In the irresistible competition to be the favorite grandparent, all bets … – The Boston Globe


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To hear many grandparents tell it, being a grandparent can often feel like an internal game of one-upmanship. In families lucky enough to have one or more grandparents on both sides, it’s an entirely natural inclination, according to every single expert I spoke with, for one set of grandparents to compare themselves with the others — favorably or otherwise — and to compete for their grandkids’ time, attention, affection, and more.

Certain editors at this very magazine have lived it firsthand. In one case, both sets of grandparents subtly time the visits of the grandchildren, to make sure they’re not shorted — an open secret no one can quite summon the courage to discuss. In another, a new grandmother admits she found herself wanting to sharpen her cooking skills in an attempt to measure up to her daughter’s mother-in-law, a much better cook. She can’t help but notice that while she and her husband give their granddaughter regular books and wooden toys, the other grandmother sends “irresistible gifts of electronic toys and talking books.” How’s a grandma supposed to compete with that?

A colorful illustration of a young girl choosing between an ice cream cone being offered by one grandparent and a fresh carrot being offered by another grandparent.
Luke McConkey for The Boston Globe

Eighty-three percent of Americans over 65 are grandparents, according to a 2015 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center. And it’s a rare one who doesn’t feel at least a tiny bit competitive toward the other set of grandparents, or competed with, says Cambridge psychiatrist Dr. Jacqueline Olds. “Parenting between sets of grandparents is a naturally competitive situation,” Olds says. “All grandparents feel like they’ve been singled out for something at one point or another. And yet, this situation, these feelings, are so universal.” To make the family work well, Olds says, grandparents have to keep that universality in mind — and often force themselves to make sure their less-than-pleasant feelings never get the best of them. It requires “essentially engineering things,” she says, “to fight the natural rivalry of the situation.”

That’s not easy, and she knows it. Olds became a grandmother 12 years ago. She now has four grandkids, ranging in ages from 4 to 12. Two live in Cambridge and two are in Nashville. “It’s been wonderful. I’ve enjoyed it,” she says. “But it’s much more complicated than meets the eye.” Recently, when her son and his family visited over Christmas, one of the grandkids said, “‘We’ve never seen [the other grandparents] get mad about anything, not with each other, or with us, or with our parents,’” recalls Olds, who admits that the other grandparents are, indeed, much more laid-back. “I was kind of incredulous.” She recalls her response as something like, “Boy, isn’t that different?”

Seven years ago, Olds and two other grandmothers she knew formed a “grannies’ group” to talk about grandmothering and to offer one another support. The group now has seven members who meet regularly to talk about their joys and challenges. “It turns out that grandparenting is a complicated enough job,” she says, “that you sort of need a peer group.”

That’s especially true when it comes to frustrations, jealousies, or other feelings involving the other set — or sets — of grandparents. “Because the minute you try to confront the adult children about it, it becomes a major issue,” Olds says. “And the last thing you want to do is make the adult children, who are out there in the world trying to balance work and parenting, feel guilty because somehow your little feelings got hurt. So the trick is to learn to manage your own feelings.”

Alexandra and Yaniv Cohen’s four children, ages 2 to 7, have two sets of what Alexandra calls “very different” grandparents, “to a comical effect.” Her parents are progressive. His are conservative. His mother cooks and cleans and changes diapers; Alexandra’s mother “for whatever reason, doesn’t,” she says, but her mother does know “how to love them in the perfect way that’s not, like, as intense or overbearing, for lack of a better word.” Alexandra’s parents visit her family in Westport, Connecticut, once a week, on Thursdays, usually from 3 p.m. until 10 p.m. and then they leave. If Yaniv’s parents had their wish, she says, they’d all be living in one apartment.

Both sides, Alexandra says, have gotten more extreme in their views and values in reaction to the other. Her mother’s political views have shifted further left. “She really wants to make sure that her opinion is heard, especially to my kids,” Alexandra says. “They both do.”

At times, Alexandra and Yaniv “want to crawl under the table, even though [the grandparents] are probably fine,” she says. “I mean, my mom definitely rolls her eyes.” Often, Alexandra finds herself torn between her loyalties to her parents and their shared values and approach to parenting, and her in-laws’ undeniable helpfulness, even if she doesn’t love when they conduct dinners like an etiquette drill: “Here’s your fork, use your napkin, sit up straight,” she says. “I have to remind myself that these things come from a place of love.”

Caaron Willinger, Alexandra’s mom, puts it this way: “Her in-laws are really nice people, but we’re different culturally. They’re more traditional. We’re very assimilated Jews — we’re more laid-back,” she says. “But I think that’s great for the kids. Everyone brings something different. I think it’s really enriched their lives, to be perfectly honest.”

Yaniv’s mom, Riki Cohen, doesn’t argue. “We have a different approach. I don’t want to compare myself to them because they come from a different background,” she says. “But when I’m there, I’m hands on. I don’t need to be entertained. I will change my plans if the kids need me. And they’re more, like, coming to visit the kids.” She concludes: “I’m sure that they are very good grandparents. I think they are getting better and better.”

