Someone Has to Talk to Grandma

Birth2Work Staff, mother

Mom Friends

“I picked him up last night and he was nearly in tears! He was just devastated,” she explained.

“What happened?”

This is how the conversation began last week between me and my once-a-week mom friend; we’ll call her Swim Mama. Our relationship exists exclusively within the confines of the semienclosed pool building where our sons take lessons. We sit together and share as much of the story of our lives as we want to during the 15-minute lesson. 

She lives around the corner so it’s easy for the family. I drive more than 35 minutes each way because (a) it’s a family-owned business that I love (b) my young child is now a safe and confident swimmer, and (c) the neighborhood drive-thru coffee hut has a shockingly good Americano and everything bagel special.

I like having this drop-in relationship. It’s easy. Between the actual lesson and the postlesson dodging of shower heads in a giant communal shower, we generally exchange pleasantries about work and then cheer on our not-so-little babies. But last week things got real. 

Grammy’s Joke Isn’t Funny

Swim Mama’s son, now three, spends one day a week with his grandmother, Swim Mama’s mother-in-law. This is in addition to family vacations and the occasional weekend family barbeque. The problem is, “Grammy” has an unfortunate habit of complaining about her life, especially her work.

“My son was devastated Grammy told him she had to go back to her ‘dumb old job,’” Swim Mama explained.  “She frequently makes jokes at family get-togethers about how she hates working and she shouldn’t have to and how [Swim Mama’s son] should run over to Grandpa and tell him to go get another job so she can stay on vacation. My son loves her so much. He hears her complain and gets so upset for her. What should I do?”

Normally I try to be gentle around family issues, particularly with people whom I’m not that close with. I usually ask about dynamics and if Dad knows or takes issue with whatever Mom is upset about. I don’t offer solutions per se; I mostly try to be a good listener.

In this case, however, given my experience with Birth2Work and our incredible concentration on aligning family values as the first mechanism of leading your child to success, I was not shy in my response.

You’ve Got to Deal with It

“Someone definitely has to talk to Grandma,” I said. “Whether it’s you or your husband is up to you. But that situation is not acceptable.” I helped confirm, what she already suspected, that the problem was not just that her son was upset every time he returned from a visit but that his grandmother’s words were creating a deeply negative impression about what they feel is an important aspect of life.

“Do you talk about enjoying your work?” I asked. She owns her own business and is constantly on the hustle.

“I guess? We explain that our work is how we make money to pay for things.”

I encouraged her to keep up the positive words and to expand her (and her husband’s) explanations. A parent can sometimes explain away a stranger’s comments but not those of a trusted and beloved member of the family. At a time when Swim Mama’s son is formulating his most significant impressions about the world, his first and longest lasting impressions, he doesn’t have the capacity to understand his grandmother’s sarcasm. He feels deeply and strongly that Grammy is suffering and someone needs to help her.

As we talked, we affirmed that Grammy was not trying to be hurtful to her grandchild. She is an adult person and has the right to her own opinions. While certainly unintentional, her ongoing comments about the supposed injustice of her job actually were inflicting psychological pain on her grandson. Not to mention setting up a lasting impression that the only way to look at work is as a terrible thing we have to suffer through.

Aligning Family Values

Swim Mama and her husband value their work. They, like all of us, have crummy stretches of time and would rather be on a beach with a cocktail. But overall, they appreciate the value they bring to the world through their work and the opportunities it affords them to enjoy life’s other pleasures. They want their son to have that same value and pride in his own eventual career.

As a result of our talk, Swim Mama walked away with a new commitment to ask her husband for support. To minimize aggression or embarrassment, he should first speak with his mother about her language and its visible emotional toll on her grandson. Swim Mama would also emphasize with her husband the invisible toll Grammy’s words were taking on their son – primarily that work should be associated with pain and sadness. 

She would also make a point to spend more time with her three-year-old appropriately explaining what she does, why it’s of value and brings her joy, and maybe why Grammy feels the way she does. Her husband would do the same.

She left with that. I left mostly damp from not having dodged the showerheads so well. I hope I helped my friend. At least my Americano and everything bagel were still fabulous.

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