The boundaries of being a grandparent
Maggi Stamp, laterlife's counsellor on human
relationships, describes how two-year-old Matthew caused havoc with his parents and
Some years ago a client, let's call her Mary,
came to me in a state of agitation and concern over family relationships. Her case
illustrates how easy it is to forget that we all have our own ways of doing things.
Fit and energetic, Mary had been helping to care for
her grandson, Matthew, since he was 8 months old, which was when his mother had
reluctantly returned to work. She enjoyed her duties and played a valuable part in
Matthew's development. But then various
conflicts emerged in the family. Mary came to me
following a huge row with her husband. It was out of character for them and left her
feeling upset and unsettled. The row came one day after Mary had been looking after
Matthew. And it followed a scene with
Matthew's parents, Tim and Becky.
Mary was close to her son and was fond of her
daughter-in-law. Becky is a typical modern mum,
juggling full time work with being mother and wife. Her
income is necessary to help pay the mortgage and contribute towards bills, etc. Having a
grandparent to share some of the childcare can be a godsend in these circumstances. On the
other hand it can lead to all kinds of misunderstandings.
The apparent disruption in an otherwise ideal
arrangement was a change of behaviour in Matthew, normally a happy and outgoing little
fellow who loved walks in the park and playing with other children. He ate and slept well
and adored cuddles with all three of his carers, Mummy, Daddy and Nana Mary. But not long
before Mary came to me, Matthew had became increasingly difficult and challenging,
sleeping little during the day, possessive when playing, refusing to eat, and worst of all
he was most demanding and bad tempered with his parents - especially his mother - but
not with Mary.
Mary had recognised the normal behaviour for a
child approaching 'the terrible twos' and knew instinctively how to
cope, remembering her own experience as a mother. This
is when they begin to discover a whole new area of vocabulary expressing negative
feelings. "Don't like it", "No!", "It's mine",
"Go away, I don't like you". Matthew found this a perfect way of letting
his parents know he was angry with them for not being around when he wanted them.
After a day at work, Becky always looked forward to seeing Matthew. But now she was finding that once she was home he became
a hyperactive, rejecting monster. This awoke the guilt that she should be a full time mum.
She knew that most toddlers become difficult around Matthew's age, but what the mind
knows and powerful maternal emotions tell us don't always dovetail perfectly! When
someone else seems to cope with your child more calmly and competently than you it seems
from an emotional point of view that you aren't very good at being a mum.
Add this to mother-in-law being in charge of your
house, doing all the things you would love to be able to do for your family and offering helpful tips on caring for your
husband and coping with baby's tantrums and you have a volatile mix! Becky's
response was effectively to tell Mary that she didn't need to be told how to handle
her own baby, thank-you very much. Tim, returning home at this point, had naturally sided
with his wife, upsetting Mary even more.
But how does this affect what was going on between
Mary and her husband Ray? Self-contained
and not a particularly demonstrative man, Ray nevertheless exploded when she told him of
Matthew's behaviour and the angry words that followed.
Mary was shocked at his reaction. She was
expecting support. After all, she was not having
problems with Matthew, and it seemed perfectly reasonable to share with Becky some of the
tips on how to cope. She was only trying to help.
When Mary and I
discussed this, many things began to fall into place as she began to see the points of
view of the other adults involved.
Considering all this and her own
experience of mothering Mary realised the following:
she herself had
found it very hard to deal with her own mother's criticisms, and remembered being
highly sensitive to even casual remarks or comments
she had assumed
that Ray's lack of involvement was lack of interest, and had compensated by doing
more with her children. Perhaps she was
repeating that pattern now
Ray had assumed
he wasn't needed as a hands on' parent and felt excluded and jealous
he was still
feeling that way. He also thought that Mary
was getting over-involved
Becky and Tim
weren't doing things badly, just differently.
After talking things through with Ray, Mary apologised to
Becky and explained some of the aspects that had emerged. She acknowledged how much
she admired Becky for coping well with the many demands on her life. This reassured Becky
and enabled Tim to tell his mum that they were deeply appreciative of how much she gave to
them and he loved her for it.
meanwhile, took his time and eventually became a sunny-natured three-year-old.
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