eggshells around their adult daughters? Is their access to the grandkids as freewheeling as those of us with in-law after the word mother imagine? In other words, are the old myths really true?

The answer is yes—and no. To borrow the title from a recent movie, like everything else related to grandparenthood, it’s complicated. Here’s why.

Myth No. 1: Maternal grandmothers have easier access to grandkids than their in-law counterparts.

Well, maybe … sometimes. But there are many mitigating factors. Geography, in our very fluid society, is one. “Despite the wonders of Skype, I’m not as close to my daughter’s family in California as her in-laws are,” says Martha Horne, a retired social worker and grandmother of seven. “Regular contact is very important to children as they are growing up.” And though Horne is grateful that her daughters-in-law are on the scene and able to help out, she wishes she could see her grandkids on the west coast more often. “Each grandchild is unique,” she says.

There are other factors, too—even when the whole clan lives in close proximity. For example, some paternal grandmothers are retired and more available to babysit than maternal grandmothers, while others are kept from being involved due to poor health.

Sanity and family dysfunction are also key. Even nanas who live in the same burg as their daughters may not enjoy an open-door policy when it comes to the grandkids. This is true of my friend Lily, whose daughter-in-law barely speaks to her mother, whom she considers borderline psychotic. Instead, she confides in Lily. Which brings us to….

Myth No. 2: Daughters rely on their mothers for advice and emotional support.

and

Myth No. 3: Maternal grandmothers don’t feel left out.

In both cases … sometimes. It all depends on the relationship between mother and daughter. For some daughters, becoming a parent can trigger old issues with their mothers. In Eye of My Heart, Jill Nelson writes: “Whatever the reasons, my daughter and I … are stuck refighting tired battles. As much as I would like what binds me to my grandson to be simple and clear, the connection between us gets tangled up between my daughter and me. My love for my grandson roils what I thought—or wished—had been resolved, forgotten, or forgiven.”

And even though many daughters get along well with their mothers, they frequently consider Mom’s views on child-rearing obsolete. Instead, this younger generation of mothers tends to depend on their friends, as well as the staggeringly abundant information now available online.

Myth No. 4: Maternal grandmothers don’t have to walk on eggshells.

Not! If you are a grandparent—maternal or paternal—who never bites your tongue, never says the opposite of what you really mean, never pretends to approve when you don’t, or never in any way tiptoes around your highly sensitive adult children, please contact me at once. I want to learn from you!

Julie Bondanza, a Washington, D.C., psychologist and maternal grandmother explains, “Unless you witness child abuse or some other drastic situation that puts your grandchildren in peril, criticizing your daughter’s parenting style will only make her defensive. Tact, respect, and letting go of the small stuff will result in a much healthier relationship.”

Myth No. 5: Maternal grandmothers are kept in the loop by their daughters.

Again, many are—but many others are not. Take my friend Alice, whose daughter refuses to speak to her. Alice depends on secret phone calls from her son-in-law to fill her in on the activities of the two grandchildren she adores but rarely sees because of a strained relationship with her daughter.

Geography plays a role here, too. The grandparents who live closest or are most involved with the kids generally are more in the know, regardless of which side of the family they’re on.

And, as impossible as this may seem, there are some maternal grandmothers who take little or no interest in their grandkids’ triumphs and tribulations. These grandmas are out of the loop because they choose to be.

Finally, although paternal grandmothers may have to work harder to establish trust with their daughters-in-law in order to stay in the loop, the trust between mothers and daughters may be broken already by the time grandchildren come along.

… And One Reality

When I started writing this column, I thought I had very little to bring to the subject, since I’m the mother of an adult son. And then I realized that even though I’ll never be a grandmother on the maternal side, I am a daughter. Not only did I not enjoy a close relationship with my own mother while growing up, I moved 3,000 miles away from her and my father before my son, Clay, was born. Products of the Great Depression, my parents seemed to disapprove of every parental move that I—a spirited child of the 60s—made. It wasn’t until after Clay became a father himself that my mother congratulated me for having raised such a kind and wonderful son.

Like I said: It’s complicated.

(Barbara Graham is a columnist for Grandparents.com, where this article originally appeared.)

{ 2 comments }

grannynanny February 13, 2011 at 11:48 am

Since both my son and my daughter recently had children I am able to speak as both a paternal and maternal grandmother. Although I have positive relationships with both of them as well as their spouses, it was my daughter who moved to be closer to our family and it was my son who moved farther away. In addition, it was my son-in-law who agreed to move closer to us than to his own parents (he says it was in the marriage contract!). Of course, I am only one example – but I have a feeling that the old Irish saying that Susan Adcox quoted in the last comment may be somewhat true – barring any complications!

Susan Adcox February 2, 2011 at 12:52 pm

Generalizations are always dangerous, but in my experience there is some truth to this one. In my blog I once quoted the old Irish saying: “A son is a son till he takes him a wife, a daughter is a daughter all of her life.” I got at least one comment that took strong exception to this statement!

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