Ask Dr. Gramma Karen: Grandmother Feels Overlooked

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Dear Dr. Gramma Karen,

I have a great relationship with my daughter-in-law, Elana, and we get to see our three grandchildren often (ages 6, 8, and 10). I’m still working full time, and although I don’t have every weekend off, I never get to host weekend dinners with my son, DIL, and grandchildren.

The reason I rarely host a weekend dinner is because my DIL’s mother, who lives close by, is alone and retired, and she has been having them over on most weekends for Sunday dinner. The grandchildren have a good relationship with her too, and she sees them during the week occasionally, and at church on Sunday. She does not ever have the children over night or when my daughter-in-law and son go out of town.

I have tried to invite them over for a Sunday dinner in advance thinking that surely Elana would allow me to have an occasional Sunday at my home. When I have asked, she quickly replies that she has already made plans to go to dinner at her mother’s. Recently, I asked about an upcoming Sunday to see if we could celebrate my grandson’s birthday,

She stated that her mother had already asked about it, and that they were planning to celebrate and to eat dinner with her. My feelings were very hurt; many times when I host dinner I have included her mother. I asked her how long in advance did I have to make an arrangement to host a dinner, and she made it seem like I was being silly and ridiculous. She said that they have dinner with her mother most Sundays because her mother lives alone and is lonely, and they are her only social interaction.

I have written my son a letter and spoken to him about this a long time ago when I felt I was being overlooked. He simply said that I need to plan way in advance and that they make plans way ahead, and if I wanted to have something I should schedule it in advance. So that’s what I thought I was doing when I asked about my grandson’s birthday coming up.

My son and DIL do call me mostly to baby sit when they go on a trip, or out to dinner, or for weekend getaways, and they ask me months in advance.

We adore our grandkids, and have a great relationship with them, so I don’t want to jeopardize that we are able to see them often. That’s why I don’t always say anything – I do not want to stir the pot. But sometimes I feel like I’m taken advantage of. I feel like my DIL’s mother doesn’t include me because I still work and have a husband.

Dr. Gramma Karen’s Response

I understand that you are feeling, as you say, “overlooked” when it comes to the other grandmother seeming to have an exalted status when it comes to hosting Sunday dinners. I think I can be most helpful by suggesting two factors for your consideration that may affect your current view of your situation.

First, as pointed out by The New York Times columnist Paula Spana, and supported by research she cites in “The Maternal Grandparent Advantage,” there exists a phenomenon called matrilineal advantage. “The mother-daughter dyads engage in more frequent phone contact, more emotional support and advice — more than mothers do with sons or fathers with daughters,” said Karen Fingerman, who teaches human development and family sciences at the University of Texas, Austin, and has published studies on this topic.

Along these lines, a look at the mother-daughter relationship reminds us of the interplay between three factors:

  1. Intensity: that is, relationships between family members, for example, between a parent and a child, are typically the closest, most emotionally intense of any in the human experience, involving the highest level of attachment, affection, and commitment. There is typically daily contact for many years that bonds individuals together.
  2. Complexity: most pertinent type of complexity in family relationships —ambivalence. The web of family relationships includes dimensions such as love, respect, friendship, hate, resentment, jealousy, rivalry, and disapproval.
  3. Duration: A person’s parents and siblings will always be their parents and siblings.

In other words, because your DIL has known her mother for her whole life, she and her mother have a long and historical relationship that has deep and unique bonds. It is not unusual for many DILs to retain a closeness and dependency that often is not as intense between a son and his mother when he marries.

Three readers’ comments from Ms. Spano’s article inform this view:

“It makes sense that daughters are closer to their own mothers than their mother-in-law, the biological and familial relationship has been there since day 1.”

“If I have a clash with my own mother on how to run the house or raise my kids, I feel more comfortable arguing or hashing things out.”

“I have a wonderful MIL with whom I have a great relationship, still I am definitely closer to my own mom. I talk more with my MIL than my husband does though. In fact, if it weren’t for me he would not know what’s going on with his own family (parents and siblings).”

This is all by way of saying that as available and as loving and giving as you obviously are, it is not unusual that Elana will make social decisions and commitments that favor her mother, in this case giving her mom first dibs on hosting Sunday dinners. It may be that Sunday dinners have an important place in their family traditions and the continuance of the dinners is a way for Elana to honor her mother.

Step Back

If I step back and objectively assess the access you have to your grandchildren (frequent access) and the role you are permitted to play (overnights, primary caretakers in your DIL and son’s absence), I want to commend your son and DIL. It would appear they have gone out of their way to be inclusive in many important ways; it seems they are trying to be fair to both grandmothers.

I agree with you that this is not a pot you want to be stirring. You have shared your concerns with your DIL and son, you have asked them to make changes, and they have not accommodated you in the ways you had hoped they would.

The plus side of the ledger for your relationship with your DIL and son so outweighs the negative side that I want to refer to poet and writer Maya Angelou’s adage:

“If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.”

I have tried to give you a different lens to view your situation: I am suggesting that you may find hosting Sunday dinners pales in importance when you consider all the positive things in your favor regarding your relationships with your grandchildren and their parents.

With this reframed focus in mind, I reference your opening statement: “I have a great relationship with my daughter-in-law . . .” I hope that over time gratitude may totally replace the resentment and disappointment you are currently feeling.

Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every other Tuesday.
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Dr. Rancourt’s most recent book is,
Ask Dr. Gramma Karen, Volume II: Savvy Advice to Soothe Parent-Grandparent Conflicts

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