When I was writing The Daughter Detox Question & Answer Book: A GPS for Navigating Your Way Out of a Toxic Childhood, from which this post is adapted, I was struck by the variety of responses I got to this question from women. Here are just a few:
“No way. She bad-mouths me no matter what and I honestly don’t want my kids hearing it.”
“I am still trying to put boundaries in place in the hopes that my daughter and son can have some kind of connection. But, honestly, it’s really not going well. It’s not that she’s unpleasant to them but that she ignores them the way she ignored me when I was a child. Even though the visits are infrequent, I’m not liking the effect it has on my kids. When I try talking to her about it, she says—as she always has—that I’m too sensitive and that I am turning my kids into cry- babies and wimps.”
“I thought I did owe my kids grandparents especially since my husband’s parents live in another country despite the history. I did pursue therapy and my therapist, too, thought an extended family would be good for my kids. But it just wasn’t workable on a regular basis; she criticized my every move as a mother and, as the kids got older, laid into them too. I couldn’t stand it. We see them on holidays, on a schedule, and maintain deliberate distance.”
What will Mom be like as a Grandma?
Again, 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.
Of course, the big question is whether an unloving mother can become a decent enough grandmother, if not precisely a doting one. Well, the jury is still out on that question, and 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. 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.
Personal answers to a big question
As discussed in Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life, each of us has to decide on the path we take when it comes to our family of origin. 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 sets 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?
How to deal with family gatherings
You deal with them proactively by coming up with a plan and sticking to it. If you are still participating in events with your family of origin, you have to remember that you’re an adult now and no matter what anyone says, you are allowed to set boundaries and rules, chief among them being that no one has the right to be abusive. Most important, you must set your own goals and expectations so that you are prepared, remembering that no one can push your buttons unless you allow them to. You need to be clear about your own behavior, remembering that you can’t control how other people act but that you are the captain of your own ship. Don’t think of yourself as helpless in the situation because you’re not.
If you have gone low-contact without ever articulating why you’ve put distance between you and your mother and family, family gatherings may be incredibly stressful because, by avoiding overt confrontation, you’ve escalated potential conflict. You may want to rethink why you’ve avoided making a statement and whether that’s right for you and your children and spouse, if you have them, going forward. Yes, it’s easier to duck for cover than it is actually speaking your mind—and there’s way less pushback—but it will probably create more problems in the long run. Remember that being clear about your position and expectations doesn’t mean you have to start World War III.
If the response you get to setting reasonable boundaries is unreasonable or angry pushback or stony silence and a refusal to listen, spend time thinking about why you’re still attending the gathering; weigh the pros and cons ahead of time. Again, conscious awareness is key, and if this is just another cycle of the core conflict—and you’re going to try to get love and validation once again—you may want to rethink why you are attending. If you’re unsure whether or not you should attend, ask yourself the following questions. Again, it’s better to write your answers down so that you can review them later, rather than just thinking about your answers.
- Do I feel pressured to attend? If so, what are those pressures and who or what is behind them?
- What is my motive for going to the event?
- Do I have a specific goal or goals?
- Am I in command of my emotions so that I won’t react out of habit to old triggers?
- Am I clear about behaviors I won’t accept and how I will deal with them if they happen?
- Are my expectations realistic or am I being overly optimistic? Are my goals realistic?
As the saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child but remember that the villagers don’t have to be blood relatives.
Photograph by Kevin Gent. Copyright free. Unsplash.com
This text is adapted from The Daughter Detox Question & Answer Book: A GPS for Navigating Your Way Out of a Toxic Childhood. Copyright © 2019, 2020 by Peg Streep