DEAR DR. GRAMMA KAREN: When my daughter, Mandy, was nine months pregnant, her boyfriend was sentenced to six months of work release. She had the baby and stayed with us for several months. I did all I could to help take care of my grandson, Peter, who was a fussy baby. After my daughter moved back to her own home, I still babysat. Her boyfriend eventually came home and took care of Peter while Mandy worked two jobs. They often brought Peter to see me.
I have serious health issues and they have worsened recently, causing me to have three major surgeries. I am constantly in severe pain. My husband and I couldn’t afford to keep our original home, so we now live in a smaller place and it is a bit cluttered. I am still awaiting disability. I also have a 13-year-old daughter who has her own serious medical problems and is facing some surgery.
Things are not good for Mandy and me. She first started getting angry with me when I told her I couldn’t run after Peter anymore, who is now 17 months old, and that it was easier for me to watch him at her house which has all his equipment, toys, and things. She has a new boyfriend who is in the house a lot and he would rather I take care of Peter at my house.
After several disagreements about the boyfriend wanting Peter to come to my house, and my wanting to watch him at her house, Mandy got really angry with me and told me I was a pathetic grandmother, that I should be doing more for her family, that I should stop using my health as an excuse, and that I need to learn how to be a grandmother again.
The final straw was when she said she was going to teach me a lesson and told me I couldn’t see Peter anymore. My heart is so broken. I feel overwhelmed and stretched to the limit. I have cried so much over this. Does this make me a bad grandma? What is your advice?
RESPONSE FROM DR. GRAMMA KAREN:
My gracious! It is not surprising that you are feeling totally overwhelmed — you are dealing with several major sources of stress in your life: physical, emotional, financial, and familial relationships. My first recommendation is that you read the article “Stress Symptoms, Signs, and Causes: The Effects of Stress Overload and What You Can Do About It”, published by Helpguide, an internationally recognized resource for information on mental health. In this article, you will find good information, as well as a quiz to assess your stress level. Another stress level assessment can be found at WebMD, also a good resource for learning about stress management.
If you complete one or both of those assessments, I suspect that on a continuum of “normal stress” to “excessive or chronic stress,” you are on the high end. Based on your situation I suggest that Job #1 for you right now is learning what you can do to address and deal with your stress. This is the most important action you can take because if you remain in a state of high or chronic stress, you will continue to feel overwhelmed and stretched to your limits. In fact, I am sorry to say, over time you may feel even worse; there is a lot of research pointing out how unrelieved stress exacerbates emotional and/or physical problems.
Another suggestion I have is that you work with a professional counselor with expertise in individual and family relationships. I spoke with an experienced counselor to get her advice on how you might benefit from working with a professional, rather than trying to learn stress management skills on your own. Some of the advantages of having your own counselor are that he/she can:
- Help you figure out what you can realistically offer to others in terms of your time and support; in addition, he/she can help you frame how you communicate your availability (or lack of) with family and friends.
- Teach you coping skills to reduce your stress and calm your anxiety.
- Get you in contact with the right resources if pain management continues to be a problem.
- Be your advocate, be someone who is there for you, to listen and to help.
The easiest way for you to find a counselor is to Google “social services and mental health agencies in [your county name and state].” Some will be free, some will charge, and others will have a sliding scale. When you contact them, you will want to tell them that you are looking for a counselor who can help you with managing your stress and anxiety and can give you guidance for improving family relationships. Your physicians or leaders in any religious organizations of which you may be a member may have some recommendations for counselors you might contact. Most potential counselors will offer a free consultation so you can decide if he/she will be a comfortable and helpful resource for you.
Regarding your daughter, I have a couple of comments. First, based on the circumstances you shared about her life, I would guess she, too, is on the upper end of the stress continuum – she also is feeling totally overwhelmed. This is not to excuse her angry behavior, but rather I bring it up in hopes that your love for her can help you feel some empathy and lessen the hurt she has caused you to feel. Perhaps you can reach out by telling her you agree with her that you want to be the best grandmother you can possibly be for Peter, and that is why you plan to talk with a counselor to help you.
I urge you to put your focus on managing your stress and anxiety and work with a professional counselor to help you be able to better handle the relationship challenges in your life. By taking care of yourself in this way, perhaps you can help your daughter understand that this may give you the capacity and skills to be the grandmother you both want you to be.
If she asks you to babysit, I suggest you tell her that you are not taking on any commitments at this time while you begin your work with a counselor. She may continue to be angry with you and refuse to let you visit with Peter. I hope this doesn’t happen, but once you have a counselor, he/she may be able to help you rebuild your relationship with your daughter so that both she and Peter can be a part of your life in ways that are not excessively stressful for you.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR – KAREN RANCOURT, PH.D.
Karen Rancourt, Ph.D., writes an advice column for parents and grandparents at Mommybites.com and is the author of Ask Dr. Gramma Karen, Volume II: Savvy Advice to Help Soothe Parent-Grandparent Conflicts.