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Planning Retirement Online

Relationships 82     

                           March 2009

Maggi Stamp, LaterLife's Relationship Counsellor

Every month Maggi Stamp, a qualified and experienced relationship counsellor for Relate and in private practice, writes about some of the emotional challenges we meet in later life.

For reasons of confidentiality Maggi never writes about a particular person's problems unless you have sent one in to be answered, but all her examples are based on problems raised by clients, family and friends over the years.  

You can write to Maggi at for her to respond in the column.



Estranged family in France

Dear Maggi


My daughter lives in France and my French son-in-law speaks

excellent English.  When I am there they talk to me in English, but he always talks to my five year old grandaughter in French. For some reason she doesn’t like speaking to me in English,


Now I have a another granddaughter, born three weeks ago. I’ve just spent two weeks with my daughter to help out.  I willingly did all the things a grandmother would: the ironing, washing and cooking, etc and caring for the five year old. I have also helped my daughter and her husband financially.


Towards the end of my time with them my grandaughter started to poke her tongue out at me and put her hands to her ears every time I spoke to her.


On the last day my daughter told me I had better start building a

relationship with my grandaughter and my daughter!  I was so hurt.

When I try to hug my daughter she is very cold and turns away.


We had a bit of an argument and ended up both saying some harsh

words.  When she was in hospital I got on fine with my grandaughter,  reading books playing games etc. The rudeness happened only when my daughter was around.


When my son-in-law took me to the airport he didnt say a word for the whole

journey. On arriving he dumped me and my case at the kerb and left.  I was deeply upset.


I feel that I don’t want to go anymore.  I am quite a quiet person, and don’t like this bad feeling. I rang her to say I was home safely but have had no phone call back, please tell me what I should do. I can’t sleep at night for worrying.


Maggi replies,

What first struck me on reading your email was the sheer ingratitude of your daughter and son-in-law.  I can empathise with the feeling that you really don’t want to return under the present cloud.  But there must be more to the situation than this.  With very little background on any of you I can only speculate that somewhere along the line there has been misunderstanding, miscommunication and insecurity.  Add this to the emotional maelstrom of pregnancy and childbirth and the mix is a volatile one that requires very cautious handling.

With that proviso, let me ask a few questions and speculate away. Are there any other grandparents?  Why are they not present? And are you the only one to have helped them out financially?  If there is an English grandfather did he choose to stay at home while you travelled or does he live separately from you?  What your son-in-law could be concerned and defensive about is your strength and ability. You went to France and took over the general running of his household and the care of his daughter for two weeks and gave them financial support. This is where the insecurity comes in.  Might he be worried that you might think him a weak husband, or that you could feel tempted to move closer and become involved on more permanent basis? Is there a possibility of your competence highlighting for him some areas where he feels less confident and is therefore inadvertently feeling inadequate.

(It is important as a parent-in-law not to appear totally able and in control, doing everything in their home the way you would in your own – even though you want to do your very best for them.  It allows your son or daughter-in-law to feel both skilled and respected by you, especially when they need to give you a hand, or are better at a task than you.)

That said, there is no excuse for being so rude that he says nothing to you at all through the whole journey to the airport and just dumps you on the kerb to struggle with your baggage.  Even if he was angry that you had an argument with his wife, it would have been basic good manners to at least have thanked you for all the trouble you took to care for everyone during your stay and seen you to check-in.  After all, would he have treated a departing nurse, nanny or au-pair in the same way? I suspect not.

Now, to the misunderstanding.  Your five-year-old granddaughter has been number one in her parents’ eyes until recently.  As the pregnancy moved towards term, your daughter will have been less mobile and more tired.  In her daughter's view, perhaps, mummy had changed.  Following that, mummy went into hospital and returned after what felt like a very long time, with a baby.  That baby takes up an awful lot of mummy’s time now and is no longer solely hers.  This is a confusing and insecure time for a small child and her behaviour will reflect that.  In time she will settle into the new arrangement and be more accepting. 

What she sees acted out by mummy or daddy she will absorb and reproduce in some way.  She has seen her mother being cold towards you and her father being rude towards you.  She is confused by all the changes and doesn’t know how to be, and this includes knowing which language to speak.  No wonder she is acting up and using language as a barrier.  Why not take French classes and surprise her?  I’m sure she would love helping you with it.

What about your daughter?  Here perhaps is the miscommunication.  Pregnancy plays havoc with a woman’s hormones.  Tears, or anger, can rush in at the most unexpected times and for her too, the chaos of unpredictable emotions, physical exhaustion and trying to adjust to the sleep-deprived months to come are challenge enough to confuse anyone. 

There have been harsh things said by both of you.  Nothing can change that.  But you are in a very different place to her, in terms of maturity and emotional upheaval.  This frees you to make further moves to offer her the chance to open up contact once again.  She has a tiny baby and a young child – as well as an occasionally rather grumpy husband – and so she might find the days rushing past in a blur right now.  But if you are able to maintain some kind of contact with her, making it clear that you understand if she isn’t able to respond to every email/letter/phonecall, then she at least knows you are thinking of her and wanting to build stronger bridges.

Once adult children leave home, we no longer have any control over the way they live their lives.  We can merely let them know we still love them, and will always be ready with open arms when they need us. 

Let your daughter know this, and give her time to settle down again.  But equally, well before the next time you are invited to visit, gently let it be known that you are not sure of how welcomed you’ll be by your son-in-law. Chose your time for this carefully as your relationship with your daughter needs to be strengthened first. You were deeply hurt by the treatment by him when you left for the airport and would like to think that it was an isolated incident due to the stress of the new baby arriving. Try to offer some sort of explanation (as above) for his behaviour that gives her – and him – a way of putting it behind them without feeling their pride has been dented; your daughter’s pride in her husband, and his pride in being head of his family and in being a frenchman. Doing this without criticism might demonstrate you have thought about the incident thoroughly and will bear no grudge;  after all, french men were once renowned for their gallantry!

You can write to Maggi at for her to respond in the column.

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