BOSTON — 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.
"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.
"Back in the '70s, nobody thought you needed laws to allow grandparents to see their grandchildren - you just called them up," says Richard Victor, executive director of the nonprofit Grandparents Rights Organization in Birmingham, Mich. "But with divorce and other problems, such as drug and alcohol abuse, it appears that unfortunately, you do need laws to force people to talk."
As a 20-year advocate in the field, Mr. Victor tries to get people to recognize that "after a divorce, your mother-in-law is not your mother-in-law anymore, but she's still your child's grandparent. You both have something in common, and that's the love of a child."
That shared love has helped Harice Leavitt of Lincolnwood, Ill., to maintain good family relationships following her daughter's divorce. "We haven't had any problems," she says.
Mrs. Leavitt makes a point of speaking positively about her former son-in-law to her three grandsons. When they visit, she tells them, "Say hi to Daddy for me." She adds, "If they are at their father's when it's their birthday, I have his phone number and can call them."
Fields too has maintained close ties, saying, "I really do love the people in my family."
Still, given the complexities of divorce, she sees a need for groups where grandparents of divorce can talk about challenges and offer solutions. "There's an entire generation of older people in this country who feel abandoned in terms of how they feel," she says. "No one listens to them."
Explaining the value of such groups, she says, "If they hear that other people have similar problems, and hear the ways and styles in which other people interact, they say, 'Perhaps I can do that too.' "
Ms. Linsley, a grandmother and stepgrandmother, finds her own best resources in friends who have grandchildren.
"Grandparents are very happy to share their nightmares and their dreams," she says with a laugh.
For some grandparents, an adult child's divorce changes those dreams and prompts a relocation of their own. Kornhaber has encouraged hundreds of grandparents to move back from the Sun Belt to help divorced offspring, especially newly single mothers.
"I've never had one who didn't thank me," he says. "Many people not only thank me, they get blessed. The circumstances are not the best, but rather than retiring or golfing or playing shuffleboard, they say that coming back and helping has given a very powerful meaning to their existence."
Whatever a family's proximity, Fields emphasizes the importance of maintaining close ties between generations. She says, "Children who know they are loved by grandparents, whether they are close or faraway, whether there's a divorce or not, are stronger than children who have no older people who have proven that the children are crucial to them."
Arthur Kornhaber, president of the Foundation for Grandparenting, offers these tips on ways grandparents can help in divorce:
* Stand back and try not to give unsolicited advice to the divorcing parents. Be a source of emotional support but not an arbitrator.
* If you have negative feelings about your ex-in-law, keep them to yourself, and don't talk to the grandchildren about them. Listen to everyone.
* Try to understand and support your child's ex-spouse. Although you'll automatically side with your child, unless there is abuse involved, don't be zealous in judging the other party as wrong.
* Remember that your grandchildren need you. Let the parents know that you are available to help them with the children. Let the children know you are available to them. Make time.
* When you are alone with your grandchildren, express respect and support for both parents. Grandchildren feel safe and are most comforted when they see their grandparents concerned for everyone's welfare.
* Take care of yourself. You are important and needed!