For years, Pat Hanson composed letters, hundreds of them, to a granddaughter she wasn’t permitted to see or speak to. She described her travels, chatted about books and movies, envisioned a trip they’d one day take together to New York City.
At first, she wrote by hand, storing her letters in a wooden box; later, she saved them as computer files. But Dr. Hanson, 75, a health educator in Aptos, Calif., never sent them. She had seen this little girl almost monthly until she was 4. Then, the child’s mother separated from Dr. Hanson’s son, who at the time grappled with addiction and depression and couldn’t hold onto a job. The mother halted the visits. She also stopped answering phone calls, said Dr. Hanson, who no longer knows the family’s current address. Separation from “people you traditionally should be close to, it’s like a slap in the face,” said Dr. Hanson, who described her experience in a self-published book, “Invisible Grandparenting.” (For the book, she changed names and locations to protect the family’s privacy.)
Bereft, she found letter-writing therapeutic — but it may also serve another purpose. Her granddaughter is 17 now, and “I hope one day she will want to search for her roots and will look me up.” The letters will demonstrate how often her estranged grandmother thought of her, how much she yearned to see her. “I hope for a reconnection,” Dr. Hanson said. “I fantasize about it.” Dr. Hanson’s son, now a stable, married father with two more children, manages a resort and is in contact with his mother; he confirmed her account. Since my own granddaughter’s birth almost four years ago, I’ve spent hours caring for her each week. In this, I’m just plain lucky. We have stayed tight because I could reach her apartment in 75 minutes (in pre-pandemic times) by public transit, and because I haven’t inadvertently alienated my daughter or son-in-law.
But almost every time I write about grandparents, someone expresses anguish in the comments section about being unable to see or even call a beloved grandchild. Estrangement brings heartache I can’t truly imagine.
“You learn that you don’t have the relationship you thought you had with your children,” said a doctor in Western Massachusetts who is an estranged grandparent. Like several I spoke with, she asked for anonymity because she hoped for a future cease-fire.
She hasn’t seen her son and his seven children since 2015, except at a family funeral where they didn’t speak. He and his wife have blocked her email, she said, and sent gifts back unopened. “I feel like I’m being erased,” the doctor said.
How often this happens remains an unanswered question. In a 2012 survey of nearly 2,000 grandparents conducted for AARP, 2 percent said they never saw the grandchild who lived furthest away — but distance or illness could also account for that.
The numbers could well be higher. At heart, estrangement from grandchildren reflects estrangement from adult children, the gatekeeper middle generation that can promote or deny access.
When Megan Gilligan, a sociologist at Iowa State University, studied 561 later-life families in Massachusetts, she and her team were surprised to find that about 11 percent of mothers reported being estranged from at least one of their children. (That was defined as meaning they’d either had no contact in a year, in person or by phone, or had less than monthly interaction, plus a low score on a questionnaire measuring closeness.)
Grandparents trying to cope with this rupture feel not only distraught — it’s “a knife in the heart,” one grandmother told me — but humiliated. Their friends are posting adorable grandkid photos on Facebook, while the excluded mourn every missed milestone. “If your child dies, everyone feels sorry for you,” points out Joshua Coleman, a Bay Area psychologist and author of “Rules of Estrangement,” to be published this fall. “If your child has stopped talking to you, everybody blames you.”
What leads to estrangement? Dr. Coleman, who works with estranged families and conducts webinars on the subject, puts divorce — in either generation — high on the list. “Children of any age can blame one parent for a divorce or feel a need to ally with one or another, or have problems with the new person the divorced parent brings into the family,” he said.
In the younger generation, divorce can create estrangement if a custodial parent no longer wants an ex’s family involved.
Sometimes, longtime grievances from adult children’s own childhoods surface when they become parents themselves. “Maybe they had an uneasy truce, but now that they have their own kids they’re anxious that their parents will hurt their children in the same way,”
Dr. Coleman said.
“The adult child is saying, ‘You can’t see my child because you were a narcissistic parent, a toxic parent’” — or an abusive one. (Sometimes, he added, the adult child is right.) So-called matrilineal advantage, the persistent research finding that the strongest family bonds develop between mothers and daughters, means that parents of adult sons may find themselves at a disadvantage.
When disagreements arise, a wife may insist that her husband support his new family and distance from his parents. “Most men will defer,” Dr. Coleman has found. Mental health issues can emerge in either generation. “There are a lot of troubled adult children, or they may marry someone troubled,” Dr. Coleman said. “It makes them unable to handle the normal slings and arrows of family relationships.”
A 62-year-old grandmother who lives in Tulsa is convinced that this is what divided her family. She didn’t see her younger daughter or two grandchildren for three painful years. After some conflict over access to a trust, the young family suddenly moved out of state and broke off contact; she blames her son-in-law. “She was being pressured; she was being controlled,” the woman said of her daughter. “She stopped talking to all her family, all her friends, everyone but him.”
Estranged grandparents hang onto a desperate hope for eventual reconciliation; it can occur, though in an unknown proportion of cases.
In this one, when the daughter decided to end her marriage last year, she reestablished a relationship with her family. (The daughter declined an interview but confirmed via text that she was seeking a divorce and that she and her children had reconnected with her parents.) Trying to repair such rifts often proves a long, discouraging process. Legal avenues provide little help. Though most states have grandparent visitation laws, it’s hard to establish the necessary standing to take advantage of them, said Adam Turbowitz, a family law attorney with Aronson, Mayefsky & Sloan in New York.
“They’re not used as frequently as you might think, because you have to show circumstances that are out of the usual, not run-of-the-mill estrangement, to have standing,” he said. Even when grandparents establish standing — say they’ve been raising a grandchild until a parent released from prison attempts to regain custody and exclude them — they face an expensive, prolonged, uncertain process.
And it is likely to torpedo a future reconciliation. “If the goal is to ameliorate the family relationship, there are better places to do that than in the court system,” Mr. Turbowitz said.
Dr. Coleman recommends sending “a letter of amends,” acknowledging that the grandparents have contributed to the breach, even if that wasn’t their intent. “They have to face their own mistakes and shortcomings,” he said.
Some families agree to enter therapy together. Grandparents also turn to support groups like Alienated Grandparents Anonymous or the British-based Stand Alone. Still, sometimes, years pass and all overtures fail.
Even when reconciliation occurs, rebuilding fractured relationships takes time. A retired teacher in Northern California told me about her grief through the five years she wasn’t permitted to see her twin grandchildren, 3 years old at the time, though they lived close by. Her daughter-in-law apparently disliked the way the teacher’s husband cared for the children.
Two years ago, when her son proposed, out of the blue, that she and her husband resume occasional visits, “We didn’t feel like Grandma and Grandpa,” she said. “We didn’t really know the kids.”
But over time, the children have grown friendlier and her anxiety has abated. “As every month passes, it feels more normal,” she said.
She may never recapture the closeness with them that she has maintained with her daughter’s children. “They’re not loving and huggy in the same way,” she acknowledges. Still, “I found it incredible, after what happened, that we can get to this place where we can enjoy each other’s company.”
By Paula Span
Paula Span writes the New Old Age column in the Science section of The New York Times.