How much do I owe my parents?
February 9, 2009 7:04 AM   Subscribe

I'm having a baby girl any week now, and I couldn't be more excited, but it's left me thinking a lot about whether or not I want my parents involved in my daughter's life.

My parents divorced when I was 3, and my father promptly moved out of state. I would see him once or twice a year for a week or so, generally for Christmas and my birthday, and he never called or wrote except when he was arranging a visit. My mom was pretty hostile towards him--she raised me to believe he was the scum of the earth, and he wasn't around to say otherwise.

When I got older, he made a little more of an effort to talk to me, and offered at one point to let me move in with him (and his new wife and her kids) while I finished college. I was grateful for the support, and I accepted. It didn't go well. After a couple of months, we had a major fight that ended with him telling me to get the hell out of his house--he later apologized and asked me to stay, but I left anyway.

In the 7 years since then, he's emailed me 2 or 3 times, but I haven't responded. At first I was just mad, but now I recognize that we were both being stubborn idiots (maybe it runs in the family), and mainly haven't contacted him because I don't really have anything to say. At this point, he's a stranger to me.

My mom is another story. We had a great relationship when I was a kid, but she started getting "weird" when I was a teenager. Years later I learned it was paranoid schizophrenia, but by then she'd already decided that I was part of the conspiracy plotting against her, and no longer trusted me (and in some cases, expressed concern that I was some kind of government agent impersonating her daughter).

She contacts me once or twice a year now, seeming to want to re-establish a relationship. She seems more stable than she was, and I can usually manage to have a couple of decent conversations with her, but invariably she'll bring up something ridiculous and irrational, I'll try to apply logic to it, and she'll become furious that I'm dismissing her concerns, and then I won't hear from her for another 7 or 8 months.

I don't want my daughter to grow up not knowing her grandparents, and I don't want my parents to not know their grandchild. I know they'll both want to meet her, at the very least. I kind of feel like I owe it to them. But I have a lot of concerns.

I still resent my dad for not being involved with my life, and if he made a greater effort with my daughter than with his own, I would probably end up feeling pretty bitter about that. And I know from firsthand experience that a bitter, angry parent can have a serious effect on a kid. But if he didn't make an effort, I'd probably take that as further proof of his failure as a parent, leading to more bitterness. And I don't want to have to explain to my kid why Grandpa doesn't ever call or write.

As for my mom, her descent into mental illness was profoundly painful for me to watch, and I don't want to expose my kid to that kind of pain, or have to explain that a lot of what Grandma says isn't true, but she'll start yelling if you tell her so. On the other hand, when she's lucid, my mom is an amazingly creative and intelligent person, and exactly the sort of cool grandma I'd love my daughter to have in her life.

I know this isn't a question with an easy answer, but I would love to hear other people's viewpoints here. Would it be unfair to my parents to not offer them the chance to be involved with my daughter's life? Would it be unfair to my daughter? And if I don't involve them, what on earth will I tell her when she starts realizing that other kids have grandmas and grandpas? "Sorry, kid, but I don't like your grandpa much, and your grandma's nuts"?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (19 answers total)
This isn't something you have to decide right away. You probably should let both your parents know they have a new grandchild, but that's about as far as it needs to go for now.

It sounds a lot like you need to work on your own relationship with your parents first. Define the boundaries - will they visit you? Will you visit them? Will you meet on neutral ground? Will you cut off contact altogether? And you probably need to put some serious time into addressing your own feelings of anger/guilt/whatever.

It's unfair on all parties to your child to introduce her into a relationship with your parents when you yourself don't really have one. Realistically you have two or three years at least to work on that before your daughter starts to ask questions.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 7:14 AM on February 9, 2009

First, it is not at all unfair to your parents or your child to keep them apart if you have any reasonable belief their interactions won't be good for the kid. You certainly don't owe your parents anything. Also, parents decide what their kids are exposed to every single day, and many kids grow up with less than the full complement of grandparents and still become productive members of society. Think of all the kids who grow up with grandparents who are already deceased. Kids get over that stuff. They're resilient. It's really not that big a deal to them, as they've never known life any other way.

You don't sound fully convinced that you actually want to do this, though. Maybe you can bring your kids to visit their grandmother once and just see how it goes. If your mom gets too loopy, then you leave. Your kids aren't going to get so attached to their grandmother in one afternoon that they'll suffer from not seeing her again.
posted by aswego at 7:17 AM on February 9, 2009

If your relationship with your parents isn't healthy, you shouldn't feel too bad about limiting contact between them and your own child. Your right as a parent to provide a safe, healthy environment for your baby is much more important than their rights as grandparents to be involved. Decide what your limits are going to be, and be firm on them.

