The Good-Enough Grandparent

by Donne Davis on May 14, 2009

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My friend, Judy, and I were talking about our grandchildren. She was feeling guilty because she didn’t think she was doing enough for them. With the downturn in the economy she can’t take them on the same trips she did last year. She didn’t buy them as many gifts last Christmas as she did the previous year. She even questioned whether she was doing enough when they came to visit for dinner. She wondered if her grandchildren had expectations of her that she wasn’t living up to.

Judy was laying a major guilt trip on herself. Expectations of what we grandmas think we should be doing produce so much guilt. Some of us are so hard on ourselves and compare ourselves to this imaginary standard of what we think we should be doing.

Dr. Lillian Carson, psychotherapist and author of The Essential Grandparent, discusses this issue with great empathy for the grandparent. Carson has adapted psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott’s concept of a good-enough parent to that of good-enough grandparent.

“The term good enough focuses on your overall effort rather than each individual act. It suggests that in order to grandparent well, you should not try to be a perfect grandparent. Perfection is not within the grasp of ordinary human beings. It’s possible to be a good-enough grandparent—a grandparent who grandparents well. When you are not able to be there and guilt sets in, remind yourself of the over-all picture and how you do contribute. Making plans for what you’ll do in the future is another antidote for guilt.”

I have my own thoughts on this issue. When my granddaughter greets me with: “What did you bring me,” I say: “Me!” Then I give her a big hug and say: “we can do whatever you want today. I’m here just for you.”

My daughter told me a long time ago: “Mom, you don’t need to bring toys for Juliet. You are her favorite toy!”

Try this visualization.

  1. Sit in a quiet place with no distractions.
  2. Take several slow deep breaths.
  3. Close your eyes and visualize your grandchild.
  4. Feel the love you have for her.
  5. Remember the joy you felt the day she was born.
  6. Imagine her sitting beside you with your arms around each other.
  7. Tell the child how much you truly love her and how your life has changed since her birth.
  8. Imagine the child saying: I love you, too.
  9. Take in the joy and love deeply into your heart.
  10. Allow those feelings to wash over you.
  11. Open your eyes and notice how you feel.

These are your true feelings as a grandmother and your grandchildren know this. These are the feelings we need to reinforce in ourselves, not our feelings of guilt and inadequacy.

{ 2 comments }

Sally Wendkos Olds May 20, 2009 at 12:23 pm

I love this concept of the good-enough grandparent. It’s especially hard for those of us who don’t live down the street from our grandchildren to be the kind of grandparent we would like to be and do all the things we would like to do. And then when we have work or volunteer or other commitments, we need to remind ourselves that we’re only one person and that we do the best we can.

And Susan’s description of “Grandma ATM” is spot-on. My daughter too told me not to bring presents every time I see her children. And they know how much I want to see them because they know how long the trip is when they come here!

Susan Adcox May 18, 2009 at 9:48 pm

This is such an important post. When we give our grandchildren gifts or take them on special outings, we are teaching them to receive. How much more important it is to teach them to give. No one can be really happy unless they have found important work to do and ways to serve. Of course, I love taking my grandchildren to the zoo or buying them a special toy. But if I become a Grandma ATM or Toys ‘R’ Us, I am doing my grandchildren a grave disservice.

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