Virginia Ironside's Dilemmas: Why can't my mother be more loving to my grandmother?

Dear Virginia,

I'm 20 and at university, and I come home during the holidays. My grandmother lives in a flat downstairs from us and I don't think my mother, her daughter, is kind to her. She's always going on to me about what a chore it all is, and sometimes can be quite snappy with my gran, who can't help getting muddled sometimes. I love my gran so much, and she's very kind and generous to mum with money and so on, so why can't my mother can't be more patient and loving?

Yours sincerely, Beth

One of the reasons that grandparents and grandchildren get on so well is, according to Margaret Mead, the great anthropologist, that they "share a common enemy". In this instance it seems as if she was right.

The problem is that your mother has a completely different relationship with her mother to the one that you have with your grandmother. She has banks of old memories, old resentments, to call on when she's dealing with your granny's demands. Where you see a charming, frail old lady, your mother sees the woman who perhaps once said that if she didn't behave she'd get rid of her pet rabbit. While you see a gentle person who, in your memory, was an endless supply of boiled sweets, your mother remembers a tyrant who stood over her saying she couldn't have dinner until she finished her homework. It could be that your grandmother wasn't some kind of tyrant, but it's how your mother remembers her.

You're well on the way to doing the same yourself. Instead of being compassionate to your mother who may, for all you know, be being a saint by having her mother living downstairs in view of how she was brought up, you're starting to demonise her, saying she's snappy and unkind.

Of course I may have the scenario all wrong. It may be that your mother loves her mother, your grandmother, so much, that she simply cannot bear to see her starting to lose her motherly capabilities. It could be that she depends on her mother still, and feels a child in her eyes – and when your grandmother becomes a bit muddled up, your mother finds the situation unbearable because she can foresee the time when she will have to live without the assurance that there's always someone to love and adore her. What you see as unkindness may, in fact, be the beginning of grieving, an inability to accept that her mainstay is deteriorating in front of her eyes.

Don't be too hard on your mother. You don't know what emotions she may be struggling with. I'm sure she does her best – as does your grandmother, and you. It sounds unlikely that your mother will ever be actually cruel to your grandmother. It's just that she carries, with her, past history and, perhaps, present misery.

One day, you may have children and this mother, who you see now as so selfish, will turn into some kind of saint in their eyes and wonder how you can treat her so dismissively when she's old. And perhaps your children will not be as kind to you as you wish. Then remember these feelings you're having now. And forgive them.

Readers say...

Give your mum a break

What your mother is doing is not easy and she should be praised, not blamed. She's always there, which you are not, and there may well be unpleasant intimate tasks she performs for your grandmother that you know nothing about. And your mother has less time for you. The whole family dynamic changes when a middle-aged woman takes on the care of her aging mother. Here's a suggestion: offer your mother a two-week break while you're home on vacation. During that time, take on all the responsibility for looking after your beloved grandmother. She will love it. But even you may perhaps find you become a little irritated with her from time to time.

June Helen Rogers


Be a support to both

My family experienced the same difficulties some years ago. As the only granddaughter, I would talk for hours with Gran, while my mother, sometimes reluctantly, did all the practical things. Their relationship was often stormy. However, when my grandmother died, it was my mother she wanted at the end and watching them together I realised just how unimportant all the daily irritations had been.

Now that my own mother is 80, I find myself being just as irritable at times with her. It might help Beth to realise that part of her mother's intolerance is due to her being upset that her gran is becoming frail. She wants her to remain as active and as much of a mother as she has always been. Unfairly, the fear of losing her might be taking the form of impatience and reluctance to face up to the inevitable.

Beth's mother and grandmother share an unbreakable bond despite surface tensions. Beth should try to be as much a support to both of them as she can, spending time listening to her gran but also pointing out to her mother that she understands how wearing the situation can be.As well as spending time with each of them, I would take both of them out together occasionally so that they are away from their immediate environment and can re-establish some of the good aspects of their relationship.

Name and address supplied


Ask the tough questions

It seems to me that you have a responsibility to your grandmother, to protect her from abuse. This can happen in many different ways. I do wonder if your grandmother's financial generosity, both to you and your mother, is her way of keeping you all in your place – she may well be frightened of being a burden to your mother and the money is a good way of silencing open and honest discussion about her care. The three of you, in the longer term, might like to involve a third neutral party to help you ask/answer some tough questions about the difficulties faced in growing older and becoming more frail and the business of caring.




Carers need care, too

I wonder if your mother feels tired and unsupported? Care for the carers is now an officially recognised role. Could this be where you come in? Support your mother by listening and let her unload her frustrations to you without judging her. Give your mother a break and take over the whole of the caring role for at least a week whenever you are home from university. Acknowledge how difficult it is for her and genuinely sympathise. Give your mother a treat, perhaps cooking a special meal or taking her out.

Love, understanding and practical help often generate the same. Care for your mother and this may well help her to care more lovingly for her own mother. If your mother's needs are met it will free up good will towards your grandmother. Try asking her about it and listen, without judgement, to what she says.

Mary Lettington

Stroud, Gloucestershire

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