Many daughter-in-laws complain about the intrusiveness of their husband’s/partner’s family: they drop in unannounced, they want to be overly involved, they call too much. Well, I guess I’m not most daughter-in-laws. My husband’s mother is very involved in my children’s lives and I am grateful for her role. Some of my happiest memories from my own childhood are memories of my grandparents, and I am happy that my children are building their own memories with their grandmother and her husband. My wish is that my husband’s father was equally, (or even a tenth) as involved in my boys’ lives.
My husband’s parents divorced when he was in his early teens. It wasn’t “amicable”. It was ugly and messy and painful. My husband’s relationship with his father was strained for years thereafter. A happy consequence of our relationship (my own marriage) was that it bettered my husband’s connection to his own father. Maybe I was a buffer, maybe it was a product of growing older, but in the years since my husband and I first began dating, his relationship with his father has greatly improved. So, I guess I had some expectations about what kind of grandfather my husband’s dad would be to our children. And of course if there is anything expectations teach us over and over again, it is that reality is often very different than what we imagine.
I’m not the kind of daughter-in-law who rations grandparents’ time. I don’t have any rules about when/how in-laws visit. My door is always open and I make a point of reiterating this frequently so that my husband’s family feels as welcome in our home as does my own family. I would never refuse grandparents their grandchildren (save of course in an instance of abuse/neglect/etc. which would never happen) and I make a point of reminding my husband’s family that we are always up to visiting them in their own homes whenever they want to have us. I send my husband’s father’s wife e-mail updates on the children and to ask about how they are doing, and speak happily to her when she calls. My husband’s father lives in the same province as we do, about 50 minutes away from us, yet he has only seen my children once in the last two and a half months. He has gone much longer than this in the past, closing in on near four months. Moreover, my e-mails are necessary as we rarely hear from them either over the telephone or via e-mail. This I all find upsetting on a couple of levels. Firstly, and most importantly, I feel great sadness for my children that they do not have the same relationship with their grandfather as I had with both of mine and the same kind of relationship my husband had with his own grandfather. When you see someone as infrequently as my children see their grandfather, he isn’t a constant; he is an acquaintance and almost a stranger. I feel sadness for my husband’s father as well, as he misses out on a meaningful relationship with his only grandchildren. Secondly, I can’t help but take his lack of interest personally; I think my kids are awesome and I can’t imagine why anyone would not want to spend time with them and get to know them. Consequently, I don’t feel comfortable having my husband’s father or his wife care for my children; there will be no sleepovers because I know my children would not feel safe given their level of familiarity of lack thereof.
Another issue I have with the lack of involvement is the inflexibility my husband’s father and his wife display the few times a year they make an effort to see their grandchildren. It is always on their schedule notwithstanding that we are the ones with the two young children to manage. I often find myself “pretzeling” to make a visit work because I’m not sure when another visit will happen and I want so desperately to accommodate the relationship. I find myself inconveniencing others and/or changing the children’s routines just to accommodate the infrequent requests.
There are other aspects of the relationship or lack thereof that I find upsetting. On his last visit, my father in law commented how he is often in our local fruit stand because he does a lot of business in the area and my heart broke; why would he not walk the half block to our house to visit the boys? His wife at their last visit told my older son that she would plan a bbq so we could swim in their pool; as the summer draws to a close we have yet to receive an invitation. And I am always bewildered at the amount of time that passes without a call or e-mail. They have skype but never use it. I try to keep them in the loop but feel very awkward contacting them after weeks of silence to give updates on the status of their grandchildren; how can they not want to know how they are doing? How can they not call? Why don’t they visit? Why are we so seldom invited to their home?
I can’t help but wonder if this all stems from my husband’s parents’ divorce and that ugliness. It’s not that my husband’s father is a “bad” grandfather when he actually sees the children. In fact, he is actually quite attentive and appropriate and the boys, well at least the older child, is happy and content to play with him and include him. The problem is that this attentiveness is so infrequent that it’s awkward; there is no foundation on which to build because each time it’s almost as if they have to start the process of learning about each other all over again. He misses whole stages in their development and has to play catch-up. It can be painful to watch. And this, from what I have learned, seems to have been the pattern in the years following my husband’s parents’ divorce. It was feast or famine with attention and this served to make my sister in law ever eager to please (and consequently somewhat resentful and passive aggressive) while my husband protected himself by creating distance, the schism which only began to close in the seven years since we have known each other. I know my parents couldn’t go more than a few days without seeing my boys and I can say the same thing of my husband’s mother and her husband who, happily (and sadly I guess), is truly a grandfather to my children. He is involved in their lives and loves them unconditionally. My children are young enough not to notice the void in their lives, but I can’t help but think a time will come when they will ask. And I worry that they will either feel the sting of being rejected by those who should only be embracing, or worse, that instead they will grow indifferent and stop feeling anything at all. I guess I could just start inviting myself to my husband’s father’s home, but given their lack of interest, I would find this very awkward. Children need consistency. For any relationship with a child to flourish, a child needs frequent contact, they need a commitment. Like any other relationship, if the effort is made only when it is convenient, that relationship is stilted and forced.
I try to accept that this is just the way things are and not to think of it as a reflection of how my husband’s father and wife see our children. My children are beautiful, happy and affectionate and anyone would be blessed to be involved in their lives. I cannot force the relationship, no matter how much I’d like to. I can keep inviting, I can keep reinforcing that all are always welcome in our home, and hope that maybe someday, hopefully someday soon (before my children are all grown up), that my husband’s father makes a commitment to foster a relationship with my boys.