What to Do About Uninvolved Grandparents

If your mom and dad aren't as involved in your kid's life as you'd like, it's time to find out what may be going on and face what you can (and can't) change about it.

My parents and I have always had a really great relationship. So when I found out I was pregnant, I assumed they'd want to be a major part of my child's life. I was envisioning heartwarming scenes of intergenerational bonding: sleepovers at Grandma and Grandpa's, zoo trips, days of cookie baking. And not only had my folks recently retired but they lived a mere hour's drive away from us. Perfect!

Not quite. After I had the baby, it seemed like my parents had a full calendar every weekend, from community projects to dinner parties. They babysat for two weekends when we were in a bind, and then never again (she's now 5). Aside from the random visit, they see her mostly on holidays.

It's been puzzling, and hurtful. My pride has prevented me from asking why they haven't been more involved. I guess I'd always assumed that being finally free of their own children and job obligations, they would want to kick back a bit. It's understandable; they're in their early 70s. I can't help but get miffed, though -- and if I read one more story about multigenerational families living happily together ("I didn't want to miss seeing my grandchild grow up"), I'm going to scream.

Slowly, though, I'm realizing that I'm not the only one. Many new parents who had every expectation that their folks would be hands-on grandparents admit to being bewildered at their lack of interest. One mother (who, like all the adult children I spoke with, didn't want to be identified) says that her in-laws never visit her kids beyond holidays, despite living 2 miles away. "They pass our road daily," she says. "They never visit. They've never seen their granddaughter play soccer."

Another mom says that her parents speak often to her two daughters on the phone, but face time is rare. "When they do see my kids they have fun, but my parents mostly seem to have their own thing going on," she says.

A Schedule as Hectic as Yours

Of course, grandparents have their own reasons for pulling back. But in the case of my folks, their constant busy-ness may be legit, says social psychologist Susan Newman, Ph.D., author of Little Things Mean a Lot: Creating Happy Memories With Your Grandchildren. She says their generation of grands is so active that they've completely changed the face of grandparenting. "Many of them have been working for decades, so they're programmed to be busy," she says. "This is a health-obsessed group too, so they work out a lot, and they're social: They volunteer, go on trips, have book clubs." And many of them are unable -- or unwilling -- to surrender that time: "This generation isn't sitting in their housecoats, getting batches of cookies ready for the grandkids."

And given that the average age of a first-time grandparent in the United States is a youthful 47, many grands are still squarely in the workforce. "Between work and commitments, it's often hard to fit in time to babysit grandchildren," says Lisa Carpenter, of Colorado Springs, a grandmother and freelance writer. "It's not a matter of not wanting to, it's often about logistics." After a full week on the job, Grandma may simply be too tired to run after a toddler or stay up with a newborn. "It's difficult to muster the energy," she says. "We love the little ones, but they can sure wear us out. Just because we're younger, that doesn't mean we have the energy of twentysomethings."

Older grandparents, meanwhile, may have medical issues. "They might want to avoid letting adult children know they're struggling with the effects of medications or ailments," says Carpenter. Or they fear driving a child to soccer practice or being left alone with an infant. (Yes, they did raise babies once themselves, but that was a long time ago.)

"I felt that way as a brand-new grandma myself," says Donne Davis, a grandmother from Menlo Park, California, and founder of GaGaSisterhood, a social network for grandmothers. "I instinctively worried about this fragile baby in my arms, and 'what ifs' -- like tripping and dropping the baby -- started flashing through my mind. Also, a friend told me she once dropped her infant son while trying to get her keys out of her purse, and that image must have stayed with me."

Not Part of the Babysitters' Club

One reason the caregiving issue is so fraught is that some grandparents never thought it would be a part of the equation. A friend of mine asked her mother if she could drop off her baby for the weekend so she and her husband could reconnect, but her mother balked. "Your generation seems to assume that grandparent duty is to babysit the kids while you're out and to be another parental figure," she told her. "Well, I just want to be a grandparent." When I think of my own grands, they were "just grandparents" too: We would visit them as a family, but my parents would never dream of leaving me with them for the weekend.

