The advent of a new baby can bring family dynamics into full focus. Whereas your son was simply your son and your daughter-in-law was simply your daughter-in-law, relationships now become more important and different. Your son becomes the father of your grandchild, and your daughter-in-law her mother. That changes them and your relationship to them. This change in relationships extends right across the family (or families), creating the need for reappraisal and adjustment, which isn’t always without tension and uncertainty. But getting along has to be the highest priority, not seniority.

The other grandparents

Before the arrival of your grandchild you enjoyed a one-to-one relationship with your son (in law) and daughter (in law), but now you may be one of possibly several grandparents, depending on how extended the family is. I have four sons, four daughters-in-law, and two stepdaughters with families of their own in which there are second marriages. The result is that I am only one of four grandmothers in these particular families. Furthermore I’m pretty low in the hierarchy—fourth in fact. Being fourth taught me a lot about restraint, tolerance, flexibility, and gratitude (for being included as a grandmother at all), and I’ve taken these qualities to my closer family.

Grandchildren change the relationships within a family, creating the need for reappraisal and adjustment

Even here the relationships weren’t straightforward. The parents of one of my daughters-in-law live in overseas, and so they see much less of her and our grandchildren than I do. When they visit, they have first dibs on seeing the grandchildren and I gladly give them space. For their part, they exhibit not the slightest rivalry with me which they easily could. Their relationship with me is motivated by appreciation of what I do for their daughter, her family, and her children. They are an object lesson to me and all grandparents.

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Unfortunately, things aren’t always so easy, and rivalry between grandparents is quite common. In my experience, though, behaving generously always pays off and makes for good family relationships.

Avoiding rivalries

It’s just as well grandparenthood comes when we’ve had time to figure out how to deal with difficult emotions like jealousy and insecurity. By the time we become grandparents we’ve learned the value of generosity, understanding, even sacrifice, and you may be called upon to exercise all of these qualities. It will probably come easier to you now than at any time previously because you’re clear what your goals are: continuing to see your grandchild, and keeping the channels of communication open and relationships generally sweet.

Dealing with cultural differences

Religion is the toughest one, but even that must be dealt with calmly and sympathetically. You may have to summon up all your Solomon-like wisdom.

I was raised an Orthodox Jew and I am an atheist. One of my daughters-in-law recently embraced Catholicism and wanted to baptize her children into her faith. The christening was a big family affair. Would I exclude myself on the grounds of our differing beliefs? No way. My overriding concern was for my daughter-in-law to celebrate her faith and enjoy the occasion. I wouldn’t have wanted to spoil the day in any way and create no-go areas for the future. With these priorities in mind, any cultural differences can be negotiated.

If you do encounter family rivalries, remember that your grandchild is equally important to you all, and her welfare comes first

You and your daughter/son

I’m sure when you were bringing up your children you wanted to raise them your way and resented interference from mothers and mothers-in-law. It’s worth remembering this when it comes to your son’s or daughter’s own parenting style. Their preferences must rule, and we have only one role—to bow to them.

In fact there are pleasant surprises if you stand back and give your children space to be the parents they want to be. You’ll watch them becoming better parents than you were. You’ll see them using parenting strategies that will make you start nodding in approval. And it can give all grandmas great pleasure to be able to say, “How well you deal with that,” or, “I wish I’d known to do that.” It will feel quite natural to defer to your children and ask them how you can help. Be proud of your son or daughter and tell them so.

You and your daughter- or son-in-law

With these family members you only share a short common history. Sons- and daughters-in-law have rafts of experience that are unknown to you. They’re closer to their friends and their own family than they are to you, and all these relationships and loyalties must be respected.

Because your common ground hasn’t been established through childhood to adulthood it would be a foolhardy grandparent who rushed in and started throwing her weight around. Just think back for a moment to when you were a young parent and your mother-in law tried to tell you how to take care of your baby. I remember those times and how upset I felt. I just wanted to tell her to butt out and leave me alone. You may have similar memories, so be careful not to make the same mistakes.

It’s worth remembering that a son- or daughter-in-law is bound to be more nervous and insecure about you and how you might judge them as parents than your own son or daughter. Even chance negative remarks can assume great meaning and raise hackles. So my two golden rules are praise where you can (and there’s always something worth praising) and bite your tongue before criticizing. If you follow these rules, you’ll find you’re always welcomed by your daughter- or son-in-law.