Question: Our eldest son of 32, moved in with a lovely new partner in February who has become a fantastic step-mum to our four year old grandson of whom they have joint custody with my former daughter-in-law. We have made it clear how fond we are of the new partner and how pleased we are with this relationship. We have always had a very close relationship with our grandson but in July our son asked us to stop communicating directly with his ex-wife and collecting him from her home and to restrict our contact with our grandson to times when he was with his father. We were told that this was because we were making things more difficult for them over custody issues, his ex-wife had consulted lawyers. This has not only resulted in a dramatic reduction in the amount of time we spend with our grandson but has also led to us breaking off all communciation with our former daughter-in-law, which we have felt uncomforatable about but allowed to continue.
At Christmas as a goodwill gesture, we took a present to our former daughter-in-law which resulted in a very distressed phone call from the partner to me, and which has caused something of a rift. I suppose what I would like to know is where to from here. Perhaps we should not have agreed to our son's request back in July?
Answer (1) Unfortunately it takes a long time for the dust to settle after a separation. There is a great deal of pain for all parties. Loyalties are divided and may shift around. You may be "damned if you do and damned if you don't " on many issues. There is no correct way to do things! Grand parents can play a very important role by being there, no matter what, for the children. Frequently they provide essential emotional security during the turbulent early days. To do so you need to be outside of the conflict as much as possible, and to make as few waves as possible. You can minimise potential conflict by doing as your son suggests. Could you also explain to the child's mother that you want to stay in touch with her but for the time being "won't have much contact for a while? " You could say that you don't want to get mixed up in the legal processes and so it is better if you see your grandson during his time with his father. You might also feel like saying that she should call on you for any kind of practical help, now or in the future, as you care about her and share her love of this beautiful child. You have the capacity to be a predictable source of security and love for your grandson, while his parents are distressed - or angry - or self absorbed - or kidding themselves that they are hiding their feelings from the child. You can offer this boy a safe, secure place to spend time and a calming routine when he is in your care or your company.
Answer provided by Margaret Lord, Psychologist
Answer (2) Grandparents are frequently a great resource for children as they relate to the child without having to be primary carers. To have your access curtailed is undeniably painful. I wonder what else you could have done but acceed to your son's request back in July. It was, afterall, made in the exressed interests of your son and his new partner's custody. Custody is frequently fraught with unfinished emotional business that then translates into legal argument, which at least puts things at arms length. I fear you may need to adopt a wait and watch approach. Grandparents are, I believe, bereft of access or custody rights as such. This hopefully will help maintain the relationship with your son and his partner of whom you seem to approve. As things settle between them and your grandson's mother improve, presumably your access will increase.
Answer provided by John Hunter Counsellor
Answer (3) There is a lot to learn about the boundaries of a new step family and this is probably not your first experience of a distressing breach of that evolving etiquette. The distress most likely comes not only from your actions and inactions, past and present, but also from deep within the workings of painful separations, new loyalties and unsettled divorce issues. There will be many more mistakes and plenty of room to learn. The evidence is that natural parents are the most significant people in the evolution of a healthy blended family. The ex's benefit from each other's support systems. It takes some time to work out all the moves. So be kind to yourself and get smart about these complexities. This web page is a good beginning and if you're not sure about boundaries, my web site is a starting place.
Answer provided by Peter Fox, Clinical Psychologist
Answer (4) Unfortunately, as grandparents in this country, you have very few rock solid legal rights as far as access goes and to try and push this, could result in total alienation from your son and his partner. Perhaps you shouldn't have agreed to his proposal in the first place, but now is now. I'd suggest that you try and talk this through privately with your son and try and determine just what's going on and what the purpose of all this is.
Answer provided by David White, Psychotherapist
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