Dear Dr. Gramma Karen:
My husband and I raised two children, a daughter and a son. We worked hard while our children were growing up and we were able to put both through good private colleges. In addition, we put our son Derrick through medical school. While at medical school he met Lannie, who is also a practicing physician. Lannie and Derrick have now been married for 15 years. They started their family seven years ago and have three adorable children.
From day one, Lannie has been very cool to my husband and me, always all business, never bothering with any social niceties, like asking how we are. They live five minutes from us, yet the only time they contact us is when they want us to baby sit the grandchildren, which we happily do. When Lannie’s parents are in town, we are never invited to visit. When Lannie and Derrick host holidays and parties, we are never invited. When I interact with Lannie, it’s always about instructions regarding the children while we babysit.
I kept hoping she would warm up toward us, but that has not happened. I find I am getting more and more upset about how cold she is towards us. I think I should talk to my son about what’s going on and tell him how hurt we feel about the way Lannie treats us. My husband says not to do anything because we do get to spend time with the grandchildren and that is what’s really important. What do you think?
Let’s start with your statement that “I think I should talk to my son about what’s going on…” I am struggling to find a kind way to tell you that your son already knows what’s been going on — he’s known for 15 years that you and your husband have not been invited to holiday and other family gatherings. I also struggle to find gentle words to tell you that obviously your son has apparently decided not to do anything about it. And finally, I have to point out that you are giving your son a free pass by making Lannie the problem, but he’s as much a part of your being excluded as is his wife.
If you decide you want to raise this issue, I suggest you and your husband talk with your son and Lannie together. Rather than having a conversation about how hurt you feel about being left out (a conversation that would have made better sense 15 years ago the first time it happened), I suggest you say something specific and proactive: “Looking ahead to the up and coming holidays, we’d like to be included. We’re happy to host, or if you’d rather host, we’ll do whatever you need us to do to help. We hope our being included will be okay with you.” This statement is direct, clear, and unemotional: we want to be included. It also lays a foundation for one of three general responses from your son and Lannie.
Lannie and your son may be gracious and simply say that of course it would be wonderful to have you be part of the festivities. And/or they may say that they assumed, based on something you said or did many years ago, that you didn’t like to attend these kinds of gatherings, that is, they may feel you and your husband have been the ones who preferred to be excluded.
The worst case would be if they were very direct and honest with you and said they’d rather you didn’t come, because, and I am making these up by way of examples, “You dominate the conversations,” or “You initiate heated controversial discussions,” or “You once insulted Lannie’s parents,” or “You’re bossy and opinionated.” Ouch. Without becoming defensive, once you get over the shock of learning something negative about yourself, you may want to agree to stop the offensive behavior.
Another possible response is that they make up some lame excuse about why it would be better if you didn’t come, e.g., “There are going to be so many people coming and you get to see the grandchildren all the time.” This would be code for the fact that they don’t want you to come and they don’t want to get into the real reasons. If this is the response you get, you’re right back where you started, except you would know for sure that you have been deliberately excluded in the past and can expect to be excluded in the future.
At this point you can decide if you want to push for details, but the conversation could become awkward and uncomfortable. After all, you’ve accepted the situation for 15 years, so your son and Lannie may understandably be puzzled why you’re just now getting around to mentioning that you’re hurt that you’ve been excluded. They may shake their heads, thinking the shelf life on this has long expired. I am trying to prepare you for the possibility that they don’t show any concern or empathy.
I have to agree with your husband when he urges you “…not to do anything because we do get to spend time with the grandchildren and that is what’s really important.” So, your best tactic may be to casually ask to be included in family gatherings, and hope your DIL and son agree, but I suggest you do not push for details and explanations about why you’ve been excluded for these many years, as this could jeopardize your current access to your grandchildren. In this situation you may want to do as Chaucer suggested in Troilus and Criseyde way back in 1380, “It is nought good a slepyng hound to wake”. Let sleeping dogs lie.
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