Other grandparents may harbor hurt feelings if you've kept in sporadic contact over the years but then expect instant togetherness once a grandchild arrives. Carl Pickhardt, Ph.D., an Austin psychologist and author of Surviving Your Child's Adolescence, says that young people in their 20s "are off on their own, developing very busy, committed, separate lives and often they don't have a lot of time for their parents." (I must sheepishly raise my hand here.) "Then all of a sudden, you're ready to reunite around a grandchild, and it's a pretty abrupt change for them," he says. They want to have relevance not only as grands, he says, but as your parents.

Using Your Words

Turns out, there are plenty of ways to find a little middle ground. The best way to start is with a conversation -- ideally before, or soon after, a baby is born, says Anne K. Fishel, Ph.D., director of the Family and Couples Therapy Program at Massachusetts General Hospital, in Boston. The arrival of a baby creates a seismic change in relationships with both your spouse and your parents, she says, yet rarely does anyone think to have a sit-down beforehand to talk about expectations. I certainly didn't.

A gentle opener, says Dr. Fishel, is to ask your parents about the role their own folks played when they had children. "Then you can talk about what you remember doing with your parent as a child that was fun or meaningful. And then say, 'I hope you'll teach Charlie how to recognize birdcalls and watch musicals with him too.' " (Some new findings from Boston College worth mentioning: Using data from three- and four-generation families, researchers found that those grandparents who give tangible support to their grandchildren -- and receive it in return -- experience the fewest symptoms of depression over time.)

Then ask them about the sort of time commitment they have in mind for your child. It may sound like an oddly businesslike question, but the more information you have up front, the less anxiety you will have later. "People who have a child can go into it with all of these assumptions: 'I have a child now, and that means my parents will be a certain way and do what I want,' " says Dr. Pickhardt. "And all that is unstated, unclarified." If your child is older, you can still ask specific questions, such as, "How would you feel if we did three or four visits a year beyond holidays?" (And spell out if by "visits" you mean "drop-offs.")

Initiate a discussion during a calm moment, and don't attack or accuse. Dr. Pickhardt suggests the following script: "I'm not asking you to actively take care of your grandchild, but I hope you can show that you care. Just as you're important to me, I want you to be important to my child. So how can we make grandparenting more fun for you?"

Looking through picture album
Fancy Photography/Veer

Reaching Out

Once you've listened to what your parents have to say, stop pining for the ideal scenario and work with what you have. That mom whose children get almost no face time with their noncommittal grands invites them to events "only when it's important to the kids." And she does it months in advance. "I don't like to corner them," she says, "but if I don't, they'll miss Grandparents Day at school."

If your folks don't initiate plans, says Dr. Newman, try to lure them with fun events. "Invite them on vacation with you or say, 'I'm taking my daughter to her first movie. Do you want to come?' You may get a no, but you're offering different chances." Should your parent have a particular passion or a hobby -- gardening, baking -- ask him or her to teach it to your child. "Home in on their specific interests and strengths," recommends Dr. Newman.

When they won't visit in person, make regular phone calls and video chats, or see whether they're willing to be e-mail pen pals with an older child. Have your kid ask questions about the good old days. For those grandparents who aren't involved day-to-day, telling stories is a valuable way to connect with their grandchildren -- and it can be eye-opening for parents too, says Dr. Fishel. Studies show that the more children know about their family's history, the greater their self-esteem and the more they feel a sense of control over their own life. "It's a win-win," explains Dr. Fishel, who didn't know much about her father's involvement in World War II until she had two inquisitive sons. "My father was much more interested in telling them stories about his military adventures than he had been in telling me," she says. "So this whole other part of his life opened up."

Keeping It Clean

Even if your parents' involvement is at the barest minimum, never bad-mouth them in front of your kids. "Grandparents give children a strong sense of security, that there are people beyond their parents that they can turn to," says Dr. Newman. "As tenuous as this relationship might be, you don't want to poke holes in it and make it less strong."

