Not my mother

I don't want my baby calling my father's second wife "Grandma" -- because she's not his grandma!

Published July 27, 2004 7:38PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I am expecting the first grandchild in my family in two months. My father is a widower who is remarried to a woman who is only eight years older than I am. They have been married six years and got married when I was 28 and already married myself. She has not been a mother, stepmother or even what I would call a friend to me. Don't get me wrong, we are cordial, but not remotely close. Not antagonistic, just that we have little to nothing in common.

Here is the issue. My father wants her to be called "Grandma." There are many reasons why I dislike this, but first and foremost is she is not the grandmother. I plan on referring to my deceased mother as grandma as she earned that title and deserves it even in death. I suspect that his new wife will have little influence on my child's life simply from the fact that we do not socialize with her that often. I think I would feel differently if this woman had a hand in raising me, but I was grown woman of 28 when she came into the picture and she is a contemporary of mine (a whole other issue that I have finally come to terms with). I introduce her as "my father's wife" not my stepmother. She is not "my" anything and really not in the least bit maternal.

I was planning on having my child call her by her first name (which is what I do), or wait and let my baby come up with something on her own. This is apparently unacceptable to my dad. He is very protective of his wife because my own grandmother has severed ties with him due to their marriage. I am sure it feels to him like I am rejecting her. I am not, but I am aware that perception is reality. I am also aware that in the scheme of things what she is called is minor, but I want to make sure that even though my own mother cannot be here to see her first grandchild, that she is still honored as such by being grandma.

I am willing to have her called something other than her first name, although I do not really understand the need for it. I would like to stay clear of traditional names, though. Any thoughts on how to handle this whole situation?

Motherless Mother to Be

Dear Motherless Mother,

By my reckoning, you are 34 and your father's second wife is 42. I can understand how you would resist regarding her as a stepmother or as a grandmother to your child. I can understand that using her first name to address her is more natural and more fitting. And if your departed mother will always be Grandma to you, that is beautiful. No one can take that from you. But I think you should be careful not to drag your child into a dispute between your father and you.

If you openly defy your father and tell the child not to call the woman Grandma, or say that this woman is not the real grandmother, you will burden the child with a vexing riddle. The child may be forced to choose between two different realities -- the one you propose and the one your father proposes. That is a difficult spot to be in if you are a kid. It's an irreconcilable contradiction: How can she be both a grandmother and not a grandmother?

On the other hand, a person can have more than one grandmother. Your departed mother can be a grandmother and your father's wife can also be a grandmother. So I think you would be wise to, as you suggest, let your baby come up with something on her own, and whatever the baby ends up calling your father's wife, let it be.

There is another reason not to openly defy your father on this issue. Your baby will learn from you. If you want your baby to respect her father, you can model that behavior toward your own father. She will pick up on what you do. If you tell the baby that your own father is wrong, that the woman who seems to be Grandma is not really a grandma, the baby may conclude that fathers are not to be respected or believed, and transfer that belief toward her own father. That could become a problem later in your own family.

My own mother called my grandmother by her first name. I called her Grandma. The names did not confuse me. Different people in the family called each other different names, depending on what their relationship was. That was all quite natural and expected. No one ever suggested that "Ann" could not also be "Grandma."

What did confuse me, however, was my mother's efforts to explain to me things about my grandmother that I could not understand or reconcile with what I saw in her myself. That put me in a painful bind as a child. How could I love my grandmother after what my mother said about her? My mother rationalized telling me such things by saying that I was remarkably mature and intelligent as a child, and that such a bright child ought to know the truth. But I wasn't ready for that kind of truth. What kind of truth was it? It was the truth of my mother's bitterness and resentment.

I think it's clear that you were hurt by your father's choice in marriage, and you feel rather coldly toward his wife. There's nothing to be done about that. That is the way you feel. If you have been wounded by the actions of your father since the death of his wife, that is nothing to be ashamed of. You loved your mother and lost her. That must have been very painful. But if you try too hard to force others to honor her the way you do, you may succeed only in confusing the child.

What's important is that everyone in the baby's life cherish it and shower it with love and affection -- including your father's wife if she wants to.

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