Dear Dr. Gramma Karen,
My son called on Friday night to invite us to my granddaughter’s school play. I asked why he always waits to the last minute to let us know. Both he and my daughter-in-law (DIL) knew about the play in advance, and in fact, my DIL had her parents go to a different performance.
Anyway, we arrived at the school and my DIL ushered us to two front row seats. She and my son and my other granddaughter and all their friends had reserved seats in a different section.
During intermission, they were all talking and socializing while we sat alone. A few people asked if we had someone in the show and we said yes, our granddaughter had the lead role.
My son and DIL never bothered to introduce us to anybody or include us in any conversation. My other granddaughter came in with her friend, said hello, but never introduced us to her friends. Once the show was over, the cast came out, socialized with friends, and disappeared before we even got a chance to say hello. Before we knew it, we were standing in the middle of the lobby by ourselves. Finally, my son appeared and said he had to help clear the set, thanked us for coming, and we left.
We may as well have been complete strangers to my son and his family. We both felt so hurt, so discounted that we drove home in silence. This has happened many times and my husband says we should just not go, but I feel that two wrongs won’t make a right.
We feel that our son is embarrassed by us because we are black. He is very light skinned and could be Italian. The kids look white and the school and neighborhood they live in is predominately white.
Every time we have contact with my DIL’s mom she brings up race and interracial marriage and has told me that her friends would be shocked if they knew my son was not white.
My relationship with my son and his family is very strained and anytime I try to speak to him, he says I’m imagining things. My husband doesn’t even want to go to their house on the holidays, or whenever, because we always come home feeling so bad.
Dr. Gramma Karen’s Response
When I finished reading your situation, I found myself slumped back in my chair, holding my breath with my hands crossed over my heart, shaking my head with sadness. My first thought was, “These grandparents are dealing with circumstances that are so heartbreaking, so heartrending. How can I help?”
Perhaps I can help you decide what emotional and physical investments you are willing to make, or not make, regarding future interactions with your son and his family.
What Is Best For the Grandchildren?
In these intergenerational situations involving grandchildren, my primary focus is always on this question: What is best for the grandchildren? It is under rare circumstances that grandchildren are better off not having their grandparents in their lives, as opposed to having them. Nothing you have shared even remotely suggests that you in any way pose a risk to your granddaughters’ health, safety, or well-being.
Your assessment that your presence at extended family gatherings, especially involving your DIL’s family, causes racial discomfort on their part is probably correct. You have already tried to explore this possibility with your son, but his telling you that you are just imagining things indicates that he does not want to pursue this topic of discussion with you.
The fact that your son continues to extend last minute invitations to you might be how he is dealing with his conflicted feelings. On the one hand, if he is committed to presenting his family as being representational of certain racial, social, and economic status, and your presence in his and his wife’s minds jeopardizes this tableau, a part of him may not want you to be present at certain functions. If you’re not there, you’re not a factor.
However, another part of him may love you and appreciate that you are good people, loving parents, and that you deserve to be a part of his daughters’ lives. If he invites you last minute, and you already have plans and cannot accept his invitation, then he is off the hook. He gets to say, “Well, I invited them. It’s not my fault they couldn’t come.”
Now, all this is, of course, conjecture on my part, and I am not trying to justify your son’s treatment of you, but I present it because understanding conflicting thoughts your son may be dealing with may help you as you make decisions that are in yours and your granddaughters’ best interests
What Is Your Main Goal?
I think your main challenge right now is to be clear on what your main goal is under your set of circumstances. Is your main goal:
- To feel welcome and accepted by extended family members? If so, I think you will continue to feel marginalized, and at times outright rejection. Some battles are not worth it, and in your case, your “imaginings” that biases and prejudices are at play will probably just further alienate you. I suggest that once you let go of extended-family acceptance being your goal, you will feel freer and more empowered.
- To have a relationship with your granddaughters? If so, this has a greater chance of success, especially if you can be flexible and accommodating. For example, you might be able to do things just with your granddaughters – such as, take them to a show, or take them shopping for holiday presents or school clothes. Or, perhaps your son, DIL, and granddaughters will come to your home for a dinner, just the six of you. These kinds of interactions will not leave you feeling bad.
I close by reiterating that spending time with your granddaughters and focusing on just them and their lives and activities may help them come to know and appreciate you as the involved, loving, fun, supportive grandparents you aspire to be.
Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every other Tuesday.
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