The Uninvolved Grandparent: Coping with the Disappointment


Parenting isn’t easy. An uninvolved grandparent adds to that difficulty. For over a decade, I’ve questioned my parenting. Even doubted my marriage. I have also doubted my own worth. Now, I have come to a place of acceptance. Being an uninvolved grandparent is a choice made by another that I cannot control. 

Before I married my husband, I dated someone with a glorious mother. She was charming and smart. My ex’s mother remains one of the most caring people I have every encountered. I could talk to her about anything. Anything. When the relationship ended, I found that as the months went on, I missed this woman dearly. As I write this I think of her with nothing but fondness. 

Naturally I assumed (ahem…wrongly assumed) that the mother of my next beau would be as fabulous. I envisioned helpful grandparents and great relationships. 

Never did I dream that years later I would shoulder the burden a mother-in-law who didn’t want to be involved. The first time I attended a family meal, she brought out photos. She paraded pictures of my husband and his former girlfriend, as though it was as normal as peanut butter and jelly. The entire evening was awkward — and odd. It set the stage for the next sixteen years to also be a very awkward and odd relationship. 

My mother-in-law has missed nearly all of the major milestones in our lives. She has made countless commitments, and left us hanging more times than I can count. My husband’s mother loves to arrive at functions absurdly early or ridiculously late. Plus she is surely either underdressed or overdressed. We’ve watched her recognize the birthday of a cousin with hugs and a present. Then, allow the birthday of my daughter to pass a month later without any acknowledgement whatsoever. She didn’t attend the adoption of my daughter. The reason for her absence remains unknown to me nine years later. 

She committed (insisted, actually) that she stay with us after my third child was born via emergency cesarean. I already had a two year old and 3 year old at home. To say that her help was critical was an understatement. On the day of my hospital discharge she was very late. Ultimately, she canceled. That was five years ago.

No apologies, no accountability. I find that to be the modus operandi of uninvolved grandparents. 

If you are wondering if my husband is upset, the answer is yes. Yes, he is frustrated. In fact, he is so frustrated I have to push him to continue to engage her. He too has grown tired of the lack of communication and sub-par involvement. He reports she was like this through his childhood. I wonder if she realizes that each time her son calls her, it is result of me insisting that he do. We didn’t think so much of the behavior as newlyweds. However, it affects our children now, and we are forced to take a closer look. 

She and I parent very differently. I have reflected on this fact for years. Could it be the root of the disconnect? The reality is that very few factors drive a wedge between you and your spouse more issues with your in-laws. It even makes you question yourself, and your own self worth.

After years of awkward uncertainty, I have reached a place of acceptance.

The choice to be uninvolved belongs to my mother-in-law. There is not amount of concessions that I can make which will change that. In addition, there is nothing more that my husband can do to increase her level of participation. We have unsuccessfully tried to understand the cause. However, I don’t know if we’ll ever gain that perspective. 

Instead, we put our efforts into making our children understand. We discuss the missed birthdays and the empty seat at the holiday table. Our family talks openly about how the uninvolved grandparent left so early, or didn’t come at all. My husband and I give our children permission to be disappointed, but still love unconditionally. Above all, we model the belief that grown ups do the best that can. Sometimes that means they are very involved. In our case it means we manage an uninvolved grandparent.