There is a place in our lives from where we can stand and look back and forward all at the same time. That day is the day that our grandchildren are born and we experience, perhaps for the first time, a sense of self standing in a line that stretches back into the past whilst at the same time we cradle the future in our arms. Grandparenting brings with it a perspective on life which is not yet achieved when we become parents and it causes us too to be especially vulnerable.
For grandparents, the love of the child of our own child is unique in all of the relationships that we can experience. Not only do we suddenly experience ourselves within the perspective of generations, we also experience giving love entirely whilst negotiating our place in the hierarchy which surrounds the child. As such, as grandparents, we are at a cross roads of interfamilial dynamics. Little wonder the world around our grandchildren can sometimes become tangled with mixed messages and complex meaning.
There is an old saying that goes ‘a son is a son until he takes a wife, a daughter’s a daughter for life‘ and it is no accident that many of the paternal grandparents that I work with become the ones who are pushed to the margins of their grandchild’s life in the years after separation. When the family is together, the lines of relationship may be criss crossed and grandparents may be more or less equally welcome in the lives of their grandchildren. Come separation however, the relationship between the mother of the children and her own mother (and sometimes father) can become a determinant of how well the family manages post separation relationships between children and both sides of the family.
I am not jumping here on the bandwagon of grandparent bashing or indeed grandparent idealising. Grandparents are simply people who are no more or less special than parents, they are simply different and bring to children’s lives different things. In terms of how grandparents go through family separation, some grandparents maternal and paternal are brilliant at negotiating the challenges of relationships, some are not. Those who are not can act to compound the problems that face children in the family accidentally, whilst those who are deliberately difficult and who become fused with a parent who has taken control are deeply problematic for children. In other words, there are alienating grandparents and alienated grandparents and they each experience their own unique and yet similar experience to that of the parents they watch going through family separation.
And it is not the case that it is automatically the maternal grandparents who remain close to the children, in cases where mothers are evicted from their children’s lives by alienating fathers, there are often paternal grandparents in support of that behaviour. Issues of power and control, which play out through generations are often reinforced by the actions of grandparents who have learned that behaviour from those who brought them into the world.
In that respect, the alienated child often has four generations of behavioural imperatives to contend with. Their parent and then their grandparent who learned from their own parent and grandparent about what happens when the family is in crisis. This is how transgenerational ghosting happens, where repeated patterns of estrangement and relationship severance are learned and grandparents are key conduits in that phenomenon.
Just as an alienated parent must look to examine the routes that brought them first into relationship with an alienating ex, grandparents must seek to examine the ways in which they have been part of the dance which has lead to the frozen place that their grandchild now occupies. When alienation strikes, whilst it is not useful to spend hours berating and blaming onself, knowing your own place in the family history can bring great clarity about how best to help (or not). Many grandparents, particularly paternal grandmothers, see themselves as bridge makers, honest brokers or fixers of the broken relationships. Whilst in some cases this can help, it can aso hinder, causing deepening of the dynamics instead of alleviating them, causing great pain as the offers of help are rejected, pushed away or seen as the cause of further rejection in children. For grandparents, the greatest risk is the breaking of their own hearts as they stand helplessly by and watch the fall out from the family separation they are helpless to resolve. For any grandparent in those circumstances it can be a devastating experience to lose such a special relationship at the same point in time that it becomes clear that it was only on loan to you anyway. On loan, with special conditions attached. Conditions which required you not to challenge the giver of the loan (parent) and not to assume any right to a relationship independent of the giver of the loan. Conditions which can become virtually impossible after separation when emotions are high and negativity between parents is at its peak.
Post separation relationships illuminate the criss crossed lines of power and control very effectively. Suddenly the relationship that was had with grandchildren is visibly entwined with the power of a parent to gift it or withhold it. Suddenly the relationship is no longer straightforward but is experienced within the all encompassing power of a parent to give or take away permission. Suddenly they are not YOUR grandchildren but HIS or HER children and things as simple as an outing to a pantomime or a trip into town becomes the kind of task that even the most skilled negotiator would find daunting. For many grandparents, this first encounter with the mother or father of their grandchildren as an alienator is a deeply shocking (and often painful) one.
And cross generational arguments about power and control are common in families where alienation strikes. As the hierarchy begins to fragment and the holding of power and control changes hands, grandparents, like parents can feel the shunting to the margins of the children’s lives that takes place in alienation. Slowly but surely the special times are eroded. Slowly and insidiously, the things that grandchildren used to enjoy become discarded and eventually it becomes clear that the removal of the special relationship is complete as the child tips over the point of no return.
What sadness and sorrow waits on that day, when grandparents watch for their loved ones who no longer come and when the joy of standing in the generational line becomes the ache of the empty space. Like burying a child, losing a grandchild to alienation is to be in the wrong place in the march of time. It is too painful and too wrong for too many to bear.
Like the grandmother who asked me this week for a hug so that she could hug someone who had hugged her grandchild, this loss is unspeakable.
But it is not untreatable. And when we begin to understand that parental alienation is a problem with a human face and that those faces range from the very youngest to the very oldest of our citizens, we will begin to heal the intergenerational hurts and we will stop the institutionalised support of this very human problem.
I left this grandmother this week angry, sorry and saddened by the suffering that is caused by the people who look away from this problem when they could so easily understand how to put things right. So much wasted resource, so much indifference.
It is incumbent upon all of us, no matter where we are in the generational march across the years, to do something about it. For today’s alienated grandparents we are already running out of time, for the grandparents of tomorrow that alienated children will one day be, time is something that we simply cannot waste.