This week's problem: When Angela's son's marriage collapsed, her daughter-in-law was friendly, and there was good contact with the children. But now a new man's on the scene, who has stopped her from seeing them. Angela's son visits them about twice a year; her own letters to her grandchildren are returned. She can only watch them in the playground, hoping she'll be alive when they grow up and can get in touch. What can she do?
The scene of Angela clinging to the playground netting and watching her inaccessible grandchildren gambolling with their friends is one of indescribable torment. But it's the stuff of operas and arias, not real life. If she really wants to see her grandchildren, rather than long for them, Angela has got to get down to action.

There is, of course, the legal route. Since most grandparents see their grandchildren when the divorced partner takes them out, she should put pressure on her son to press for more contact, which, if he were a man not a mouse, he would be doing himself anyway. Or, since changes in the law, she could go to court in conjunction with him and press for more contact, or, indeed, apply herself. A member of the Solicitors Family Law Association is best; its members believe that in cases of divorce, conciliation is far better than confrontation.

But she should do this only after other routes have been exhausted. The fly in the ointment is the ghastly man whom her ex-daughter-in-law has hitched up with. Although Angela would undoubtedly like to kill him, she can't, so she has to face up to almost equally unacceptable alternatives: manipulation and grovelling. She should find out when he's out, ring the daughter-in-law, and throw herself on her mercy.

"The last thing I want to do is cause trouble," she should say. "We have always been so fond of you," followed by a load of flattery ("you're a wonderful mother to our grandchildren") and buttering up: "Can you suggest any way out of this terrible situation? Is there any chance I could meet your partner on his own to show him we so appreciate how he has taken on the children which must be so difficult, what a fine man he must be."

This craven approach may well stick in her gullet, but she must first ask herself what she wants - which is to see her grandchildren. And, secondly, to consider that this just may be a wild kitten of a man, not a tiger, someone full of terror, who sees both the children's real father and his parents as enemies on his fragile territory. Also, her ex-daughter-in- law did once choose her son as a partner; has her judgement gone completely to pieces now, or could it be possible that the new man on the scene is fearful rather than frightful?

If all efforts fail, she should continue to keep in contact with letters and presents, regardless of whether they come hurtling back or not. Copies of the letters, and photographs, should be kept in a special "grandchildren's book", to be given to the children when they're old enough to make their own decisions. This way they'll know, at the very least, that their grandparents loved them all through their childhood even though, tragically, they were never allowed to show it to them in person.

readers' responses

It sounds as if Angela has tried all kinds of approaches in order to see her grandchildren but has been rebuffed every time. Perhaps her daughter-in-law's new partner feels threatened by Angela and finds it easier to cope with his insecurity by totally excluding her rather than facing up to his feelings.

I don't think Angela's ready to admit defeat just yet, so she might want to consider this approach: maybe the best way to her grandchildren is through rebuilding her relationship with her daughter-in-law and her partner. If she can get it through to him that she's interested in them for who they are and not just as a means of access to her grandchildren, he's more likely to accept her.

If she decides to do this, she'll have to be patient and proceed one step at a time. It will help if she can put her feelings to one side (not an easy thing to do) and resolutely work on the relationship, showing them that they have nothing to fear from her.

Andrew Rolph


As a solicitor I'd like to say that the Children Act gives grandparents the right to apply to the court for an order for contact with their grandchildren. I suggest that the grandmother who wrote to you contact the Solicitors' Family Law Association at 01689 850227 and ask for a list of experienced solicitors in her area. The important thing is not to delay since otherwise her former daughter-in-law could argue that the children have forgotten her and that renewed contact would be disruptive.

Felicity Crowther


From Angela's perspective, her former-daughter-in-law's new husband may well appear "very controlling". The truth, however, may equally be that this man is doing his best to make a new start and to love those three children in the way he understands. If he really is very controlling, this might be due to insecurity or even a sense of inadequacy prompted by the daunting task of taking responsibility for three young children.

The best way to make progress here might be via her son, who does have some access to the children if he can, by his behaviour and perhaps by talking to his former-wife's new partner, succeed in showing that he poses no threat, then in a while the new partner may come to see that Angela and her husband constitute no threat either. Though it will be very hard for her she should for the time being stop writing to her grandchildren, and channel any presents through her son.

It may be that Angela has effectively seen the last of her grandchildren. I hope she hasn't as that would be terribly hard. But she should respect that while civilised arrangements may develop in the wake of a divorce, she doesn't have the right to expect this. Meanwhile the legal parents of the three children are two adults who are not blood relatives of Angela herself.

Adrian Steiner


next week's dilemma

Dear Virginia,

I'm a 25-year-old male, a bit of a loner. I have a reasonable job, but I live alone far away from my parents and brothers and sisters. We've never been a particularly close family and only get together at Christmas. What worries me is that over the past year I've become more and more dominated by my fantasy life. I fantasise about sex with everyone from film stars to girls in the office, or the sisters of friends. But it's not all sex. Often I fantasise about rescuing everyone as the office burns down; or I imagine being the boss at the office, or caring tenderly for my supervisor when he is dying in hospital. I get great comfort from these fantasies, but I am worried because they're starting to take over my life and I can't get rid of them. I can't seem to get on with things. I worry I may turn funny, or go mad. I can't confide in anyone because they'd think I was stupid. I feel trapped in a lonely, crazy world of my own. Am I that different from "normal" people? What do "normal" people fantasise about, anyway? And what can I do to get my thoughts more back under my control?

Yours sincerely, Anon

All comments are welcome, and everyone who has a suggestion quoted will be sent a Dynagrip 50 ballpen from Paper:Mate. Please send any relevant personal experiences or comments to me at the Features Department, Independent, 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London, E14 5DL; fax 0171-293-2162, by Tuesday morning. And if you have any dilemmas of your own you would like to share, let me know.