Virginia Ironside's Dilemmas

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Indy Lifestyle Online

Dear Virginia, My son and his girlfriend live in a flat with their two daughters, who are five and six, and I love helping out with the kids. I'm divorced, and live about an hour away, but a house has come up for sale in their street. I'm wondering if I should make an offer on it. I know I should ask my son what he thinks, but I'm nervous. I'd be so upset if he said no, so I'm trying to make up my mind on my own. What do you think? Yours sincerely, Caroline

I can understand why you don't want to ask your son about this. In one way it's an obvious move – to bound into your son's home with all the details and ask what he thinks. But let's say he thought it would be a ghastly idea? Let's say his girlfriend only just manages to keep up a polite front when she sees you, but secretly finds you over-intrusive as it is? What if your son had to say, "No, mum, we don't want you in our street"?

It would not only be a horrible thing for you to hear – it would be irresistible not to ask questions like "But why not?" – and perhaps be told some horrendous home truths. But it would also be horrible for your son. I'm sure he'd hate to hurt you. So no, don't ask your son or his girlfriend directly. And before you broach the subject indirectly, consider, first, what moving into their street would mean for you.

Presumably, you've got a life already in your area. Would you want to trek an hour back and forth every time you wanted to see your old mates? Do you really want to cast off your friendship with the locals who may not be your special friends but who are always, reassuringly, there?

And if you haven't got a life in your area, is it wise to build one around your son and daughter-in-law? To be members of an extended family is something we all crave, but "extended" is the word. No one wants to be part of a family that consists of members piled on top of each other. I wonder if, now you're on your own, you perhaps don't want to build your life with your son's family to alleviate your loneliness? Fine, in one way, but it's essential to have a rich life of your own, too. Otherwise you just become another dependent. And what if they decided to move? Would you up sticks and follow them, trailing your blanket after them like a lost child?

It might be less claustrophobic for them if you were still part of a couple – but I can imagine the feeling of oppression they'd have, even if unjustified, having you as the sad, single, old, needy sack sitting alone with her one sardine on a plate down the road. Just the knowledge that you were there staring, like a little match girl, at the window, would put a dampener on the rampaging, laughing and relating of family life. And perhaps they don't want you to be able to observe their every move from your front window.

Why not, next time you see them both, say you're getting a bit sick of living in your area. If they'd like you closer, they'll be quick to yelp: "Great! There's a house in our street that's perfect!" But if they just look vaguely interested and change the subject, you'll know where you live now is perfect for them. Moving closer might make them more determined to keep their boundaries secure. You might, in the end, feel more excluded by their actions and feelings than by the distance that you have to travel as it is.

Readers say

Don't decide on your own

I have a widowed cousin who has very amicably lived opposite her son and his family for years and has helped as the children grew up. They are all very close, but it was the son who decided to move into his mother's road, with the approval of his wife. Should you really be trying to make up your mind on your own, when such a move would affect your son and his girlfriend as much as you? It would be wonderful for you to live so close to your granddaughters, but you're nervous about suggesting it and fear rejection, so it sounds as though you are aware of some of the pros and cons.

To save yourself upset, how about casually mentioning that you see a house is up for sale in the road and you wonder how much it's going for? If you express an academic interest, your son and his partner may twig what's going through your mind and you will be able to gauge their reaction (particularly the girlfriend's) without showing your hand. Don't be upset if you hear nothing more about it. They want you involved, as you help out with the girls, but they are still a young family and may feel the need for a bit of space from close relatives.

Name and address supplied

Keep a little distance

My grandmother has always played a very active role in my life and I treasure my relationship with her. She, too, lived about an hour away and I always looked forward to her visit. I think the reason I valued seeing her so much is that the visits were not daily and so I never took her presence for granted. Her house, because it was different from my parents', was always more exciting and, as we saw each other regularly, we both saw the occasions as a treat.

When I have children, I will actively push for my parents to be involved, but from a distance. Unless your son and his girlfriend suggest you move closer, I would suspect they feel the same as me – keep your relationship with your grandchildren special by enjoying more than the menial everyday.

Kate Baker, Amersham, Buckinghamshire

When it works, it's wonderful

As long as your son and his girlfriend are happy for you to buy the property, go ahead. It can be a wonderful relationship – we know, because 15 years ago we moved next door to my in-laws. But you need rules. We agreed that the fence and front door were there for a reason, and (in both directions) we always checked if it was OK to pop in. The children learnt that "no, not now" meant just that, and learnt to negotiate when they could return.

We had babysitters and they had house watchers. I had a retired nurse around when the children were ill, and my in-laws had a handyman. The real benefits, though, have been long term, with our children having a strong and loving relationship with their grandparents, and an extended family that has stuck together. We couldn't have fostered two bereaved children without their support. My parents are quietly envious, but know that such an arrangement would never have worked with us and them.

I wouldn't recommend it if there is any tension between you and your son's girlfriend. That way, you can live and work together through the difficult times, and relish the joyful ones.

Name and address supplied

Don't take off your coat

There is a saying that a married girl should always live so far from her old home that she has to put on her coat when she visits her parents. Maybe the same should apply to you?

Ainslie Walton, Glasgow

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