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Carolyn Hax: Grandma offends stepson’s family over ‘hard’ grandchild

(Nick Galifianakis/Illustration for The Washington Post)
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Dear Carolyn: My husband and I have been married for 33 years and shared in the raising of five children, now all grown with families of their own.

One of them, my stepson, was married 13 years ago and his wife and he are parents to a 13-year-old girl. Over the years I have tried to be a grandma to this girl and I have found it hard to do. Now that she is a teenager, it is becoming even harder and creating some family disputes.

I am often called out on what I say to her. It seems I have been on guard for some time. Last summer it became unbearable in some respects, and I told her and her mother that I believed they don't like me. They left the house and I have not spoken to them personally since.

As a family they have been invited to various birthdays, holidays, etc. They do not show up.

It has become an issue of how we handle these sorts of situations, and I frankly don’t want to be involved in something where I will feel uncomfortable, knowing how they feel about me. I am not sure how to approach this situation. My husband wants me included.

— Anonymous

Anonymous: Not to oversell myself or anything, but if I chose not to attend things because I knew someone there didn’t like me, then I would never leave my house.

Is it uncomfortable sometimes? Very.

But who promised us comfort? Almost no one is universally liked. We all have to suck it up sometimes, even around some family members.

You have even better reasons to than most. For one, you're not just an adult — you're an alpha adult here, sharing the top of the family pyramid with your husband. And your personality clashes with your granddaughter's, apparently, which happens. And yes, it can be frustrating, upsetting, hard to bear.

Yet out of these two realities, you have made — with I hope the best of intentions — a mess.

When the top of a family pyramid is involved in making a mess, that is where the primary responsibility lies in cleaning it up. This is for you to fix by bringing grace, humility, maturity, patience and an open mind, deliberately, to every choice you make with your family now. To this branch of it in particular.

Certainly you can't ask a child to take the lead in setting things right. A young adolescent is nowhere near as equipped as her grandmother to make difficult social and emotional choices toward restoring family harmony. Some may have grace beyond their years, sure, but that's a bonus, not a plan.

Certainly you can't ask the girl's mother to take the peacemaking lead; she has already made her own calculation that she needs to stand up to you to protect her girl.

Certainly you can’t ask your husband or son to step in. Your mouth formed the divisive words. So it’s on you to:

  • Recognize that a “hard” child isn’t a bad child. “Hard” just means there are challenges you haven’t seen before and require you to update your playbook. That’s the grace part.
  • Admit you handled this conflict badly and paid more attention to your own wounded feelings than to what the girl needed from her grandma. That’s the humility piece.
  • Recognize that what’s done is done and this is now an uncomfortable situation — and that you, as an alpha adult and veteran parent and grandma, are the best person for the job of meeting the discomfort head-on and getting through it. That’s the maturity piece.
  • Understand you can prostrate yourself before them and they may still choose to hang onto their grudge. Accepting that and resisting the urge to double down on your own sense of grievance takes patience, along with dashes of the other qualities.

You can't expect to fix multi-person wrecks. Only your part of them.

The last one, the open mind, is to inoculate you against another mess like this. You are a parent, a stepparent, a grandparent — you bring a lot of experience to your interactions with extended family. I am not discounting that. But if you allow your accrued wisdom to harden into expectations for how things “should” be, with you as arbiter, then you become the person who (for example) provides the utterly extraneous detail that the wedding and the child both arrived 13 years ago — and who gets “called out” for comments made to a child. Kindnesses, after all, tend not to get “called out.”

Best part of choosing to act with grace hereafter is that it works even if my understanding of this situation is completely wrong and unfair. Even if you were always kind and nonjudgmental with your granddaughter, even if you embraced her as-is, even if your frustrated outburst was a once-in-her-lifetime exception — even with all of that, your best course is still to absorb the discomfort bravely and act kindly. On your own and your family’s behalf.