This question surfaces for most unloved daughters, at one point or another, but most usually when efforts at setting boundaries or maintaining low contact with their mothers, fathers, or both have failed, and they are staring the possibility of estrangement in the face. Of course, there is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. which every daughter with children confronts. Our heads are filled with images of generations seated around a table, the wisdom of the elders informing the younger ones, with love and pie served in equal portions painted as Norman Rockwell might, and that’s what makes us hesitate. Never mind that our family of origin never gathered around in that way; we may remain hopeful of a miracle in our heart of hearts. Our fear of depriving our own children of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins may dominate our wishful thinking, despite all that we know. This is one of the issues women write me about most often, despite their real and substantial worries that their mothers (and other family members) will treat their children as they were treated.
This post has been adapted from The Daughter Detox Question & Answer Book: A GPS for Navigating Your Way Out of a Toxic Childhood.
Can a toxic mother become a good-enough grandmother?
Of course, this is the looming question, and the jury is still out on it. Perhaps you’re not setting the bar high and looking for doting but what can you expect? Can a leopard change its spots? Can someone who mistreated, marginalized, or ignored you treat your children better?
Alas, it’s impossible to generalize because the particulars matter and, of course, the role of a mother and that of a grandmother are very different. It’s unlikely that a mother high in narcissistic traits or control will act any differently as a grandmother; your children are likely to be seen as smaller planets in her orbit and not as individuals in their own right. And yes, she will likely favor those who reflect her most brightly and hew to her standards, just as she did with her own children. A mother who was emotionally unavailable to her daughter might be able to deal with grandchildren relatively well because they are visitors to her life and not constant fixtures; the emotional demands on a grandparent are considerably less than those on a parent. Seen in that light, enmeshed and role-reversed mothers might also do better as grandmothers. But—there’s always a “but”—it very much depends.
What about “but?”
As discussed in Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life, each of us has to decide on the path. I was absolutely categorical that my mother would not be permitted to see my daughter, and I felt no qualms about depriving her of this particular grandmother. I knew exactly how my mother would miss no opportunity to criticize and undercut me and perhaps my daughter, too. Ironically, when my daughter was about seven or eight, she was curious about my mother and asked to see her; I set it up with a friend doing the ferrying, but in the end, it was my mother who turned my daughter down. Some daughters who live long distances from their mothers are able to manage a twice-yearly kind of relationship. Still others begin that way but then reverse themselves as their mothers (and fathers) display the same kind of favoritism with grandchildren that they did with their own children. One woman told me that it was the year that her two sons received a tee shirt each while her favored brother’s boys got expensive dirt bikes for Christmas that clinched it for her, writing that, “This wasn’t about the money she spent on the cousins; it was about the looks on my boys’ faces. If she didn’t do it on purpose, she is even more insensitive than I thought. It doesn’t matter; it’s done.”
If you have gone no-contact, do remember that we are free to define family any way we wish; my daughter was surrounded by caring and loving adults growing up, even if they weren’t related by blood. And besides, you don’t actually need a village or a table that seats 12 to give a child a sense of family. It’s not about the numbers; it’s about the love. But then, you knew that, right?
Copyright © 2019, 2020 by Peg Streep.
Photograph by James Besser. Copyright free. Unsplash.com