Steps Removed: Reflections on Being a Step-Grandparent

With Clive and his grandchildren, Australia

With Clive and his grandchildren, Australia

As our time for this trip in Australia draws to a close, I’ve been reflecting on my role as a step-grandmother to six children — my late husband Gary’s grandsons (ages 11, 9, and 5) in the US, and Clive’s grandsons (age 9 and 6) and granddaughter (2-1/2) in Australia.

How to Be a Good Grandparent

Numerous books and articles I’ve read describe and recommend two crucial aspects of grandparent-hood.

Firstly, being a grandparent is by most accounts a wonderful experience, not least because one can savour all the joys of young children at one step removed from parenting and its endless, engulfing, exhausting responsibilities. Secondly, most experts advise grandparents to focus on the positive, keep one’s mouth firmly shut regarding unsolicited ‘suggestions’ or advice, and let the parents be the parents.

Families – Blended and Global

Blended families are nothing new, nor are global families — blended or otherwise — with multiple generations scattered across the globe.

If being a grandparent is one step removed from direct parenting, being a step-grandparent is two steps removed. In my case, geographic distance adds yet another dimension to the step-grandparenting experience.

All step-families and global families face ongoing challenges, and I don’t have biological grandchildren to make a direct comparison. But based on my experience of recent years, I’ve found that being a step-grandparent offers unique gifts and opportunities.

(Lack of) Family History and Emotional Baggage

In my two main ‘step’ experiences, I came into the life of my stepchildren long after their parents had divorced and settled into their post-divorce single lives. I wasn’t around, or involved, in most of my stepchildren’s early family history, neither the happy times nor the traumas and dramas.   

The downside of carrying minimal family history baggage is that I can’t regale the grandkids with stories of ‘what your daddy did when he was a little boy’. But as a relative newcomer, I feel I can be a more neutral observer, an objective presence without the possible expectations, disappointments, or projections a biological grandparent might intentionally or unintentionally bestow. I can relax and focus on the young people, marvel at their developing personalities and character, and appreciate the present moments with them.

Roles Shaped by Individual Experience

2 AA with the boys 23 Nov 2012

Clive and me with Gary’s grandsons in the US

Like every biological family relationship, every step-relationship has its own dynamics. In the past decade, I’ve had to figure out my role as a step-grandparent in two distinct situations. I’ve had to learn how much to get involved (answer: mostly not much at all) and how much to hold back (answer: mostly a lot, with occasional lapses).

For me and Clive, it’s helpful that we each have adult children. We can ‘reverse the situation’ and think: if this were my child/grandchild, what would I want from my spouse in this instance? We value each other’s opinion, and often say, ‘Tell me what you think. What would you do?’ But many times we’ve found, as textbooks advise, the best approach for the ‘step’ side of the couple is to say and do very little and instead simply listen, provide a sounding board, and support.

As a step-grandparent, I’ve come to see my role as the traditional one of grandparent support but with certain twists.

With Gary’s grandsons in the US, I can share memories of the grandfather they never knew. The untimely death of a loving grandparent is surely one of life’s greatest sadnesses — nearly ten years after Gary’s death, I still feel the pain of his never knowing his grandchildren (the oldest was only 21 months-old at his death), and of them never knowing the man who would have adored them. Helping to keep Gary’s memory alive with his grandsons is a blessing for me and I hope will contribute in some small way to his grandsons’ knowledge of their grandfather.

In Australia, I can share experiences with Clive and his grandchildren, two of whom were born after Clive and I became a couple. I can take pleasure in watching their interactions, and perhaps give the youngest generation an enhanced appreciation of their grandfather. And in both countries, I can establish my own relationships with each child, as he or she grows and develops.

If and When …

As for my own son, if and when he has children, I can’t say I’ll be quite as objective in my grandparent role — as much as I know I must try. Like my mother, and her mother before her, I’m afraid I’ll be inclined to pipe up and speak my mind, even when I know that’s not the best idea. What can I say, other than it’s a mother’s perogative — at least in my family of origin.

I’ll try not to butt in too often, and in the meantime, will continue to enjoy my step-grandparent time with six little people in the US and Australia.

With my youngest step-grandchild, Australia

Bedtime – with my youngest step-grandchild, Australia

Cheers for now and more soon.

7 Responses

  1. Hi Carolyn .. a very interesting post .. as a grandparent myself to 5 , I know how hard it can be .. to keep quiet LOL … but if the parents ask my advice or opinion , I will give it .. My eldest grandson Aidan , age 9 , lives with his mummy and her partner and his little sister .. he also has his daddy (my son) who is married to Claire , and they have two daughters , who are also his sisters … and in his eyes and words .. Yes I know I have a Step mum and and step dad, and step grandparents , but I don’t like to call them that .. We are all family .. He does not like using the word Step at all ..

    Enjoy it all .. it has taken me a long time too, despite them being my biological grandchildren .. the older they get the more I bond .. takes me a while with babies ..

    But one thing we all have in common .. well the eldest 4 , is that they all want me to take them to see the Eiffel tower 🙂 🙂

  2. Hi Carolyn & Clive,
    How are you doing? D & I are hoping that all is well with you guys. Where are you now? I think that I may have lost track!

    I think once more that Carolyn has some unique family experiences. You could write volumes! I think that you have a not of natural feeling that probably guides you here and that is good. It sounds like you are well loved on both sides of the globe so, just keep on enjoying!

    Be well and have a wonderful time wherever you are.

  3. Annie, thanks for your comment and your own interesting story! Sounds like you are all doing great with the various family combinations.

    I do find it a shame that the word ‘step’ sometimes has a negative connotation (I blame Cinderella’s stepmother, sigh — and think sometimes the negative stories just get more attention) — to me it’s important for children to understand the simple fact of who’s who in the zoo (so to speak) — sounds like your little guy does. I’ve also been a step-daughter and a step-mom, and hope the word becomes more positive (or at least neutral) as time goes by and more and more people experience step-relationships.

    And *love* that your eldest 4 want you to take them to the Eiffel Tower – brilliant 🙂

  4. xpat92, hello and thanks for your comment — we are still Down Under and all is well 🙂 I guess everyone has unique family experiences in one way or another — every family has its own complexities, for sure.

    Cheers to you and yours and hope all is well in your part of Paris.

  5. Hi Carolyn … That is only one part of the family combinations 🙂 .. so complicated … I am also a step-daughter .. not as intergrated though .. I have a very huge and complicated family tree ..

    Yes I hope to take them to Paris .. NOT all at once though LOL 🙂

  6. Carolyn, I shall store this in good stead for the day I become a step grandmother!

  7. Annie, good luck with the Paris plans, however many grand/step-grandkids you take at a time 🙂

    Rosemary, I’m sure you’ll be a wonderful step-grand-mum. Cheers and enjoy.

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