I have a baby boy due in May, and my wife and I are wrestling with how we want to deal with family... our issues seem really minor compared to yours. Good luck with the new baby!
posted by caution live frogs at 7:24 AM on February 9, 2009

I had to cut myself off from my father during my son's infancy for complex reasons (detailed in other posts, feel free to dig). Now adults, my kids understand that this is an emotionally difficult thing for me, and yes they resent their grandfather for allowing himself to be cut off from them (I will say that I have periodically reached out to him and he does not respond). However, families come in all shapes and sizes and kids get that their family is different from every other family.

I have encouraged them to get in touch with their grandfather on their own; unfortunately they are reluctant to the point of fear I think, to do that. That is a burden I have to bear, because it's my fault.

Whatever you end up doing-- no contact, minimal contact, supervised contact, whatever-- there will be no "other kids have cool grandparents, I'm a freak" moments, or if there are, it will be fleeting. "Wow, mom, Johnny's grandma lives with them and bakes cookies" and you say oh really? Cool. That's it. Kids get it. Plus they'll have their dad's family? My kids are very involved in their other grandmother's life (My mom and DH's dad died before they were born).

Sounds to me like extended and/or unsupervised visits are OUT until they are much older, if then. Your mother's instability and your father's insensitivty preclude that. If I were you I'd reach out (dinner inviations, "we're passing through town and want to stop in for a couple of hours" etc.) and then accept your parents' decision on how involved they want to try to be, within the limits set by you. Remember that they are dealing with exactly the same family issues from the other side, and you really have no idea the emotional, medical, or practical matters from their point of view, that have created this dynamic.

I agree that it's a horrible thing for kids not to know their grandparents. My dad can be really cool, but he did some things when the kids were little that were just unforgiveable, largely through the machinations of his wife (not my mother). But many many kids don't know their grandparents, so it's not something that is going to make them social or cultural oddities.

Also Congrats on you baby girl!
posted by nax at 7:25 AM on February 9, 2009

I still resent my dad for not being involved with my life, and if he made a greater effort with my daughter than with his own, I would probably end up feeling pretty bitter about that.

The resentment and hurt is understandable. This resentment can be a huge problem on your mental health. I would try to work though that, preferably with a therapist. It's easier said than done, but try not to feel bitter if your father makes an effort to have a relationship with his grandchild. Your father is probably wiser in his old age. He probably hates himself for not being a better parent to you. He probably has many regrets. When you were a child he had his own huge set of problems: children, divorce, ex-wife, financial concerns, new wife, new kids, and who knows what else. Now that he has less responsibilities and selfishness, and has hopefully matured emotionally, he probably deserves a chance to be a part of your life. You don't have to forgive him but don't make life a living hell for the both of you because you think you'll be bitter either way. That's a foolish and destructive way to live. Try not to cry over what you missed out on. What's done is done and we can never get those days back. Try to be grateful that your father is in a better place and able to love you and your child.

What do you really want? I bet you want parents that care for you and are interested in your life. Allow them to do so. Welcome them into your life until they give you a good reason not to. When they reach out, don't shut them down. Try to work through those uncomfortable feelings and give them a chance.

If it were me, I'd take the adult approach: Dump the bitterness and allow your parents to have a relationship with your child. You know your situation best, but I think you'll be more contented if you permit them to be a part of your life, more tortured if you don't. You can see them in small doses. You are in control of the amount of contact and involvement. Good luck and congratulations.
posted by Fairchild at 7:38 AM on February 9, 2009 [2 favorites]

Revise your expectations and your image of your Mom. My Mom was almost certainly bipolar.

You can't have a normal mother/daughter relationship with someone who had paranoid schizophrenia. You can have a compassionate relationship where you spend time together, but she can't contribute the way a healthy person can. So you can teach your child that her grandmother has a mental illness, and that you love Grandma, but have to manage your boundaries. I didn't put that well, but you can develop it. Figure out what your mom can offer, and teach your child to value it. If your Mom like fishing, then go fishing with her; it will give your child a chance to see her grandmother at her best. Be prepared with a backup plan for if(when) things get difficult.

Figure out what needs to happen for you to forgive your dad, and what role you want him to play in your life. Then you can decide what role he can play in your daughter's life.

