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Grandparenting After a Divorce

By Marilyn GardnerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 7, 1998


Helene Block Fields still remembers the day 18 years ago when her son and daughter-in-law told her the sad and shocking news that they were getting a divorce. Her grandson was just two years old.

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"In some ways, it's like the bottom of the earth has dropped out for you," says

Mrs. Fields, of Downers Grove, Ill. "Your role has revolved around being a mother-in-law and a grandmother. Not only do you have to mourn the loss of the intact family, but you have to readjust yourself to a new family."

With more than a million American couples divorcing each year, the effects on parents and children have been well-documented. But family breakups also profoundly affect another, less visible generation - grandparents. Many must mask their own heartache as they reach out to help an adult child. Some must also work hard to maintain - or develop - cordial relations with an ex-daughter-in-law or ex-son-in-law in order to see their grandchildren.

"When there's a divorce, grandparents often feel totally shut out," says Fields, who for eight years led a grandparent discussion group at Oakton Community College in Skokie, Ill. "Before, some could dance down the Yellow Brick Road to their grandchildren if they wanted to. After a divorce, the road can become muddy and impassable. Sometimes the gate comes down and parents won't let grandparents down the road. Even if the road opens up, it is never the same as it once was."

Arthur Kornhaber, president of the Foundation for Grandparenting in Santa Fe, N.M., sees divorce as an event that allies grandparents and grandchildren, because "the children are sitting on the same perch they are - abject helplessness."

When parents falter, he adds, "Kids and grandparents look toward one another." As one example of their common bond, he says, "If kids see a divorced parent going out with another person, it's traumatic. And it's traumatic to the grandparents too."

For Fields, an intergenerational consultant, the post-divorce challenge was clear: to do everything she could to promote cooperation and love on all sides "for the sake of the precious children in our midst."

First, she decided what she would not do: "I would not take sides, I would not pass messages along, I would not gossip." To retain her role as grandmother, she knew she needed to have "adult and sensible relationships" with both parents. She also knew the most important thing she could do for her grandchildren and herself was to "stay out of the dynamic between the divorcing parents."

That does not mean grandparents should stay away. To the contrary, Dr. Kornhaber advises grandparents to go to each of the divorced parents and say, "Look, what can I do to help?" He encourages them to do the same with grandchildren.

Yet he and Fields both add a caveat: Don't try to give advice.

"Many grandparents want to make it right or fix it," explains Fields. "It's not yours to fix. The only way you can help is to be available to help with the children, to be available to listen. If the divorcing daughter or son-in-law wants to talk, listen, without intruding opinions. This is not easy, but it's necessary."

Maternal grandparents usually continue to be a major source of emotional support, and often financial support as well. That can leave paternal grandparents feeling left out, especially if a custodial parent moves away.

Fields, whose former daughter-in-law moved to New York, knows firsthand the planning, cooperation, and understanding required when a grandparent wants to visit grandchildren of divorce, particularly in another part of the country.

Leslie Linsley of Nantucket, Mass., calls it "the distance thing." As author of "Totally Cool Grandparenting" (St. Martin's Press), she finds it to be one of the big problems many grandparents face, particularly after a divorce.

Yet even when physical distance isn't an obstacle, emotional distance can be. Animosity toward a former husband or wife sometimes leads a divorced parent to refuse to let the ex-spouse's parents see their grandchildren. So widespread is the problem that all 50 states have laws enabling grandparents to petition courts for visitation rights if a custodial parent blocks their access.