Ask Dr. Gramma Karen: Young Mom Dealing With a Rude Grandmother

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When I was 15, I got pregnant with my daughter Tess, who is now eight years old. Tess’s father, Shane, 17 at the time, was a handsome football player from one of our town’s wealthiest families. When I got pregnant, Shane’s mother, Merry, ranted and raved about what I had done to her son’s future and to their family’s reputation. She wanted me to get an abortion. When I was unwilling to do that, she started rumors questioning who the baby’s real father was.

Shane offered to get married, but even back then I knew that was not a good idea. He was headed to an ivy-league college and had a bright future with his family’s law firm. I came from a struggling, single-mother family; my father was abusive to my mom and she walked out on him when I was two. I have never had any contact with him.

After Tess was born, I lived at home with my mom in her mobile home. Since then, thanks to Shane’s generosity, sense of responsibility, and his family’s wealth, I own a small home, completed a program to become a dental hygienist, and have a good job. Tess knows Shane as her daddy, but sees him rarely. He is studying international law and lives in Switzerland. He sends e-mails and gifts and remembers all the important milestones in Tess’s life.

Surprisingly, Merry accepted Tess and enjoys spending time with her as her grandmother. Even more surprisingly, Merry and my mother have become good friends over the years. I know my mother loves going to lunch at Merry’s club and going shopping with her moneyed friends. I am not sure what Merry gets out of the friendship with my mom, who is a nice woman, but she definitely is not of Merry’s social background. I don’t know why, but their friendship bothers me. However, Tess loves it when the two together spend time with her.

Here is my problem. Merry has always been cool to me – you could even say rude – she talks to me only when necessary, rarely makes eye contact, and never with any kindness. Tess recently picked up on it and asked me why Grandma Merry isn’t nice to me. I talked with my mother about it, and she agreed that Merry is cold to me, but she said I should just ignore it. That was easier to do when Tess was younger and oblivious.

When I confronted Merry about her rudeness to me, she said, “Life has consequences, my dear.” My mother was there and said nothing. I have to say I am disappointed that my mother didn’t stick up for me. I thought about telling Shane, but I don’t want to put him in conflict with his mother. Advice?

It seems you have two main areas where I might provide some advice: First, the friendship between your mother and Merry; second, Merry’s treatment of you.

The Friendship Between Your Mother and Merry
We can deal with the friendship issue in a very straightforward manner. As the 14th Dalai Lama instructs,  “Genuine friendship can only be based on trust and affection, which can only arise when there is a mutual sense of concern and respect.” Are these building blocks present in the friendship between Merry and your mother? Maybe, maybe not. As it turns out the answer is not important because the quality or bases of their friendship are irrelevant.

What is relevant is how they behave toward each other and towards you and Tess when you are all together. From what you describe, both love Tess, enjoy being with her, and are good grandmas. All good. It seems the dynamics of their friendship became an issue for you when your mother seemed to side with Merry with her silence when you talked with Merry about her behavior toward you. Your disappointment with your mother’s hands-off stance is understandable, but she is not your main problem. Merry is.

Dealing with Merry
It is a waste of time and energy trying to figure out why Merry is cold toward you. An obvious possibility is that she still harbors feelings of resentment toward you for becoming pregnant when you did. Merry and her therapist, if she has one, can delve into those issues.

Your goal is to be treated by Merry in such a way that Tess isn’t wondering why Merry isn’t “nice” to you. Some things about Merry’s behavior are beyond your control, e.g., Merry harboring ill feelings toward you, or bad-mouthing you behind your back.

However, you can control her time with and access to Tess. If you feel she is being disrespectful to you in front of your daughter, even after you have asked her to please just use common courtesy, and she refuses, well, she is right: life does have consequences.

My suggestion is that you share this situation with Shane. I understand that you and Shane have an arrangement whereby he does not interfere with your parenting of Tess, but under these circumstances I think you are justified in getting his advice. After all, he is Tess’s father and he has consistently demonstrated that he cares about her. Further, he knows his mother and he may have some ideas on how best to get her to behave politely to you, at least in front of Tess.

Involve Shane
Rather than approaching Shane via a personal conversation, I am going to suggest that you send him an e-mail. This accomplishes two things: it requires you to think through exactly what you want to say, what you would like to see happen, what you are thinking about doing, and how you would value his input. An e-mail gives Shane a chance to think carefully about the advice you are seeking and how he can be helpful in responding.

In short, sending him an e-mail increases the chances for the two of you to do some practical collaboration. You share a common goal of wanting the important people in Tess’s life – for example, her paternal grandmother – to behave in ways that do not cause Tess to question why she is not being nice to her mother. I hope Shane receives your request for his guidance as reasonable, under the circumstances.

Update: Several Days Later
I am still in a state of shock! I did as you suggested and sent Shane an e-mail, explaining things and how I could use his advice. He e-mailed back immediately, thanking me for letting him know what was going on, and saying he was sure that he and his mother would come to an understanding.

I don’t know exactly what he said to his mother, but I can sort of piece it together. Merry called me and asked if she could come over. When she arrived, she said she wanted to apologize for being less than polite to me in the past and that her being impolite to me would never happen again. She said she loved her time with Tess and that she hoped I would allow her to continue to spend time with her. We shook hands. I told her she was a good grandmother to Tess.

I am glad I contacted Shane! I am hopeful. Thank you for suggesting I get his advice.

Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every other Tuesday.

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 Helping Young Parents and Grandparents Deal with Thorny Issues

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