This is hard, especially since you very likely didn't have the kind of parenting you needed, and have a lot to learn. You sound like you have a good handle on things. Good luck.
posted by theora55 at 7:44 AM on February 9, 2009

Talk with a therapist and/or pyshchiatrist and get his or her opinion on the matter. They have the type of training to address this sort of thing.
posted by Ironmouth at 7:46 AM on February 9, 2009

Congratulations on the impending arrival

My mother has been mentally ill all her life, and was neglectful and abusive to my sister and I. The abuse was physical and emotional. My mother is capable of saying things that are very hurtful and divisive. It only takes a moment.

This is why I have decided that she shouldn't have any significant contact with my kids. I don't think they would be physically at risk from her (she's too medically frail at this point to be a threat to anyone). However, I don't want them exposed to the things that she says. I can process it and parse it, but my children are too young.

We send her pictures of the kids and she sends them gifts and cards around the holidays. The kids occasionally make her little crafty things and we mail them. It's a relationship that works well enough because I can moderate all of the communication and everything happens at a safe distance.

My kids love to write letters, and they love to get letters. In this age of email, letter-writing is a fading art. Instilling a love of it in your children from an early age is both a gift to them and an opportunity for you to foster relationships between them and your parents in a safe and controlled manner.

Good luck!
posted by DWRoelands at 7:56 AM on February 9, 2009

Keep in mind that, for a child, what you say is normal is what counts as normal for them. Your child might notice that she sees her grandparents less than other children do, but she probably won't think of this as something that is Wrong with her or your family. It'll just be the way things are.

Plenty of children have grandparents too far away to visit regularly or who have already passed on. And, really, there are also plenty of children whose parents and grandparents have had a falling out. It happens. Many kids just don't know their grandparents all that well, for whatever reason.

So, really, do what's best for your child and will fill her life with positivity and happiness. Even if it doesn't fit some preconceived notion of what a "complete" family is, it will be what's best for her.
posted by Ms. Saint at 8:00 AM on February 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

My mom and her father had a similar relationship as you and your father. We grandkids would get to see our grandpa once or twice a year. We grew up thinking that grandpas were people who lived far away and weren't very involved in their grandchildren's lives, and we thought this was normal. It was only years later that I understood the bitterness my mom held on to from her childhood, and how hard it was for her to maintain contact with her father so that her kids could know their grandfather, if only a little.

I'm not saying you should follow my mother's example. I'm only saying that having a pretty much absentee grandfather, who had another entire family, did not really affect my life in any appreciable way, either when I was growing up or now. It just didn't register as anything particularly noteworthy.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 8:03 AM on February 9, 2009

In the 7 years since then, he's emailed me 2 or 3 times, but I haven't responded. At first I was just mad, but now I recognize that we were both being stubborn idiots (maybe it runs in the family), and mainly haven't contacted him because I don't really have anything to say. At this point, he's a stranger to me.

While it sucks that you didn't have your dad around when you were a kid, it sounds like you're still seeing him through the warped, irrational lens that you've learned from your mother. This guy has already apologized and attempted to reach out to you, and you're still holding stuff against him from years ago.

I still resent my dad for not being involved with my life, and if he made a greater effort with my daughter than with his own, I would probably end up feeling pretty bitter about that.

This is incredibly unfair to both your father and your daughter. You are not competing with your daughter for your father's love. I think it's time to have an honest conversation with your father about your feelings and give him a chance, at least, to be in both of your lives. From the sound of it, it's entirely possible that your mother didn't give him much of a chance to be in yours when you were younger. Do you really want to miss out on your chance now?

Your mother is a different story--she sounds scary and possibly dangerous and I would probably want to shield my child from that. But you really haven't given us a compelling reason why your kid shouldn't see your dad.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:49 AM on February 9, 2009

First of all, congratulations!

Second, you should do what you feel is best for your daughter. You are ultimately responsible for the health and welfare of that child (mentally and physically). If you feel excluding your parents, either explicitly or through benign neglect, is the way to go, then that's what you should do. It's not about your parents anymore or their feelings; it's all about that little one.

My own story, with my 2 year old son, involves my Father, who has degraded mentally and physically since my Mom left him 15 years ago along with my Mother, who has been getting treatment for an assortment of mental ailments (very bad depression and anxiety) since about the same time. My father has little interest in my son (sad though that is), but my mother seems to be at her best around my son. Not saying that is what will happen with you, but I'm not sure you're going to know how to proceed until you dip your toe in the water, so to speak. I agree with you wanting your daughter to know who her grand-p's are, but don't push it if you or your parents can't deal with it.
posted by PsuDab93 at 8:53 AM on February 9, 2009

Whatever you end up doing-- no contact, minimal contact, supervised contact, whatever-- there will be no "other kids have cool grandparents, I'm a freak" moments, or if there are, it will be fleeting.

