When I learned of the news that Thomas Markle had decided to pursue legal channels to obtain access to his royal grandchildren, I was shocked but not surprised. Too many grandparents think that they have the legal right to see the children of their children, and don’t see that demand for the selfish and ethically dubious claim that it is.
I am now 41 years old with a decade’s worth of therapy under my belt. A shiny new set of insight and coping mechanisms allows me to see with clarity the intergenerational dysfunction with which my parents contended with (and, to some extent, passed down) as I was growing up. For this reason, I am so glad that one of my grandparents never demanded legal access to me. Having given birth to me when they were teenagers, my parents would not have had the knowledge or the resources to fight such a petition.
The recent onslaught of so-called “Grandparents Rights” laws give problematic relatives the option to sue for access to minors, whether or not it is in the best interest of the grandchildren. The best light in which we can see these laws is that they are there to protect children when grandparents have legitimate concerns about parents who may be struggling or neglectful. The dark side of them is that they can create — at the bare minimum — a headache for many parents trying to protect their children from familial dysfunction.
I remember the last time I’d heard from my maternal grandmother. I was 25 and starting a new job. At that time, I’d also just received word that my other grandmother — my father’s beloved mother, a doting, loving woman we’d called Grandma Vicky — had been diagnosed with a terminal illness. She’d been given six months to live. I’d been struggling to come to terms with this news and simultaneously berating myself for being selfish. I knew that many people my age didn’t have their grandparents around (I still had all of mine), and that I’d been lucky to have her for as long as I had. Still, I was grieving. And when my maternal grandmother’s email arrived, I allowed myself — for reasons I now chalk up to youth, ignorance and naivety — to believe that perhaps news about Grandma Vicky had traveled and that she was contacting me to offer support or condolences.
Instead, she’d written to cut ties once and for all before (perhaps comically) wishing me a happy life. I later learned that she’d had a falling-out with another family member and decided, without rhyme, reason, or logic, that her tepid relationship with me was to be the next casualty. I remember reading the email without a shred of surprise. This high-drama response was par for the course in terms of interactions with her and always had been.
This was the same grandmother who had kicked my parents out of her home — where we’d been living after my birth — when I was nine months old. There is a picture of me from that day, tiny and swaddled in my teenage mother’s arms as she stood on a Brooklyn street outside of Grandma Vicky’s apartment building, the only other option for housing and safety we’d had at that time. In the years that followed, my entire family’s relationship with my maternal grandmother was up and down, characterized by extreme emotions. When I finally received that email at age 25, I deleted it unanswered and didn’t speak to her again. She got her wish.
It seems there’s little chance of Thomas Markle suddenly deciding to cut his daughter off and disappear into the night. Instead, he appears determined to stay in the public eye and to continue to make demands of his daughter and Harry. I doubt he’ll get very far, though: The California courts seem likely to disagree with his reported expectations of untethered access to Archie and baby Lilibet.
According to the Judicial Branch of California, under California law, a grandparent can ask the court for reasonable visitation with a grandchild only under highly specific circumstances, namely proof of a “pre-existing relationship between grandparent and grandchild that has engendered a bond,” and proof that such visitation is in the best interest of the child, as determined by the parents. Based on his public admissions of a strained relationship with Meghan and Harry, I have to imagine that Thomas Markle faces an uphill battle fulfilling these basic requirements. He may have to learn the hard (and expensive) way that grandparents are not inherently entitled to access to their grandchildren, and that this relationship must be earned.
I know firsthand that sometimes grandchildren are better off without a grandparent in their lives. Despite what Thomas Markle may think, access to grandchildren should never be considered a biological entitlement. Hopefully, grandparents’ rights laws in California are airtight in favor of Meghan and Harry, and they are left to forge familial relationships for their children on their own terms.
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