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For many grandparents, being cut off from grandkids is a major worry

Perhaps you saw enough of your nearest and dearest over the holidays? My husband certainly did. Ever since the grandchildren, with their dripping noses and hacking coughs, stayed over on Christmas night to spend quality time with us – and give their parents a break – my husband has been wheezing and sneezing and moaning piteously from the spare bedroom.

His streaming eyes are rabbit red, which means he can't read – his favourite solitary activity. Meanwhile, his share of the marital bed has been usurped by the visiting grand-dog, the one whose bark drives him to distraction, and I, his life mate for better or for worse, am suffering from an acute empathy deficit.

Much as we love to grouse about how exhausting grandchildren (and husbands) are, I can't imagine not having either in my life. Since I have been writing this column, I have heard from many readers – mostly women – who aren't so fortunate.

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They have shared heartbreaking stories of family ruptures because of intractable frictions over child-rearing styles, especially when it comes to food, gifts, exercise and unrestricted use of social-media devices and video games.

The conflicts are mainly between grandmothers and their daughters-in-law. Traditionally, men made the money and women controlled the family. Now, those roles are shared, but I think some of us still feel our mothers-in-law have an overweening bond with their sons – our husbands.

Conversely, as mothers-in-law we often fear that if we don't kowtow to our daughters-in-law, we risk having our grandchildren disappear into the embracing maw of the "other" grandparents.

The more we whine to our sons about equal face time or parenting styles, the more likely we are to escalate tensions and trigger the very alienation we fear – especially since so much communication these days is conducted by text messaging.

One woman wrote to me in despair about her chilly relationship with her daughter-in-law.

The mother, who is from a different heritage and ethnic background, clashed with her daughter-in-law over almost everything: not checking first about gifts for the children; not being appreciated for babysitting; not being allowed to wear her outdoor shoes in the house, no matter the weather.

My correspondent's attempts to have a "heart to heart" with her daughter-in-law to resolve these differences resulted in "defensive, insulting behaviour and angry outbursts." Now, she is afraid that if she complains to her son, he will feel obliged to side with his wife for the sake of his marriage, which might destroy her connection with her only grandchildren.

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That's a legitimate fear. An estimated 75,000 grandparents in Ontario don't have access to their grandchildren, often because they have alienated a son- or daughter-in-law or become collateral damage in bitter divorces.

After several unsuccessful attempts, the Ontario Legislature finally passed a private member's bill in the middle of December amending the Children's Law Reform Act to give grandparents some standing in determining custody or access to children. The new law brings the province into line with other jurisdictions including Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, Yukon and Quebec.

Nobody wants to have to resort to lawyers and the courts to have regular visits with beloved grandchildren, so my advice is to build good relationships with their parents – and that means helping out whenever you can and respecting your offspring's choice in a spouse, no matter the differences in background and beliefs.

Recognizing that we have separate relationships with our daughters and our daughters-in-laws is a difficult but key step, psychologist Cindy Goodman Stulberg of the Institute for Interpersonal Psychotherapy says. I agree.

I love my daughter-in-law and I honestly think she is one of the best things that ever happened to my son, but my feelings for her are less intense than the love I have for my daughter. Partly it is biological, partly it is the lifetime of shared experience that binds me physically and emotionally to my daughter. My daughter-in-law is my son's wife and the mother of his children, a gift she has given me as a grandmother.

But she already has a mother and I hope I am careful not to presume or tread on that relationship.

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Fortunately, we share similar parenting attitudes about table manners, television-watching and bedtimes – if anything, she is stricter than I am. But I am cautious about what I say to her in ways that I am not with my own daughter.

There is a big grey area between smart and foolish grandmother behaviour, Stulberg says, pointing out that unsolicited advice and ignoring or violating guidelines set down by parents are guaranteed to cause trouble.

I've learned smart grandmothers try to be flexible and accommodating with the parents – rather than the children. As for treats and gifts: occasionally is okay, but don't make a habit of it.

You are there to love your grandchildren, not bribe them into thinking you are special. They will come to that realization by themselves, especially if their parents also love you.

FIVE THINGS NEVER TO SAY TO YOUR DAUGHTER-IN-LAW

1. You aren't breastfeeding?

2. I'm surprised the baby isn't sleeping through the night yet.

3. What kind of a name is that?

4. There's never been any problem with fertility in our family.

5. Where did you say your mother came from?

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About the Author
Feature writer

Sandra Martin is a Globe columnist and the author of the award-winning book, A Good Death: Making the Most of Our Final Choices. A long-time obituary writer for The Globe, she has written the obituaries of hundreds of significant Canadians, including Pierre Berton, Jackie Burroughs, Ed Mirvish, June Callwood, Arthur Erickson, and Ken Thomson. More

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