I feel I am living a recurrent nightmare. But one that is even more disturbing and upsetting. When I was growing up my mother always blew hot and cold. She could be charming in front of friends and occasionally to me but, whenever she felt like it, thoroughly nasty when we were alone. Tiny things, or nothing at all could trigger an outburst and I never knew where I was with her.
We roll on fifteen years or so and she is now treating my small son and daughter in the same way. At times she puts one of them on her knee, reads them stories and cuddles them. The next she is shut off and snaps if they ask her anything. She can also be very critical telling them they look dirty, or that my daughter doesn’t look nice in her dress and my son is a cry baby. Alternatively she zooms in on one, is full of praise and ignores the other. And vice versa.
I see the confusion and disappointment on their little faces as if they are asking themselves: ‘Who is this woman?’ and don’t know how to respond to her.
It is breaking my heart. I want to protect them but also feel they should have a relationship with their grandmother. My husband’s parents have both passed away, which makes it even more important? What should I do?
It must be very difficult to see your children looking puzzled and confused. Not least because it will bring back painful memories for you too. But do remember that unlike you, they are not living full time with a mother who is unkind and unpredictable. Your consistent love and tender care will have given them the strong base that children need to thrive.
However you are right that your priority is to protect them. If your mother is nasty with her own grandchildren, why should you let them suffer? In fact there are no shoulds when it comes to being exposed to mean relatives. It is sad that your children are unable to know their other grandparents, but there are ways in which you can help them understand what that relationship might have been like.
You can, for example, show them photos of their father’s parents, describe what they were like, ask their father to tell them stories about when he was a boy and if you knew them too, pass on your own tales. If you have other older relatives you could arrange to visit them informally as proxy grandparents. Think about what you would be looking for to help your children understand older people and if you thought it might help, visit elderly neighbours or old people’s homes.
As far as your mother is concerned we suggest that you try to help your children’s understand their grandmother by gently talking about her so that they have the words that can express their feelings. You can also ask them what they think of her and if they have very questions, but don’t let your chat last too long. If you feel that you have to visit your mother occasionally, be sure to prepare the children in advance and afterwards have a family ‘debrief’ session and find out if they think she has been unkind.