When people ask me about my grandparents, I automatically include Grandma Beulah and Granddaddy, and Grandma. Which makes sense; they are my parents’ biological parents. However, I never include my mother’s biological father. Instead, I list my mother’s stepfather, Pops. He’s the one I think of even though he did not become my step-grandfather until I was 9 years old. He’s the one I lived with, talked to, and argued with (to my shame). He’s also the one who taught me to ride a bike, even though he wasn’t balanced enough to ride himself. He's the one who took care of my grandmother. The one who provided the sheltering a grandfather should.
I had met my mother’s biological father. I even had a name for him. The few times he showed up he did so with candy, so I called him, "Granddaddy Gumdrops". But, he was such an infrequent presence in our lives his relationship to me never cemented. When I think about my young life he’s a whisp of a memory. Pops, however, is a mainstay. Pops and his wife, who were my mother’s godparents, had no children of their own. After his wife died, Pops, who had done fairly well in life for an African-American man born in 1909, wanted my grandmother to inherit his home and pension. Although he lived only 6 years after they married (we think he knew he had cancer when they married) he was it for me. My grandfather. No steps involved.
I’ve never not known a blended-family. When I was very young, before Pops, my uncle married a woman who had a daughter just a couple years younger than me. She became my cousin. My uncle became her “Dad.” Even now, some 40 years after her parents divorced, she’s still my cousin, my uncle is still her dad. My younger uncle married a woman with two children. When my grandmother passed away at 93, there were 13 grandchildren listed in her obituary. 9 were hers by DNA; all were hers by heart. Biology had no hierarchy with her.
In February 2022, 10 years after my grandma died, I too became a bonus-grandmother. As our grandson grows, and is hopefully joined by cousins, I fully expect conflict and drama to arise from time to time. However, I am determined to honor my grandmother by following her example. Without knowing where my own path would take me, I learned from her how to love in such a way that only those who know the story will know the story.
Currently, around 40 percent of marriages performed create a stepfamily. The Pew Research Institute estimates that 40 percent of Americans have at least one step-relationship. With the rise of “gray divorces” among adults over 50, and longer life spans, around 20 percent of grandfathers and grandmothers have at least one step-grandchild. Clearly, step-grandparenting is a prevalent, and growing, cultural trend.
There are various inroads to becoming a step or bonus grandparent. Like me, your bonus child can become a parent. Like my mother and grandmother, your biological child can marry someone with children. Or, you can marry someone who is already a grandparent. Each inroad presents its unique benefits and challenges. If you have a good relationship with your bonus child, it is generally easier to foster a bonded relationship with children you know from infancy. Older children, with active grandparents, may struggle with the same type of loyalty conflict with bonus grandparents as they do with bonus parents. That being said, bonus grandparents play a pivotal role in blended family dynamics.
A well-adjusted, welcoming bonus grandparent can help a blended family bond... a divisive grandparent can cause great harm.
Below are lists of some do’s and don’ts to help you think through your role as a step grandparent. Or help you help those who are the step grandparents in your child’s life.
Discuss expectations with the bio parents of the grandchild. Put everything on the table: your level of involvement, what they will call you, the type of relationship you desire, everything.
Go slow. Trust and acceptance must be earned in blended families over time. This is especially necessary when entering the life of an older grandchild, or when there is an estranged relationship with the parent of said grandchild, or when the bio grandparent struggles with your presence.
Be yourself. Your addition to your family is not happenstance. Your authentic self is the best you bring to a relationship with a bonus grandchild.
In the beginning think connection not correction. Your influence will increase as access to the hearts of your bonus grandchildren is granted. As you pursue relationship with them through presence, commonality, embracing and celebrating differences, supporting activities, they will invite your input.
Be around as much as you can. Be present when you’re around.
Include them, invite them, and create opportunities where they can have your undivided attention (arts and crafts, ice cream for two, a trip to the Zoo).
Wait until you have learned to accept your step-grandchild as your own before you start listing grandchildren in their presence. It is extremely hurtful when they are left out. Any rejection of them, however innocent, will impede their acceptance of you. And will definitely not endear you to their parent.
Be kind and be generous with your kindness.
Stay open to learning. Everyone is trying to figure it out. Stay flexible; your role will change at different stages of development for your step grandchildren and as your relationship grows.
You will stumble. You will make mistakes. So will your spouse, grandkids, and their parents. Be patient and gracious with everyone.
Don’t be offended when bonus grandchildren are connecting at a slower pace than you desire. Give them needed time and space. Your patience will pay off in appreciation.
Don’t play favorites. While the intensity of your affection may be different for bio grandchildren, you can still be equitable in your treatment of all your grandchildren.
However, do not feel guilty for not feeling for your bonus grandchildren the same as you feel for your bio grandchildren.
Don’t compete with bio-grandparents. The family has enough battles to fight.
Don’t close your ears to constructive feedback from bio parents. Take your cues from bio parents. Respect their wishes, boundaries, and perspectives. They are the experts on their children and the custodians of their care.
Do not criticize a child’s family of origin. Respect their other grandparents. If a child shares negative feelings about other family members, have a listening ear and closed lips.
Never put children in a position where they have to choose.
Do not offer unsolicited advice. It comes across as criticism. Even if you disagree with the rules, expectations, and decisions of the new stepfamily, unless asked, keep your opinions to yourself. When asked, frame your words in kindness, humility, and empathy.
Do not gossip about your step grandchildren, or their parents, with other family members. It’s a wicked subversion of the potential for healthy extended family relationships.
Don’t hold grudges. Free yourself, and your family members, from the stranglehold offense puts on relationships.
What would you add to list above? What, from the list above, will you try? What has helped or hurt your family? What has been the most wonderful thing about being/having a bonus grandparent? Leave your comment below.
And if you haven’t yet, listen to Cheryl’s conversation with her mother, Gwen Brown, and author, Jennifer Elwood, about their bonus grandmother experiences.
God bless you and keep stepmommin' in grace!