Inheriting grandchildren is a bit like inheriting a throne. You don’t do anything per se to earn the title or the role – it’s just handed to you. Quite frankly, some people don’t think you deserve it, or that you are fit for it. Whether you are or not, it’s still a serious responsibility. And it’s up to you whether you accept or abdicate.
Thankfully, I have never had problems with the role of ‘grandma’, just the word. As an acquaintance once said, ‘Real grandmothers look like … well, real grannies, not like you’. Point taken. I don’t fit the traditional ‘granny bill’, as many women nowadays don’t. Not only do we not look our age, but some of us don’t act it either; and some of us don’t have offspring of our own.
With or without offspring, step-grandparents are not exempt from many of the complexities that stepfamilies face, including acknowledging invisible and sometimes visible lines between biological and non-biological relatives, agreeing on what to call one another and knowing when to use that word that binds us, but also divides us – ‘step’.
Much of what we face comes down to ‘role ambiguity’, explains Dr Wednesday Martin, in an article she wrote for the Telegraph pending the birth of Prince George.
In her book, Stepmonster, Dr Martin says women who marry men with children get a lot they didn’t bargain for. Much of it has to do with becoming part of a second family, but the key thing that detracts from us is, ‘the fantasy of our own goodness and inherit likeability … We are sometimes for the first times in our lives disliked, rejected, resented, and misunderstood.’
Who hasn’t heard a wicked stepmother tale or two? Grandchildren definitely, until they first encounter fairy tales. Furthermore, they don’t come with the emotional dividers that those already present harbour. It is up to the adults how children come to understand their family life.
Sarah and Daniel know they have a ‘nan’, a ‘gran’ and a ‘soma’, and someday they will fully understand how the relationships came to pass and will hear the wicked stepmother stories too. But thankfully, my stepdaughter and her husband have made a conscious effort to put us all on an equal footing when it comes to the role of Grandma.
I am under no illusion that I inherited the children differently from their other two grandmothers, and have learned that when blips appear on the screen, as they do, to leave the children out of it, preserving the innocence of youth, which allows them to bond with each of us individually, with or without the step between us.
Still some people believe it is challenging, if not downright impossible, to bond with a step-grandchild the way you would a biological grandchild. As I have nothing with which to compare this belief, I liken my grandparenting experience to parenting an adopted child vs. a biological one.
Frankly, it all comes down to relationships – what you put into them – and in this case, an element of what the children are taught, which defines how they perceive their relatives, what they call them, and so on.
In our case, I was given an option of what I wanted to be called, as was everyone else. ‘Soma’ was a no-brainer for me, tying my name to some form of ‘ma’. Also, it eliminates any confusion between me and their biological grandmothers and reserves the traditional terms of endearment for them.
However, in the absence of a biological grandparent, it might be inappropriate to alter tradition if ties are close. A friend grew up with a step-grandfather, who was ‘Pop’. The fact that they were not biologically related had no bearing on their bond, not to mention what calling him Step-Pop might have done to their relationship.
And as it can be undermining to use the word ‘step’ to describe a grandparent, it is likely more of a divider than a binder in the case of referring to a grandchild. Though many people refer to the children as my husband’s grandchildren, I rarely hear them called my step-grandchildren. It sounds too cold.
Recently, while visiting Hamleys with Daniel, someone inquired about our relationship. As I fixed my mouth to say ‘my stepdaughter’s son’, I suddenly realised that the word ‘step’ was irrelevant to him. Thus, I responded that he was my grandson and off we went.
A friend projects that, in the future, she imagines a scenario when I am picking one of the children up from school and someone asks: ‘Who’s she?’ She predicts the answer will be natural and obvious – ‘My grandmother.’ – omitting the step between us.
I hope she’s right.