Blended Families Bring Bonus Grandparents
Holidays, vacations and special events can be challenging when juggling two sets of grandparents, but families with more than the typical number may face additional challenges. A 2007 U.S. Census Bureau study found that 12 percent of men and 13 percent of women have been married twice. Remarried parents — or when parents of new moms and dads have remarried — bring additional grandparents into the extended family.
The first thing a parent should do in a situation involving multiple grandparents is consider the value of those family members in a child's life, says Don Azevedo, a clinical psychologist and director of 3-C Family Services in Cary. "If the parents value the role of grandparents, it becomes easier to deal with the multiple people when you see the benefits of multiple grandparents in your child's life," he says.
Put your immediate family's needs first
Summer vacations and family gatherings can be stressful for families with multiple grandparents. Parents may feel as if they need to take multiple trips to be sure all grandparents spend their fair share of time with the kids, or to avoid accidentally upsetting a grandparent by spending the week at the beach with an ex-spouse's family.
First and foremost, parents dealing with multiple grandparents should keep the needs of their immediate family — themselves, their spouse and their kids — at the forefront, says Susan Orenstein, a licensed psychologist and director of a group private practice of psychologists in the Triangle.
"Parents have to figure out how to take care of themselves and their children, and not take on more than they can handle to please other people," Orenstein says. "I like to tell parents this is their turn to create their own rituals and be at the center of their own families."
She says it's also important to keep the children's developmental needs in mind when making plans. For example, it's probably not a good idea to take a baby who is easily over-stimulated to three different houses on the same day, or skip a toddler's naptime to attend a family gathering.
Keep communication open
Orenstein recommends that you and your spouse have an honest conversation before any event that could cause conflict with the grandparents, and to decide together what is in your family's best interest. "It is important that the two parents talk to each other, and then back each other after the decision has been made," she says. It's often helpful to write down your goals for a visit or holiday because you'll be more likely to stick with a written plan.
If you anticipate a challenging conversation, Orenstein suggests first role-playing with another person. Clearly state the plan and let the grandparents know when they will have some time with their grandkids, even if it has to be during another holiday or visit. "It is possible to be compassionate and set limits at the same time," she says.
Parents may need to be creative to find a communication solution that works for their situation. Kia Slade of Raleigh, whose daughter has several sets of grandparents due to her divorce and her ex-husband's remarriage, says working directly with her former mother-in-law, and maintaining a relationship with her through phone calls and cards, has helped her daughter experience a positive relationship with her grandmother.
Stay neutral around your children
Keep emotionally charged feelings about a grandparent away from the kids. Remember that your child has a different relationship with his or her grandparents than you do, so it's best to keep that relationship separate from your own. Unless the grandparent is causing harm to your children, encourage the relationship and include all sets of grandparents whenever possible, Orenstein says.
Karen O'Leary, a Morrisville mother of two, has worked hard to make sure her children view her stepfather and biological father, who recently passed away, the same. "We try not to give the impression to the kids that either person is more important than the other. We make the point to them that family is family, and both are their grandfathers," she says.
Azevedo said parents should also recognize that all grandparents do not have an equal relationship with each child, so they should take each relationship into consideration when determining plans. "If you have one grandparent who plays with your child and really knows your child, and the other grandparent doesn't interact as much with your child when they are together, you may want to take all of that into account," he says.
Handling common situations
While each situation is unique, families with multiple grandparents often experience common problems, such as the following:
Grandparent names – It's hard enough to name two sets of grandparents. Add more and you really have to be creative. Get buy-in from the grandparents by letting them pick the names they want your children to call them. Another solution is to let the children decide. If more than one person chooses Grandma or Grandpa, ask both parties to pick a different name. Some variations include: Granny, GiGi, Mimi, Grams, Grandpa, Papa, Pop Pop or Gramps, to name a few. A common solution for step-grandparents is to incorporate the grandparent's first name, such as Granddad Joe.
New baby – Grandparents are often excited about a new arrival and want to make sure they get ample time with the new baby. Before the baby is born, come up with a plan that works for you and your spouse regarding visits. Be especially sensitive if the grandparents are a little jealous of former spouses or new partners. Inform them of the plan ahead of time to reassure them that they will be given time to rock the new baby.
Holidays – By planning ahead for different holidays throughout the year, all grandparents will know what to expect and when they will celebrate with the grandkids. Slade and her ex-husband actually included grandparent visitation in their custody agreement, but also realize it isn't their job to make sure everyone gets their fair share of time with the grandkids. "Don't try to see everybody for everything," Slade says. "It's not your job to see that everyone sees everybody for every holiday."
She suggests considering family traditions when determining holiday time with grandparents. In her family, for example, Thanksgiving is an important gathering, while her ex-husband's family goes all out for Easter. Another option is to celebrate holidays at other times, such as Christmas with one family on Christmas Eve or New Year's Day.
Birthdays and other gatherings – Instead of hosting multiple events for separate grandparents, Orenstein suggests that parents invite everyone to one gathering, then let them decide whether to come or not. "In general, it is best to include everyone and let them be a grown-up at the event," she says, adding that the only exception would be if someone has a history of acting disrespectfully at events.
While maintaining your child's relationship with extra grandparents may often require additional planning and communication, you can both benefit in the long run. By taking the time to make the situation work for all parties, you're giving your kids the gift of spending time with the many people who love them.
Jennifer Gregory lives in the Triangle with her husband, two kids and three dogs. Her children have three sets of grandparents who love and spoil them.