There’s a risk of “difficult dynamics” every time you add potential for parenting to occur, says Susan Krauss Whitbourne, professor emerita of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. In that way, the relationship between grandparents can be similar to that of parents and stepparents in blended families. “Ideally, it’s, ‘I just want to be a good grandparent to this lovely little child.’ But if somebody else has that same idea, and that triggers your competitive instincts, that’s when things can start to devolve,” says Whitbourne, who’s also a faculty fellow at the University of Massachusetts Boston’s Institute of Gerontology.

What might begin as a genuine desire to be helpful can result in many grandparents over-identifying with their role — over-involving and comparing themselves, perceiving slights, and creating drama. “They begin to need to be seen as good grandparents,” Whitbourne says. “Ironically, the quality of relationships suffer the harder somebody tries to prove how good they are.”

Self-criticism is common, and feelings of guilt can creep in, too. As Ruth Tedaldi puts it, “I think grandparenting basically gives you another backboard from which to criticize yourself if you’re someone, like I am, who’s always open to self-criticism, probably in a neurotic way.”

Her husband has a different approach. “I try to ignore that [self-criticism],” he says.

Ruth chimes in: “You want to be the favorite grandparent, but you don’t want to be obvious and you certainly don’t want to do it to the point where you’re — ”

“ — spoiling the child excessively,” her husband finishes.

“Either spoiling the child or cutting into the other grandparents’ relationship,” Ruth continues. “We don’t want to hinder or hurt that. So I think there are a lot of ways to feel guilty.”

Still, when Jack was born and the Tedaldis started a college fund for him, Ruth was dying to ask her son and daughter-in-law if her parents did, too. She didn’t. “You don’t know anything about their finances compared to yours,” she says. “But you do want some things to be even.” That includes holidays. “There are times when someone’s sick or they just can’t make it,” she says. “So they have to cancel. And you think, Hmm, does this mean that next year I’ll get it and the other side won’t? Or am I off the roster?

“It’s like sharing custody,” Jake says.

In her grannies’ group (and in her own life), Olds tries to help ease feelings of competition by encouraging her fellow grannies to get to know their counterparts, even if that takes a little work. “When you don’t know somebody very well, there’s something almost satisfying about being critical because you don’t actually have to feel like this is a real person,” she says. “You can just say, Oh, they’re not very cultured, or they’re not very this or that.” Building a relationship allows people to see qualities they didn’t know the other person had, which opens the door to respect and affection — especially, she says, if it lets you avoid having to feel like you need to be someone you’re not.

A colorful illustration of a young boy sitting outside with two sets of grandparents behind him -- each set of grandparents is offering presents wrapped with big ribbons.
Luke McConkey for The Boston Globe

That’s how Olds learned to manage her own feelings. In instances where she could choose to be jealous, she instead chooses to be impressed. To avoid feeling “less than,” she focuses on the value of the different things each side brings to the family — and one less impossible standard to live up to. “Some people are just naturally better with kids than others,” she says. The other set of grandparents travel from Colorado to Cambridge to take care of the grandchildren, and sometimes Olds and her husband host them, which helps to overcome their competitiveness, she says. But it also gives her up-close insights into the other grandparents’ relationship with the grandkids that she’s not always sure she wants to see.

“I can see the mother, who was a middle school science teacher, and the father, a forest ranger, are actually a little more fun,” Olds says. “That doesn’t mean we don’t have a blast with our grandkids. It just means that we’re not quite as good at watching sports, or running around the house, or playing soccer.” By choosing to be impressed rather than threatened, and by learning to accept that there’s lots of things she and her husband aren’t quite as good at — but others they are — she avoids feeling left out. The other grandparents are more fun? Hey — that’s OK.

Even as the Tedaldis battle Friday afternoon traffic, along with their feelings, on their way to Manhattan, Ruth considers herself lucky. “We do really like the other grandparents a lot,” she says. “There’s no sense of, oh, my God, are they going to do this or that?” If anything, she says, she’s the one guilty of excess. “I think they’re more judicious and I respect that more, so it’s teaching me a lot.” (She and Jake are also “a little freer with language....” she says. That means less swearing in front of the other grandparents because she fears “they’ll look down at it,” Ruth says.)

This year was the Tedaldis’ turn to spend Christmas with their grandson, and Ruth says she went “overboard” on this first one. “I will not do that again,” she says. It wasn’t necessarily the types of toys, the ones with all the bells and whistles, sounds and screens that tempt many a grandparent, but the quantity, which she couldn’t help but see through the eyes of her grandparenting counterparts, even as she delighted in her grandson’s response. They weren’t even there; they didn’t need to be. “The fact that I knew they would see it all made me feel a bit superficial,” she says. “And yet your human nature as a grandparent wants you to be special. It’s annoying. But it’s a human condition.”

Alyssa Giacobbe is a frequent contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to [email protected].

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