When I became a mother to my first two sons I was young and, to be honest, I didn’t really know what to expect. Looking back, I see how unprepared I was for the 24-7, all the nights in, having to combine study, work and childcare in my early twenties, as well as managing parents and in-laws.
To this day, I turn green with envy when I hear a couple describing their ‘perfect’ parents – who live nearby but far enough not to be intrusive, always on tap to help with the grandchildren but who’d never, ever interfere with the parental decisions. Where did I go wrong to miss this golden middle and end up with the two extremes instead?
As far as my in-laws are concerned (both in my first and second marriages), I ended up with the detached scenario. They like their grandkids well enough to enjoy the photos and hand out a £20 Christmas present, but that’s it. Understandable, as my first mother-in-law had four boys she raised almost single-handedly while her husband spent his life at sea. As mother-in-law, she was pleasant, never curious about anything that didn’t concern her directly, and very clear in her boundaries. If we popped by unannounced as my in-laws were about to have dinner, they’d offer us a cup of tea and a sofa to wait on while they finished. It would never dawn on them to offer us a bite to eat on the spot. As an only child and young mum, I couldn’t understand how a family could be so detached. It took me years to learn to appreciate the good side of it: the lack of judgement and interference.
My own family was the total opposite. They wanted to play a major role but as they lived far away, this meant them staying with us, often for a few weeks at a time. They’d take over the running of the house, as well as explaining to me and my husband how to do things better. This included advice on what we should or shouldn’t feed the children, and how we should treat their minor coughs and colds. My ex still blames my family for our divorce and even had therapy to overcome his in-law-related trauma.
Some of us are blessed with close and respectful family ties, others are not. However, a starting point in reviving a relationship gone sour is learning to forgive, although it can be much easier said than done.
The second step is clarifying the identity of your own family and choices. The second time round, my husband and I took care to establish extended family relationships based on respect and boundaries.
My husband’s dad (his mother is dead) gets wound up when something is less than perfect (elbows on the table, shouting, broken glasses, you name it), so we see him a couple of times a month but never for longer than a few hours, to make sure we start and end on a good note. My parents are welcome for a weekend, but that’s the limit, and they’re strongly encouraged to play guest, not house-owner. So far, so good…
As the wisdom goes, you can never change the other, but only yourself. I hope to ‘grow up’ to be a perfect grandma one day – right in the golden middle – as with five kids, we’re bound to have no shortage of grandchildren!
Dr Ilona Boniwell is our family expert and one of the most respected positive psychologists in the world. She lives with her husband, their toddler and four teenagers. Got a question for Ilona? Email firstname.lastname@example.org, with ‘ILONA’ in the subject line
Read The Mind Gym: Wake Your Mind Up (Sphere, £14.99)
See psy.miami.edu/faculty/mmccullough/Forgiveness_Page.htm to point you to research on forgiveness