Every grandparent-grandchild relationship is unique. But there can be a disconnect between what you want for your kids and your own parents' limitations. Parents.com's "Ask Your Mom" columnist, Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., says you can help pave the way to a good relationship with communication and acceptance.

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An illustration of a grandmother leaving her daughter and grandson's home.
Credit: Caitlin-Marie Miner Ong.

I don't think this common dilemma gets enough airtime, possibly because of how painful it can be. A parent's lack of involvement or interest in our child can feel like a rejection of us, and a loss of the dream of what our child's relationship would be like with their grandparent. Your scenario presents an even greater challenge as your mother is your child's only opportunity for this relationship, which in itself creates more pressure, and more disappointment. However, this disappointment is more universal than many parents realize, with a variety of ways the grandparent-grandchild relationship may not live up to hopes and dreams.

Reconciling Ideal v. Real

Visions of joyful bath times and sweet bedtime story routines while we eagerly anticipate becoming a parent transform once the child actually exists into the reality of slippery wrestling matches and agonizingly drawn-out sleep stalling tactics. Parenting is packed with these discrepancies between the abstract daydreams of raising a child and real life. Our children's relationships with our family members are no different, with the grandparent relationship bearing unique weight.

The first step of reconciling ideal versus real is to examine both versions. How would you describe the ideal relationship between your mother and your child? What is happening in reality? Where are the gaps and where is there overlap? This line of questioning may help reduce some of the emotion to see more clearly what you want and what you have. The next step is figuring out what is possible.

Stop Imagining

Without talking to your mother myself, I can only imagine her reasons for being less involved than agreed upon. It sounds like you may be doing the same—imagining. To bridge the gap between ideal and real, you need more information. It may feel stressful to anticipate a direct conversation, but it sounds like the grandmother-granddaughter relationship is important enough to you to be worth the discomfort. It is possible there are barriers to more involvement that you could problem-solve together. She may also be operating under her own assumptions about how wanted she is, which would be helpful to clarify.

Lead With Acceptance

Clarification and communication can promote progress in sticky family relationships, but it doesn't always. Many relationships fall short of our ideals, and we need to shift into the next phase of coping: acceptance. This theme dominates many of my therapy sessions, so know that you are far from alone. Once you allow yourself to see your mother's limitations, it can help to remind yourself when feeling disappointed, "she can't give us what we need right now." As you practice acceptance, however, you can continue to do what feels valuable to you, which is communicate that your mother is wanted and welcome in your lives.

Resist Projection, Allow Your Child's Experience

No matter how much you feel let down by your mother, remember that your daughter is developing her own relationship that was not based on your vision. This will be her experience, removed from your ideals, if you let it be that way. She will have her own ideas of what grandparents "should" be. I grew up with all of my grandparents living in different states, so I saw them once or twice a year, but still felt close and connected. The more you can separate your relationship with your mother from hers, and allow this experience independent from yours, the healthier overall. If your daughter expresses her own disappointment, validate and empathize, without adding your own.

Stay positive

Children are masters at watching and learning from us, even if it feels very selective at times! Just as divorced couples are counseled to refrain from speaking negatively about the other parent with their children, the same applies here. Of course, this positivity should stay in the realm of honest, which can be tricky. For example, if your daughter complains about missing your mother, instead of saying "She wishes she could see you every day, but she has a lot of other things to do" (because it sounds like this isn't true), you might respond, "I know you miss her and I wish we could all spend more time together, too!"

Damage Control

If you feel like your mother's inconsistency is hurtful to your daughter, I suggest strategies to emotionally protect her. First, knowing your mother may not follow through with an invite, keep her possible presence a surprise. She does not need to know grandma was invited and didn't come, and she can experience the thrill if grandma unexpectedly arrives. Meanwhile, you can invest time and energy in other meaningful family relationships, redirecting attention to others that feel close and supportive. If your daughter comments that grandma seems unavailable or uninterested, be explicit that it has nothing to do with your child and grandma loves her even if she is not always there.

The Bottom Line

Images of grandparents as always available to sneak candy and nuggets of wisdom to our children, spoiling them with gentle and fun indulgence, often do not live up to reality. A primary reason is our relationship with our parents inevitably includes its own baggage from our childhood, because that's family. Acknowledging our parents' limits, and shifting into acceptance of reality over fantasy allows our children the gift of their own experience instead of the one we wished for them. Maybe we will get our turn to be the grandparent of our dreams when it's our turn.

Submit your parenting questions here, and they may be answered in future 'Ask Your Mom' columns.

Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., is the author of The Art and Science of Mom parenting blog and a mother of three from Oak Park, Illinois. She is a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with children and adolescents.