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Consulting Grandma: How to Make the Most of An Often-Wasted Resource

February 26th, 2011 by Melinda Blau

“What do I know?” said a master family therapist in mock self-deprecation,  “I’m just the grandmother!”  One of her grandchildren had a learning disability, which she–a well-known and respected professional–knew a great deal about, both professionally and personally, because she had also raised a son who had an LD.  She now saw similar signs in her grandson. “But they don’t ask my opinion,” she said of her older son and daughter-in-law,” so I don’t offer.”

Many modern grandmas find themselves in similar positions.

New-Style Grandmas

Old-Style Grandma

Grandma was once a kindly lady whose “career” was motherhood, and as the children left the nest, her life grew increasingly smaller.  Not so the current crop of grandmothers, many of whom have adult children and PhD’s. Gail Sheehey calls them “fly-in” grandmothers.  They’re constantly on the run, now juggling their multiple interests and responsibilities with randmotherhood.  The irony is that strangers consult them, but their grown children don’t.

What a shame–and what a wasted resource. Whether you’re dealing with a learning disability, an eating disorder, or some other type of parenting issue, your mother might have invaluable information both as a mother and as a professional. So here are some guidelines for both generations that might help.

Daughters (or Daughters-in-law):

Put your own emotions aside. Admittedly, this isn’t easy when your child has problems, especially if it’s something you went through as a child.  Try to see your mother as a woman, not as your mother.  In her professional role, does she deal with this problem?  Does she know people who do?  Do others ask for her help?

If you decide to consult her, lay down some ground rules. Come at her as a grown-up, not as a child. Remember that ultimately, you will design your own plan of action.  You could start by saying, “I’d like to ask you questions about _______, and I’d like you to respond as if I was someone who came to your office for help.  But I may seek other opinions, and I won’t necessarily follow your advice.”  

Ask her for the names of professionals she knows. Consultants of any kind always go the extra mile for clients who come to them via someone they know professionall.  And don’t worry: Just because the recommendation comes from your mother, the expert works for you. You get to decide how much more you want to share with Mom.

If you’re dealing with a problem that you or one of your siblings faced, ask her what it was like. It’s important to re-view childhood circumstances from an adult perspective. You might have a different memory or understanding of a paricular event or time period, but try to listen to what it was like for her–her feelings, her regrets, what she’s learned since then. You might find you have more in common than you realized.

Mothers (or Mothers-in-law)

Wait until you’re asked. This can be difficult when you see signs of a problem, especially if you’re a professional, but remember the old Buddhist saying, “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.”  If you jump the gun, your daughter may not be ready to take in your professional observations

Remember that you’re not in charge. It’s fine to give advice, but then let go. Once you make a suggestion, don’t repeat it.  Keep your door open, so that your daughter or daughter-in-law can come back, but stay in your own house!

Admit what you know and don’t know. If you’re still working in the field, reading the current literature, chances are, you’re up to speed.  But if you are retired, and haven’t kept up, you may not be aware of new studies and strategies. Also, remember that your daughter is with the child 24/7.  What you see is not necessarily the whole picture.

Don’t be insulted when she does exactly what you suggested but gives credit to a girlfriend or another professional. This isn’t just a mother/daughter issue. It happens with husbands and wives, too–and it’s one of the great paradoxes of relationships: We are more open to outsiders’ opinions than we are to our loved ones’.

This blog post also appears on Psychology Today.

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One Response to “Consulting Grandma: How to Make the Most of An Often-Wasted Resource”

  1. Tuanny says:

    Hi Cindy…I know how hard it is to lose our Moms. But—–she IS with you still. Her spirit lives in your heart, in your lthguaer, in your joy! She left a great legacy—-YOU! Happy Mother’s Day and thank your for your very beautiful blog. It was the first I ever saw in blogland!

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