My Grandson’s Mother is a Poor Role Model

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My grandson Robb is five. My son, Ed, and Robb’s mother, Barbara, never married. Ed has a history of addiction problems and claims he can’t take care of Robb full time, so Robb lives with Barbara during the week and with me and Ed on weekends in my house. I lost my husband a few years ago and need to work full time for several more years.

I worry about Robb for a lot of reasons, but my main concern is that Barbara has one guy after the other living with her. Legally there is nothing Ed can do about that because they were never married and there are no custody papers. Robb talks with me about “mommy’s new friend,” so I know what’s going on. Barbara’s mother (Robb’s other grandmother) seems like a very nice woman, but she isn’t very involved in Robb’s life; also, she has not had much success in getting Barbara to change her ways.

I am very bothered by Barbara living with one guy after the other. What kind of message does this send to Robb? What does it say about relationships? What can I do?

Before we talk about your particular situation, I must say that as a grandparent helping raise your grandson, you are one of America’s unsung heroes. And you are not alone. According to the U.S. 2010 Census, almost 7.8 million children live in homes where grandparents or other relatives are the householders. Over 5.8 million children live in grandparents’ homes and nearly 2 million children live in other relatives’ homes. More than 2.5 million grandparents are taking on the direct responsibility for raising their grandchildren.

Although most caretaker grandparents express hope as they try to do right by their grandchildren, they also report many anxious feelings and emotions, including: a sense of failure in raising their own children; a fear that they will prove to be failures in raising their grandchildren; resentment towards their children who have foiled their retirement plans; guilty for feeling resentment toward their children and/or grandchildren.

And, because over sixty percent of grandparents raising their grandchildren are still in the work force, they also report feeling exhausted and often isolated. While many friends in their age bracket are talking about retirement and planning cruises, caretaker grandparents are worrying about week-to-week paychecks, their grandchildren’s everyday requirements and their futures. And yet, even though this is not what they want to be doing, caretaker grandparents put their own aspirations on hold and do whatever they can to take good care of their grandchildren. Unsung heroes, indeed.

With regard to your situation, you are correct in describing Barbara as a poor role model to help Robb learn how to establish and maintain healthy and fulfilling relationships. Sadly, the reality is that Barbara will most likely continue her search for love and happiness via her revolving door of live-in relationships. Your chances of getting Barbara to change her behavior are slim, so I suggest you not put your time, effort and energy into trying to change her, but rather, continue doing what you’re doing: stay the course on being Robb’s anchor, his rock. Maybe he can’t count on his mother and father to model solid and life affirming values, but he can count on you. Many a grandchild who grew up under less-than-desirable circumstances to become happy and contributing adults attribute the positives in their lives to their grandparents: “If it weren’t for my grandparents, I never would have been able to…”

Robb may already suspect that there is something a bit off about “mommy’s new friends.” The challenge for you is to keep it comfortable for Robb to share with you what’s going on when he’s living with his mother, and resist the understandable urge to bad mouth her in any way because you risk his clamming up. Kids are typically very astute at seeing their loved ones’ shortcomings and inadequacies, especially as they get older and have more bases of comparison, but Barbara is and always will be his mother, and you can help Robb honor that unalterable fact by consistently living your values to counteract her destructive ones.

If Robb asks you why Mommy does such and such, you can ask him what he would prefer her to do instead. In this way, you can help him see alternatives, some of which he might even discuss with his mother.

You can also say something along these lines: “We are all looking for love and happiness, your mother included. Some things we do work better than others in this search. The important question for you is what are you going to do to find love and happiness in your life? And I want you to know that I will help you.” This kind of message can empower Robb and give him hope that regardless of unfortunate behaviors and outcomes in the lives of others e.g., his parents, he can make decisions that will help, rather than hinder him. He will also know that he can count on his grandmother every step of the way.

Another consideration: while you’re busy taking care of Robb, I urge you to take care of yourself, too. You might, for example, find it reassuring to meet with others who are dealing with similar issues and concerns by joining a support group comprising caretaker grandparents. To locate support groups in your area, The National Center on Grandparents Raising Grandchildren can help you. This same organization offers other resources that may be helpful to you.

A closing thought: when we see men and women in uniform on the street or in airports or on the subway, many of us thank them for their service. I think you and all caretaker grandparents also merit a similar nod of gratitude. Thank you!

Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every Thursday.
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