When I first got into the business of being a grandparent--PenPen to my son's and daughter's children--it was at a time when, not surprisingly, many of my friends were starter-grandparents as well. A common topic of conversation--or should I say stress--was the worry that the "other" grandparents would be favored, would be more "loved" than they, would have more say in their grandchildren's lives.
Some of this rivalry seemed to be driven by proximity or the lack of it. One friend who lived in New Hampshire and had three grandchildren (her daughter's children) living in Atlanta was convinced that the paternal grandparents who lived in Georgia were more beloved. They were available to babysit in a pinch and offer summer swims in their pool. Although my friend and an indulgent step-granddad visited often, my friend lamented her second-place position. Her exhibit A: Her daughter had texted her a photo of the granddaughter's newly refurbished room--puffy pillows, bouncy curtains and a sateen bed quilt that hosted a Noah's Ark of stuffed animals. The other grandma, who had a key to her son and daughter-in-law's house, had surprised the family by re-doing the room while they were away on vacation. How, my friend worried, could she compete with that.
Now comes research that should give my friend comfort. There is a “matrilineal advantage” and it gives maternal grandmothers an advantage over the paternal ones. There are dysfunctional mother-daughter relationships, of course, but in general mothers and daughters have closer ties than mothers and daughters-in-law, and that, the research contends, leads to warmer relationships between the grandchildren and the maternal grannie.
“The mother-daughter dyads engage in more frequent phone contact, more emotional support and advice — more than mothers do with sons or fathers with daughters.” This is what Karen Fingerman, a professor at the University of Texas, Austin, who has published studies on this topic, told Paula Span of the NYTimes.
As to a mother's ties to her son's children, it's all about the relationship to her daughter-in-law. Dr. Fingerman reported that she has found that parents’ rapport with a daughter-in-law — “a key figure” — significantly influences their bond with her children. The mother--whether she's a daughter or a daughter-in-law--is the gatekeeper and she can help or harm grandparental closeness.
As to my friend from New Hampshire, she can rest easy for another reason. Her daughter (and her granddaughter) were less than pleased that the other grandma had taken it upon herself to redecorate on her own and without consultation the child's room. There is a matter of overstepping boundaries and that's where proximity can be a negative.
painting: Red Dance by Kenneth Young