Thicker Than Water

By: Brette Sember

When we marry or partner with someone who has grandchildren, our new role as a step-grandmother may require some adjustments for everyone.

Judith Mara Beach is a step-grand in Chicago to two girls, 13 and 11. She has no other grandchildren. “I’ve been very active in the girls’ lives and am very close to them,” she says. That closeness isn’t enough to make everything storybook perfect, however.

“Neither my stepdaughter nor my grandchildren acknowledge me on Mother’s Day,” she says. Although she and her stepdaughter are close, her stepdaughter has said she acknowledges only her mother because she is a blood relation. This explanation doesn’t sit well with Judith, who wonders if her grandchildren wonder why she is excluded.

“Will I matter in their lives when I get older, or if my husband, who is older than I, should pass? Are emotional ties as strong as blood? When are they going to want to have a talk about me not being their blood grandmother? It will happen someday, and I don’t know what I will say.”

One of the biggest challenges of step-grandmothering is coming into a family where the grandchildren already have a grandmother. When another grand appears on the scene, there can be a rivalry-or at least a sense of rivalry-with the blood grandmother. Mary Schneider is step-grand to 3-year-old TJ. When he was born, she and her husband, who live in Kissimmee, Florida, were the first to see him and took the first photos for the family. That “slight” has never been forgotten by the blood grandmother, Mary says. “Every once in a while she’ll say, ‘Well, you were the first to see him!’”

Mary has also been hurt when the bio grand was chosen over her. She and her husband bought TJ a Batman costume for Halloween and were all set to take him trick-or-treating around their gated community. Mary found the trick-or-treat bag she herself used as a child; the video camera had been charging for days. Then, Mary called TJ’s mom to find out what time he would be dropped off. “Oh, I forgot to call you,” said her stepdaughter. “My mom called this morning to say she traded her day off so that she could be home tonight and have TJ for Halloween. So, I won’t be bringing him over after all.” Mary cried, and the entire episode felt spiteful to her. “We never even got to see TJ in the Batman costume that we bought. That one hurt for a while.”

Part of joining a new family is participating in events and holidays, but these events are often fraught with conflict and hard feelings when stepfamilies are involved. Debbey Ryan, of Lafayette, Louisiana, is step-grand to 3-year-old Ender. She says, “I’m the go-to person for the important things like handing out money and gifts, but there is never a family event where someone doesn’t hurt my feelings.”

Brenda Rodstrom, a licensed therapist in New York who specializes in stepfamily relationships is herself a step-grand. At the naming ceremony for her step-granddaughter, she recalls, “The biological grandparents had small roles. I did not, and that was fine. I know who I am and who I am not, and I am comfortable with this. Someone else might have been offended to not have a formal part. If that happens, let it go; enjoy what you have.” She points out that big family moments and events are breeding grounds for unresolved family issues, which is why they often erupt into ugly confrontations. Her advice? “There are enough stressors at events-this is not the time to make a statement.”

Developing a comfortable role as a step-grand takes time and patience. Jennipher Cole, the program coordinator for the Family Life Education program at DePelchin Children’s Center in Houston, works with stepfamilies and offers this advice: “Try not to force the relationship. Blending families often means balancing many different family styles, expectations, routines and relationships.”

Cole suggests we let the parents (our stepchildren) know we want to have a positive relationship in which the families are able to spend time together with open communication and a minimal amount of conflict. Everyone needs to make their expectations clear and to be able to listen to what others are saying. It is important that grands not judge step-grandchildren if they have a hard time engaging in a relationship right away. Sometimes children feel that the grands expect an immediate bond. This may not be realistic. If the children do not feel welcomed, or if they feel pushed into the new family, they can become resentful, angry and frustrated; and this creates obstacles to bonding.

Cole also emphasizes, “It is important that you and your spouse are on the same page.” If the grand couple (one bio and one step) are able to talk-and resolve-issues about relationships with the grandchildren, a discussion with the rest of the family about expectations, rules and hopes for hurt-free participation in family gatherings will be more productive. A grand couple who is not on the same page sends mixed messages to all the generations, increasing the chance of emotional wounds and decreasing the opportunities to form new friendships.

Susan Newman, author of Little Things Mean a Lot: Creating Happy Memories with Your Grandchildren, suggests that creating bonds with step-grandchildren can be done gradually. “Approach them more on a friendship basis, rather than trying to be a grandparent figure. Be available but not insistent. Be positive, and avoid criticism.”

One of the best ways to improve your relationship with a step-grandchild is to work on your relationship with your stepchild. Rodstrom reflects, “Your relationship with your step-grandchildren will mirror that of your relationship with your stepchildren. Talk about how you would like to be part of the child’s life.” It is very important, she stresses, to follow the wishes of the child’s parent; for example, if they ask us not to buy expensive toys, we shouldn’t.

Rodstrom also suggests that if we have biological grandchildren, the step relationship may become even more complicated. If your bio grandchildren are close in age to the steps, it is not difficult to treat them the same; but if there is a big age difference, there is no way to treat them “the same.” Geographical distance can also be a factor in how the relationships unfold. Rodstrom says we should talk openly with the parents-both our children and our stepchildren. “When the grandparents treat the step-grandchildren differently, it is resented by the parents and the step-grandchildren.” These feelings-and the solutions to avoid these feelings-can be defused by bringing them out in the open.

Schneider sums up the role of the step-grand: “You need to ease in. Realize and accept that you are not ‘first chair’ when it comes to grandparenting.”

However, we need to remember also that children are rarely as attuned to the differences between bio- and step-grands-and we are people they love; we are a part of their family. No matter what.

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