Emotional Health · Family & Friends

Daughters, Mothers, and Grandmothers

When your children become parents themselves, another change occurs. The distance is renegotiated once again. Some children want their parents’ help with the kids and grandma is now seen as a valuable resource. But many families also experience grandparents as overbearing or interfering and feel the need to draw boundaries, especially if they are ambivalent about their parenting skills.

Many of us were surprised to see our mothers be better grandparents than they were parents. Is it because older people are wiser, more experienced, more relaxed? Yes, but there is more to it. Grandparents find it easier precisely because of the greater psychological distance. No longer having the burden of coping with the intricate dance of “oneness and separation,” as psychoanalyst Louise J. Kaplan called it, a grandparent has a less complex relationship with the child.

While as a grandmother you have access to all the unconditional love you felt towards your children, you don’t have to endure as much of the ambivalence as the mother-child bond entails. Because you are not “too close,” have never had to give up a symbiotic bond as you did as a mother, you have no need to push them away as to separate. You and your grandchildren don’t need to separate psychologically, because you were never as tightly bonded—unless of course you are the primary caretaker.

You also don’t shoulder the responsibility for rearing them into civilized adults. Though of course we want our grandchildren to grow up “right,” that is not our job, nor should it be. Many conflicts emerge between parents and their adult children when unsolicited child-rearing advice is offered. So we bite our tongues and our children are apt to roll their eyes (or worse) as we indulge our impulses to gratify our grandchildren without the burden of constant attention to limit-setting.

As parents we had to be willing to endure our children’s anger, even rage, as we disciplined them, educated them, and made them wear party dresses when the rules demanded it. All of our own ambivalence about our parents, about dealing with anger and intimacy was put into play when this happened. Worse, the scars of our own childhood traumas, our parents’ failures and family tragedies (and we all have them) are also part of the psychological picture.

As grandparents, we have that much more distance from our own childhood scars. We may have memories and role models of loving grandparents to draw on as well. And we have the blessing of a wonderful new human being whose only need from us is that we love her.

Motherhood requires courage. You have to be willing to lose your heart totally and then to let it be broken, again and again. Many of us say it is the most rewarding and also the most difficult job of our lives. But if we do it well enough that our children grow up well and if some of them choose parenthood themselves, we have our grandchildren, the bonus of a lifetime.


Isay, Jane. Unconditional Love: A Guide for Navigating the Joys and Challenges of Being a Grandparent Today.(2018).
Kaplan, Louise J. Oneness and Separateness: From Infant to Individual.  (1978).






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