Just a counterpoint: my mother cut herself off from 2 or 3 relatives for reasons of varying validity, and my sister and I were acutely aware of it. I still feel pangs of resentment and sadness when I'm at big family parties of friends' and I see how loving and inclusive families potentially could be. Your kid/kids might not be fully aware of this until adulthood, but at some point they will be, and, yeah, it sucks.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:54 AM on February 9, 2009

I grew up with one grandparent; my paternal grandmother died before my parents were married, and my grandfathers both died before I was seven. Of all four of them, my closest relationship was with my paternal grandfather, whom I adored. I didn't have a particularly good relationship with my maternal grandmother, who had her own problems and who only died a few years ago. I turned out okay.

Do what makes you feel safe. I had a formal once-a-year review by my maternal grandfather, whom I now suspect of having molested my mother, and it was almost like being presented to the queen (except that I doubt the queen has a parrot that bites her grandchildren). We made it into a strange, comforting nuclear family ritual that involved jokes beforehand and a special lunch out at a restaurant we only visited on that day.
posted by catlet at 9:30 AM on February 9, 2009

Would it be unfair to my parents to not offer them the chance to be involved with my daughter's life?


Would it be unfair to my daughter?

No--keeping destructive or psychopathic people out of her life is just good parenting.

If you allow your circle to widen and allow people of all ages that you love and trust to grow close to your child, though, you will find people who fill that role in a beautiful, beneficial, and meaningful way. My children have many adults who are fiercely devoted to their well-being and enrichment, and very few of them are family.

I know how unsatisfactory--to say the least--it is to see the potential lost from crappy grandparents. Mourn it and then count your blessings as you tally all of the wonderful people willing to share your daughter's life.
posted by agentwills at 9:46 AM on February 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

I think a lot of people would think that it's better to have no grandparents than bad grandparents.
posted by jenfullmoon at 1:33 PM on February 9, 2009

Seconding the idea that you certainly don't have to decide this right now. You may eventually decide that you'd like to involve them in your daughter's life, but it doesn't have to happen on the day she's born. The fact that the question has been raised in your mind may be all you're prepared to deal with right now. That's fine. You have plenty of other stuff on your plate! (Congratulations, by the way.)

Naturally, becoming a parent is bound to make you reexamine your own relationship(s) with your parents, sometimes in very intense ways. To that end, seeing a therapist could be very beneficial for you -- not because there's anything wrong with you, or with your earlier decision to cut off contact with your parents, but because setting new boundaries with your parents when there's a new child involved can be a minefield to negotiate on your own. The more clarity you have in your own feelings toward (and relationships with) your mom and dad, the better the decisions you can make for your daughter -- giving her the chance (again, if you so choose) to have a healthy, even if limited, relationship with her grandparents.

My own mom had a difficult, love/hate relationship with her folks (she still does now, in a way, nearly a decade after they died), which in some ways became the central emotional dynamic in my upbringing and into my adulthood. (Hence my spending a good chunk of my 30s in therapy trying to unravel the knots of three generations worth of dysfunction.)
posted by scody at 2:08 PM on February 9, 2009

One sidenote: Your perception of your father (being uninvolved) in your childhood, and your realization that your mom was schizophrenic aren't being 'added together.'

Your dad may have been told to keep away by her. Your perception of what he was and who he was as a father (good/bad), was certainly colored by your mother: a woman who was certainly ill.

I mention this, because your resentment of him may not be as warranted as you think. He may have been as much of a victim of circumstance as you were.
posted by filmgeek at 4:36 AM on February 10, 2009

Congrats on your baby.

Lots of good advice here, as seen from someone with a similarly complicated background. I decided that the best way that I could be a good parent was to keep my family of origin out of my life and my kids' life and I have never regretted that decision. My oldest knows that her maternal grandmother lives very far away and has a general, age-appropriate understanding of why we're not in contact. So far so good. I do not in any way sense that this is perceived in any way by her or her peers as weird or a loss/deficit.

A point I haven't seen raised yet:

How about the other set of grandparents? Your kid can have good grandparentariffic relationships with only one branch of the family. My kids see my husband's folks a few times a year (they're a 3 hour drive away) and love them. Works for us.
posted by Sublimity at 5:16 AM on February 10, 2009

« Older Where to stay Brum - cheap as chips.   |   Why should I pay when I had to teach myself Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.