I have an issue with one set of my grandparents – my mom’s dad and stepmom.
Backstory: my mom is a single mom. My dad never paid child support. My sister’s dad pays child support, but for a year or so there he didn’t, and he pays a lot less now than he used to. She’s not careless with money, but we’ve lived paycheck to paycheck my whole life.
A few years ago we were living with her boyfriend and his kids. He’s kind of an idiot, and my mom was very unhappy and wanted to leave him. Financially, this was almost impossible. So she asked these grandparents if they would loan her some money – loan – to help her out, and make it easier to leave this guy. As it was, when she finally decided to leave him, the only place for us to go that she could afford was to live with my other grandparents (her mom and stepdad) in their spare room. These grandparents heard my mother’s request for a loan – the only time she’s ever asked them for money, by the way – and said no. And then asked why she needed money, and to tell them what it was she spent all her money on. As though she was secretly hiding some habit, or was a compulsive shopper, or something – as though she couldn’t be poor just because she was supporting two kids on her own. My mom was very upset, and that was that. They didn’t give her a penny.
Fast forward to now. I was talking to this grandma about the car accident I was recently in. She asked if I’d gotten a settlement yet, and I explained no, my lawyer wants to wait until I’m done with treatment. And she said that she hopes I’m wise about my money if I get a settlement. “You don’t have to spend every single cent like your mom does whenever she gets money,” she said to me. And I said nothing. I didn’t want to start something. So I kept quiet, and she went on and said she just hopes I make better choices than my mom has.
Captain, I’m tired. I don’t enjoy spending time with these grandparents. They’ve always been kind to me but they don’t treat my little sister well. They said this shit about my mom. And when I was in my car accident? They called after they found out, and I didn’t hear from them again for weeks. This was a bad accident – my car was totaled, I had a concussion, bruised ribs, back stuff – and I’m a poor grad student. My mom told them I’d been hit with a lot of bills right away and if they could, I could use some money. My other grandparents sent me money, aunts and uncles – fuck, tumblr friends sent me e-giftcards. Radio silence from my grandparents – not even a ‘how are you feeling?’ text. It stung. And now these comments about my mom?
But since “family is the most important thing,” I feel like I have to keep trying, I have to go to visit them and call them. I know I can’t cut them off.
I don’t know if I should tell my mom about what my grandma said, and I’m worried the next time I talk to them they’ll say similar stuff to me. Advice on how to handle this?
Dear Defensive Daughter,
I wish you speedy healing from your accident.
As for your grandparents, and for other readers who are struggling with strained and exhausting family relationships right now, there is a middle ground between “Work Hard To Maintain A Relationship At Any Cost To Yourself” and “Cut These People Out Of Your Life Like A Dodgy Lesion (And Deal With The Flood of Guilt And ‘But Faaaaaaaamily’ Friction).”
That middle ground is…
Take A Break From Trying To Fix It.
Phones work both ways. Roads work both ways. Kind words of encouragement can be sent both ways. The people in our lives have choices about how they treat us. If you’ve been doing all the work of keeping a difficult relationship going, earning only stressful interactions for yourself, what if you gave yourself the summer off?
You don’t have to make a permanent decision about what to do going forward.
You don’t have to make the relationship different from what it is.
You can give yourself permission to stop trying so hard to connect.
You have enough information to know that money + your grandparents = no help/not enough help/judgment/lots of ugly strings attached. You also know that your mom is willing to swallow a lot of pride and eat a lot of shit from them in order to survive and take care of you.
Summer is almost here. What if you spent that time focused on healing, being nice to your mom, and to cultivating a good relationship with the relatives who have come through for you?
What if you didn’t call your grandparents or visit them for a while? If they call you, you can make five minutes of small talk. If they don’t, you can enjoy the break from stressing out about them. You don’t have to tell anyone that this is your plan. No big decisions, no big announcements, just, stop taking initiative where they are concerned.
Not to punish them, not to make a point, not to teach them a lesson (they 100% won’t learn that lesson and you’ll waste precious energy) but just…hey, they stress you out, and they aren’t very nice to you, and you don’t need that extra stress of trying to please them or prove something in your life right now. You don’t have to grind yourself up on the expectations of these people. You don’t have to fix the unfixable thing right now.
There’s no need to pass their words on to your mom. It will only hurt her feelings. But you don’t have to keep it a secret, either – if they lay into your mom for how you haven’t been in touch, you could tell her, “Grandma said some mean things to me about you and our family and I took a little break.”
Additionally, next time your grandparents say crappy stuff about your mom, you can be ready for it and in a better headspace to deal with it. “Wow, Grandma, that’s a really mean thing to say about Mom, and it also happens to be totally untrue. Everything Mom did when I was growing up was to keep us safe and take care of us, even when times were very hard for her. I don’t like hearing you talk about her that way. I’m going to get off the phone now, goodbye.”
If you say this to your Grandma, the story may become about how rude and ungrateful you are, which, so what? Her opinion of you can’t possibly be lower than your opinion of her right now, and the world will not end if you fail to respect your elders when they act like jerks. Her statements about your mom say more about her than they do about your mom. You could use that as a script, too: “Grandma, the mean stuff you say about my mom says far more about you than it does about her. Let’s change the subject now.” Also, good job for recognizing that being kind to you but mean to your mom and your sister does not equal “My grandparents are kind people.”
If you do decide to take a break from dealing with them, every few months you can re-evaluate and see if the break is a good idea for you. If you miss them, you’ll know what to do. If you don’t miss them at all, that will be good information, too. Periodically, if you’re feeling up to it, and you want to or as a favor to your mom if you think they’ll bug her about it, spend a few $ to let the Greeting Card Writers of Earth deliver some generic pleasantries in their direction.
About Greeting Cards: Do not underestimate these commercial feelingsdelivery services! A card from my Great Auntie Aura with $5 tucked in it when I was in college was a deeply loving gesture. I know she worked very hard to find the perfect cheesy poem and that $5 was a week’s treat for her passed directly to me with the instruction to “Spend it on a little something for yourself, kiddo.”
You could send the same exact “Thinking of You” card with the exact same cheesy poem for reasons of “I am dutifully observing the forms and trappings of connection to substitute for actual connection” or “I am generously leaving a door open between us though my expectations are lower than sea level” and your grandparents would not know the difference. They’ll just think “Yay, postal mail that isn’t a bill!” and you’ll be good for another 6 months.
Whatever you decide, you’re allowed to take a break from worrying about these people. You’re allowed to do the bare minimum. You’re allowed to put your energy into the family relationships that nourish you back. You’re allowed to make this easier on yourself.