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Child Caring

Don't keep absent grandparents a secret

Dear Barbara,
My husband's parents are very difficult and domineering people. When our first child was born 3 years ago, they took issue with some of our decisions. We had some angry words with them and they decided to cut us out of their lives. There has been almost no contact from them in the last 3 years. We have tried many times to reconcile with them but they refuse every time and have shown no interest in our children. Unfortunately, I doubt that this situation will ever improve.

Since my oldest is only 3, he doesn't yet realize that he has a missing set of grandparents, but in a couple of years he's going to start asking questions and I don't know what to tell him that won't be a lie (i.e. saying that the live far away when they actually live in the next town over) or cast my in-laws in a bad light. In the event they do reconcile with us, I don't want my kids to have any negative feelings about their grandparents that would keep them from having a good relationship. I could use your advice!

From: Perplexed Mom, Chelmsford, MA

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Dear Perplexed Mom,

This story makes me really sad for everyone involved, the grandparents for what they are missing out on (life is short!) and ditto for your children. I wonder if you and your husband are tense every time you take your kids out in public, worrying that you'll bump into his folks and wondering what that would be like. What would it be like?!

I agree that telling a lie is not an option and I also wouldn't wait until your boy is old enough to ask questions. For one thing, it could happen sooner than you think and it will be an innocent enough question -- "Where are my other grandparents?" or, "Does daddy have a mom and dad?" If you stammer when it comes up, that is what they will glom on to -- in their heads, at least -- not the facts. In other words: This is one of those times when you'll need some practice saying whatever it is you're going to say. Your son (and baby!) are too young right now for you to worry about the nuances. Just get this on the table.

So what are you going to say? Do it in stages. Start now with a photo album of daddy when he was a baby, a kid, a teenager, etc., family pics that show him with his folks. In a matter-of-fact way, identify them: "This is daddy's mom, nana, and this is daddy's dad, papa." That at least gets them on the stage and onto his radar screen. Stage 2: "Daddy doesn't talk to them often." Not an out-and-out lie, just not the full story. If you've got one of those 3-year-olds who asks, "Why," keep in mind that he's not asking for an adult version of why. Often, when kids this age ask, "Why?" it's just to keep the conversation going. So your answer can be a vague: "Oh, that's just the way it is."

Meanwhile, keep trying for the reconciliation, no matter what you and your husband's feelings are. Have you sent photos? Stage 3 could be asking your son to draw a picture you could mail to nana and papa. Not to lay a guilt trip on them and not to set your son up for disappointment -- don't make promises that he will "someday meet them." The point is just to keep the door open to the possibility that they might change their minds. Obviously, there is something pretty serious behind all this and even if things change, it sounds unlikely it would ever be a "typical" relationship.

For now, I think the best you and your husband can do is make your children aware of their grandparents, generally, but not in a way that leaves you feeling compromised. As time passes and this is no longer a secret, it will lay less heavily on you and a path will hopefully become clearer.