Author Kathleen Stassen Berger has some strong words for grandmas: Keep your comments to yourself and start building relationships with the “gatekeepers” long before conception.
If you haven’t heard the term “gatekeepers,” they’re the parents of your grandchildren and they can wield their power by shutting the gate and keeping you out of your grandchild’s life.
It’s become a bigger problem over the past decade and more broken-hearted grandmas are willing to admit they’ve been shut out than in previous generations. Hostile gatekeepers are more often the son’s wife than the daughter’s husband, especially if the mother was close to her son.
Berger addresses this issue in her new book, Grandmothering: Building Strong Ties with Every Generation. As I make my way through this valuable resource, I want to share some of her wisdom. While this chapter of her book is directed primarily to new grandmas, it’s still valuable advice for “seasoned” grandmas too.
All the research on grandparents emphasizes that the middle generation can open or close the gates that allow access to grandchildren. Some gatekeepers forbid contact, some simply move far away, and some poison the grandmother-grandchild relationship, creating a virtual wall instead of a physical one.
It’s hard to pry open a gate that’s been shut. That’s why mothers-in-law must strengthen their relationship to the future parents early on, oiling the gate so it swings open easily when the time comes.
An early important lesson is to keep your comments to yourself because it will affect later gatekeeping. If you had an early mother-child relationship with your now adult child that was verbally abusive or worse, the time to repair it is before any grandchildren are conceived.
Almost always, grandmas consider their relationship with their grown children closer and warmer than the children do. Developmentalists refer to this as a generational stake, meaning that the older generation has a bias toward believing all was good; while the younger generation wants to believe that they’ve improved on their parents’ caregiving. As a result, grandmas do not realize when repair is needed, when they must listen and apologize. Instead, they defend themselves against criticism and complain that the young do not even have “common courtesy.”
Accepting responsibility for past lapses takes humility and effort. Often our first impulse is to be defensive, blaming past failings on others rather than accepting an adult child’s perception.
How do you build respect with the gatekeepers, especially the new spouse in the relationship? Berger offers these suggestions:
Make eye contact often, but carefully. Looks, glances, stares, gazes are all crucial in human communication. But cultures differ markedly regarding eye contact. Future grandmas must notice visual habits of the new spouse, avoid staring and yet meeting glances with openness, warmth, and respect.
Follow emotional and physical leads. Mirror whatever emotion is expressed: smile or look serious, as the moment requires. Laughter may be abrasive or welcome. Mirror body position and if someone backs away, don’t move forward.
Listen actively. Say “yes, uh-huh, oh my, amen, really, okay, oh no,” nod, clap, use facial expressions to show your attentive. Still faces and silence can be interpreted as hostile.
Find shared joy. Humor is bonding … or alienating. Laughter at oneself is best. Never make fun of a child or an adult, including those not present. Never joke about any ethnic group or religion, including your own.
Respect cultural differences. Loud voices, slang, and drama are bonding for some people, alienating for others. Praise can be grating or welcome; smiles can be considered friendly or insincere. Observe carefully, learn pathways and customs before judging or joining.
Avoid landmines. Every mother-in-law has beliefs that clash with the new couple, perhaps about religion or politics, or maybe about habits such as when and how to brush teeth or prepare salad. Keep quiet until you know what another person thinks.
None of this means that as grandmas we must always be passive, accepting everything with a smile, as our own grandmothers may have. That would betray the great strides that women have made. But remember the goal: strong, supportive relationships, so that no one shuts the gate.
My best advice from my book, When Being a Grandma Isn’t So Grand: 4 Keys to L.O.V.E. Your Grandchild’s Parents is to imagine you’re an anthropologist studying a new tribe. Go in with neutrality and open-mindedness and see what you can learn about their culture. Have your eyes and heart wide open.