Lesbian and Gay Parenting Questions & Answers Column With Arlene Istar LevDear Ari

A column by Arlene (Ari) Istar Lev

Grandparents and Acceptance

Posted By on September 8, 2010

Dear Ari:

How can we persuade grandparents to accept a non-biological grandchild? We are a family where each of the mothers has given birth to one daughter, within our relationship. The daughters are being raised as sisters, but one set of grandparents will not acknowledge this relationship.
—2 Moms

Dear 2 Moms,

First of all—and I suspect that you have probably figured this out already—you can’t persuade anybody to do anything that they don’t want to do. I am not trying to sound overly “Zen” about something that is obviously a challenging and painful situation.  However, it is simply a basic fact of our human existence that you can’t make people behave or feel the way you think they should—even if you are clearly “right,” even if they are clearly “wrong,” even when it hurts to the depths of your soul.

With that in mind, the next issue is to look at how this is impacting the family. Are these grandparents blatantly rejecting the non-biologically-related child? Do they treat the girls in obviously different ways? Or is it more of a moral issue for them? If they are caring and loving to both children, but feel differently about them, this may simply be something that takes time. Or, it may be something that is not changeable. Even children who are biologically related are often treated differently or cared for differently by grandparents.

Adoption might be a useful paradigm for understanding these grandparents. Many family members struggle with integrating adopted children because they don’t think of them as “real” or “natural.” (I recently read a story of a man whose adopted adult child died a tragic death. A relative said, “Thank god it wasn’t your other child”—meaning his biological child—as if the pain would be any less.)

Are these grandparents close to the family? Are they close to their daughter and good grandparents to their biological granddaughter? If so, the first plan would be to simply talk with them, though I suspect that you’re writing because you’ve already tried this and it hasn’t worked. Another suggestion is to involve the grandparents who are more supportive. Ask them to talk with the reluctant grandparents. Perhaps the love and acceptance that the supportive grandparents have for their non-biological granddaughter will encourage the reluctant grandparents to be more accepting.

One powerful intervention, if the girls are old enough, is for them to tell the reluctant grandma and grandpa how the unequal treatment makes them feel. This may serve to dislodge whatever “logical” reasons the grandparents have devised to maintain their position. We are, after all, talking about the feelings of a child here.

As a last resort—and only if you are willing to follow through—you could try using the reluctant grandparents’ relationship with their biological granddaughter as leverage by telling them that you will limit their contact with her if they can’t manage to treat the girls with a reasonable degree of equity.

As harsh as that might sound, parents have both the right and the responsibility to do what is needed in order to protect their children’s welfare. If this situation is negatively affecting your girls, well, sometimes you just have to put your foot down. Sometimes, the prospect of “losing” someone or something they care about can wake people up to the absurdity and hurtfulness of their behavior.

Do not get caught up in seeing this kind of situation as solely related to lesbian families. As unfortunate as it is, there are many families where you’ll find patterns of a child being rejected by other family members, for a variety of reasons—having a different father, having a disability, being adopted, being of mixed race or of a different race. Your children are going to learn to deal with prejudicial opinions as part of their legacy of being children of lesbians.

It’s possible that the daughter who is accepted by both sets of grandparents might experience more confusion, anger, and be more protective of her sister—who might just take the situation in stride.  On the other hand, if the grandparents are not that close to your family, restricting contact might not actually be quite so difficult, as long as the people who are close to the girls are accepting of your family. The bottom line is that children are remarkably resilient, especially if the family is able to handle the situation calmly and respectfully.

It is important that you talk with your girls about this situation. If they are young, you could say “Grandma and Grandpa are very confused because we are a two-mom family.”  It is sometimes useful when dealing with complex issues with little kids to let them know that you think that is “silly.” This acknowledges the issue without making it too big or frightening for them. As they grow older it is important for you to take a stronger stance about issues of prejudice and to let them know how much the situation upsets you.

Of course, the most important thing is for you to let your girls know that in your eyes—both of you—you are all family, and the fact that someone else doesn’t like or accept it doesn’t change that at all.