Know that your parents' feelings may change over time. "Some grandparents are more comfortable when the child is a little bit older," Davis points out. "It's important to remember that it's an evolving relationship." (Many parents I talked to said this is particularly true of men.)

Anger Management

It may be that no matter what you do, things are not going to change significantly. If this is the case, it's natural to grieve. When the kids whose grandparents live around the corner started asking their mom why they were so cold, the mom explained, Your grandparents love you, but sometimes people don't know how to show it.' " She has come to accept that it's their loss. "My in-laws are missing out on so much joy," she says. "I still get angry, but I've realized they are not going to change, and we need to focus on our happy family and not dwell on the negative with the grandparents."

If feelings of bitterness persist, counseling can help. Dr. Newman also suggests finding some substitute grandparents instead -- the more, the better. "Engage other people to form that close relationship with your child that you're not getting from the child's grandparents," she says. "Aunts, uncles, neighbors, close friends -- think about all the people in your life who are crazy about your child."

Getting Creative

Turns out my own parents were interested in my daughter, just not to the degree that I wished. So I finally decided to swallow my pride and have a long-overdue conversation with my mother. Using the experts' advice, I gently told her I felt as if she was stonewalling us by being busy all the time. "But we've always been busy, honey, ever since you were little," she said. "We like being busy." It's true: As parents, and grandparents, they basically acted the same as they always had, yet somehow I magically expected them to be different -- a common mistake. Emboldened, I asked her why they didn't babysit, and she sighed. "Do you really want to know?" she said. "It's because your father and I learned the hard way that we don't have the strength to deal with a preschooler." I realized that I was in complete denial about their advancing age (in my head, it always hovered at around 58 or so). It was hard for my once-vigorous mother to admit to me that her strength was diminishing, but it was even harder to admit it to herself.

And so I worked out some compromises. Instead of asking my parents to babysit, or even visit me in New York City (they were loathe to confess that for them, it was a harrowing drive), we meet them for lunch at a restaurant between our two houses. Or I entice them with low-key, everybody-wins events like a day at a public garden. And we do phone calls and mail letters back and forth (which my child loves receiving). Is it the rosy scene I once envisioned where we'd celebrate every milestone moment? No. Does my daughter feel secure that her grandparents love her? Every time I see her catapult into their arms with a shriek, I have my answer.

Playing Favorites

What can you do if a grandparent prefers the firstborn (or the grandchild who lives closest or the family genius)? As unfair as this situation feels, it's pretty much beyond your control. Think about it: Do we love everyone exactly the same? No. Are there sensible, tangible reasons why we favor someone? Not necessarily. "Some relationships are going to be stronger than others; there's no way around that," says Dr. Susan Newman. So try to avoid a direct confrontation with your parents ("It's so obvious that you favor Henry"), which will only create awkwardness without changing the reality. Instead, mention that the child you feel is being shortchanged loves and misses them, and do your best to create as many opportunities as you can for contact with your child. When the inevitable day comes when he asks why Grandma spends so much time with Henry and not him, Dr. Carl Pickhardt suggests being honest but kind and supportive. Reassure your child: This has nothing to do with him, and his grandparents are suffering a major loss by not spending more time with him -- and they don't even know it.

11 Questions Kids Can Ask a Grandparent

If the conversation doesn't flow freely between your kids and their grands, consider these ways to jump-start it.

  1. What was Daddy like as a kid? What was your favorite thing to do together?
  2. How did you and Grandma first meet?
  3. What jobs have you had? What was the worst? The best?
  4. Whom did you look up to when you were a kid?
  5. Can you tell me about the day Mommy was born?
  6. What kinds of toys did you like to play with when you were little and what activities did you do for fun?
  7. What was your hardest chore as a kid?
  8. Did you or Grandpa play a musical instrument or a sport? Were you good at it?
  9. In what ways are you and I the most alike?
  10. Did my mom give you any trouble as a kid? Can you tell me a story about it?
  11. How did your family celebrate the holidays when you were a child?

Originally published in the September 2014 issue of Parents magazine.

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