Managing Expectations in the Grandparent Relationship

When Paula Span spoke to our GaGa Sisterhood, she asked: “Wouldn’t it be helpful to think and talk about what the new parents envision for our role even before our grandchild arrives?” What will they expect and accept from us and how might the relationship take shape?

Our guest speaker Paula Span is a veteran journalist who has been writing a New York Times column called “New Old Age” since 2009. After becoming a grandma 5 years ago, she started writing a second column called “Generation Grandparent.” She has researched and written about the role of grandparents extensively. Paula covered many grandparent topics in her presentation including intensive grandparenting, the matrilineal advantage, and the demographic changes that affect today’s grandparents. The topic that resonated for me is managing expectations in the grandparent relationship.

Expectations in the new grandparent relationship are one of the most important conversations to have with the new parents and ideally before they become parents. What are you willing to give or provide? What are they willing to offer or accept? Hopefully, there’s not an imbalance on either side where they want more than you’re willing to give.

Not One Size Fits All

There’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to grandparent involvement. And it’s important to try and strike a balance so that all of you feel like your needs are being met.

Whether we’re living in the same house or across town or across the country, we can still be part of this new person’s life. We may have to shift as we get older and as children get older.

This takes all different forms – grandparents may be envisioning one scenario with visits a few times a year. But if grandparents are living nearby, parents may be thinking forget the zoo, we’re drowning here – please come every Thursday with dinner — we don’t care what it is and while you’re here, could you do 2 loads of laundry?

Not discussing this ahead of time can lead to disappointment for both parties. It’s not too late to have these discussions after the birth and even long after that.

Establish Healthy Boundaries

Healthy boundaries are an important part of any relationship. When used effectively, they establish expectations regarding the relationship and encourage people to treat each other mindfully and respectfully.

They are especially important in parent-grandparent relationships because they not only establish roles and expectations but also provide a structure that keeps the children from being confused or caught in the middle.

In my book, When Being a Grandma Isn’t So Grand: 4 Keys to L.O.V.E. Your Grandchild’s Parents, I suggest sitting down with the parents-to-be and having a conversation about everyone’s expectations. What do they expect from you and what do you expect from them? Do they want you at the birth, helping out on a regular basis, or on an as-needed basis?

This may feel awkward at first but if you don’t have this conversation and let things just unfold, you’re going to get into some challenging situations. When we have to deal with conflict or misunderstanding in the moment, it’s always more stressful.

Be specific when you have your conversation. For example, you might say: I’m wondering how much involvement you envision me having with the new baby. I’ve been thinking about how much time I’d like to spend.

This is one of the most important conversations you’ll have with your grandchild’s parents. Rest assured the relationship will also evolve as time passes. You’ll all see how things are working as you become more comfortable in your new roles.

By having this conversation early, you’re showing your commitment to the new relationship with your grandchild and that you’ve been giving it some thought.

Once you’ve all agreed on a mutually beneficial commitment, then begin a conversation about everyone’s wishes and expectations for the frequency and location of visits. Be flexible and remember the parents are in charge so go with the flow whenever possible.

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