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Dear Care and Feeding,
My daughter and her ex-husband had a horrible, nasty separation and divorce (my daughter being the aggressor). There are two children involved; the father came to this relationship with a baby son for whom he is the primary custodial parent, and he and my daughter share custody of my granddaughter equally. When they separated five years ago, the children were 10 and 7, respectively. The split was so contentious that during the separation period, I would transport her from parent to parent, but a court has since ordered them to exchange the child in the parking lot of a law enforcement agency.
Mom and Dad are now well-behaved but cool to each other. They communicate only via text and only see one another in public spaces. I was once close to my son-in-law but after the divorce, he has become much less warm towards me. I know his parents and am somewhat friendly with his mom. I still consider his son to be my grandchild, and his birth mother makes sure I see him during their time together. I see my granddaughter often, and she spends the night once a month, and I get both grandchildren at least once a year for a day together.
The problem is the stress my grandchildren go through when we are all together. Recently, my grandson had a performance with his high school band, and my granddaughter had a sixth grade promotion ceremony. At these events, the two groups of parents and grandparents coexist in exactly that way—two groups. I can go from one tribe to the other at these events, but it bothers me that we can’t all stand in the same circle.
My daughter and granddaughter did not go to the band performance, but even in their absence, the two family groups did not become one. My grandson is older and more experienced and handled this well, but I could see the discomfort it caused him.
At the sixth grade promotion, we were again in our silos. When I went to the paternal family group (including her stepmother and younger sibling) where my granddaughter was, my daughter joined us. I could see the stress in my granddaughter’s face like she was expecting a huge blowout at any minute; she knows that her mom’s former in-laws don’t care for her mother one bit. Although I know we will behave as well-mannered adults, she doesn’t know that. Granddaughter quickly left all of us to join the guests from our “side” (which includes her mom’s boyfriend) before making an excuse to go be by herself for a few minutes. Her solution to the stress was to walk away from all of us.
I feel this cannot go on. There will be other performances and more graduations and, eventually, weddings. What can I do? What words can I say to reassure my grandchildren we will all behave? How can I help bring these two groups together for these few moments? I have emailed my former son-in-law’s mother asking to get together for coffee and suggested bringing our granddaughter, in hopes of letting her see how well her two grandmothers can get along, and how we elders can help bring our two groups together. She hasn’t responded to my invite yet.
What can I say to ease my grandchildren’s stress? Should I accept we will always be two groups, and wait our turn to praise our grandchildren? Should I stay home and let them have this time? I don’t want to add stress to their young lives.
—Grandmother With a Dilemma
Please be my grandmother. Both of mine have long since passed away, and you seem so incredibly sweet.
Your concern for your grandchildren is admirable and justified. However, you cannot force these two families (which now include new partners and their families, who may have only experienced their loved one’s ex via stories that are likely less than flattering) to exist as one. Some families blend, while others are lucky to coexist in harmony—and from a distance.
You can continue to attempt to bring your fellow grandmother to the table to begin a peace treaty, but it may be more worth your time to focus on making sure your grandkids know that any animus between their parents and other relatives has nothing to do with them and that they are fortunate to have multiple extended families that love them dearly. Also, considering that you describe your daughter as the “aggressor” in the circumstances that led to the split, think about how fighting to bring the two units closer together may shed a light on things she did in the past that may be hard for the children to make peace with, and painful for all parties to revisit.
Despite the awkwardness at these social events, it sounds like there is a somewhat amicable arrangement in terms of day-to-day custody and that Mom and Dad don’t fight much these days. That was the biggest battle in this breakup involving children, and it’s been won! You can raise a glass to that, even if you can’t get the folks on the other side of the one-time family to celebrate with you.