couples therapy
imago therapy

Waves of emotion at the beach house

from publication series OUR RELATIONSHIPS    October 2011

Being out at a beach house for two weeks with different family configurations definitely gives one pause to think about what it takes for families to get along throughout a life span. Looking back to all the years that this summer vacation house has seen is a reminder of the angst, as well as pleasure, that went along with each of the stages of my own life: singlehood, young marriage, kids, failing marriage, divorce, single motherhood, new relationships, no relationships, adult kids, a (finally) good remarriage, sons’ marriages, daughters-in-law, and grandchildren.

Surprisingly, I’m not done adjusting to life’s stages yet, as this grandparent stage carries with it unexpected challenges that, like new parenthood, can’t be mastered in advance, but only through trying to figure out how to make it work as I go through it.

I remember, upon becoming a grandmother, finding a book of essays, “Eye of My Heart,” by well-known female writers, expounding the joys and tribulations of grandmotherhood. Tribulations?? Thank god I wasn’t the only one — what a relief!! I lent that book to every grandmother I knew.

Staying under the same roof at the beach with my children and their own children has made me think continuously — obsess, actually — about why this new grandmother role should be so fraught, and not as simply joyful as I was taught to expect. The closest I’ve come to understanding the struggle is to see that it’s not the relationship with the grandchildren that is the hard part — it’s the relationship between their parents and me that needs the attention. So I’m back to dealing with my own children, this time with them as full-fledged adults and me as the aging generation who apparently still can’t get it right.

True, my story is only one of a myriad of possibilities, but as I talk to my peers and young parents, I see that there can be many areas of conflict over the grandchildren. Some of us grandparents think we know ways in which life could be made easier for everyone if our kids would just make some adjustments in their parenting styles. We wish for an independent relationship with the grandkids that’s special only between us, yet, when our kids are present, they don’t want to be pushed aside. They feel they must help in interpreting between us and the grandkids, as we cannot be counted on to communicate effectively. We feel that they are overly involved and don’t let the kids have the time and space to relax and learn on their own, while they feel we are neglectful and not sensitive to the kids’ needs. We feel like the third wheel and left out as the parents and kids enjoy each other, and they see us as too self-centered.

Naturally, our own kids feel — as we did when we were starting families — that it is not our business to comment on their parenting styles. Instead, they see ways in which we could make their lives easier if we could avoid what feels, to them, like judgments, and just step up and help them out by going along with the program.

After these recent summer experiences, both my sons went out of their way to try to make me understand how pushed to the max they were with responsibilities and the accompanying stresses of this stage of life, and how my focus on my own feelings and needs just makes their lives harder. I’ve come to accept that this is my role for now: go along with the program when with the family. If I want to get to know my grandkids separately, I can do that when babysitting them and as they get older. If I want to relate adult-to-adult with my sons, a short, interrupted telephone conversation is probably the closest I’ll come to that for now. This has been a learning process of giving up some of my needs that I haven’t been forced to deal with in a long time.

Yet, somehow, it was extremely liberating to hear an honest, open — even if angry — expression of my sons’ frustrations with me. At least the harbored resentments on both sides were now spoken, and, afterwards, I noticed myself smiling with relief that both my sons were willing to try to communicate these feelings with me, painful as they were. I’ve thought, talked, examined, and just sat with what was brought up in me by these talks, and am coming to see that this is the way it must be for now, and going along with their wishes is the right path for me to take. I just hope I can do it.

Once again, talking about feelings — instead of keeping them in — was the turning point for me. This time I was the listener, and hearing my sons talk, angry and upset and overwhelmed as they were, was hard. I spoke to myself during these conversations (“Just shut up, Joan”) and it felt good to quietly listen, have them be the ones to share some deep emotion with me, and let them know that they were heard. Next step, the follow-through. I’ll let you know how I do.

>> read the previous article in the publication series OUR RELATIONSHIPS
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