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By Kay Pasley, Ed.D.

With the growing number of stepfamilies being formed, concern amongst those in the older generation often focuses on what divorce and remarriage mean for their continuing relationship with their grandchildren. This concern was expressed in a poem by Marilyn lhinger-Tallman (1988) on the American Family where in one stanza she refers to grandparents:

But what scares them most is that son

got divorced last year and now ex-daughter-in-law remarries next month

and is taking grandson Zach away

Zach, who looks just like gran'pa

Oh, Zach are you lost forever?

Clearly, the relationship between generations is important to all involved because of the exchange of resources and support that often is provided across generations. In fact, all 50 states have laws that communicate implicitly the value of continuing relationships between generations by awarding of grandparent visitation. Following is a brief summary of what we now know about stepgrandparenting from the perspective of stepgrandparents, adult children, and stepgrandchildren. Much like the ambiguity that surrounds the stepparent role when compared to the parent role, so is there ambiguity in becoming a stepgrandparent. It is the lack of clarity that can be problematic as relationships are renegotiated and developed. From the stepgrandparent perspective, they must deal with the loss (perceived or actual) of valued relationships, accept the adult-child's single status and likely involvement in new relationships, and accept the remarriage that results in stepgrandchildren.

From the perspective of the older generation, grandparents often feel the need to sever the relationship with former sons-in-law or daughters-in-law except when ritual occasions demand contact. The more intimate relationship that preceded the divorce often becomes increasingly formal and distant, with each side attempting to avoid conflict.

When there is a remarriage, two patterns of interaction emerge. One pattern is characterized by replacement. Here new in-laws replace the previous ones. In the replacement pattern the grandparents typically feel pressured to take steps to exclude former children-in-law and transfer their loyalties to new children-in-law, if they wish to maintain a conflict-free relationship with their own adult child. Such exclusion can end a valued relationship between a grandparent, the former in-laws, and the grandchildren.

A second pattern is one of expansion. This pattern is more common among paternal grandmothers who retain connections with former daughters-in-law. Their continued connection facilitates continued contact with grandchildren even when the adult son and father of the grandchildren begins to disengage from his children. Here the coalitions between generations are strengthened. A pattern of expansion also is evident in two other situations: (a) when the former children-in-law remarry and the grandparents take on stepchildren, or (b) when the grandparent remarries. In the first case, it is the grandparent who must incorporate the new child-in-law and the stepchildren into their exiting relationship network. In the second case, building and maintaining new relationships occurs on two levels: (a) the older generation must develop relationships with children and grandchildren of the new spouse, and (b) the adult-children and grandchildren must develop relationships with the new stepparent and his or her family. When remarriage occurs among any of the generations, there is evidence that the nature of the contact and the services exchanged are altered.

Reports from adult children suggest that when compared with adult children in intact, first marriages or those currently divorced, remarrieds are less likely to have telephone contact with their parents and to receive child care or other kinds of help from their parents. Other research suggests that when adult children remarry, they are more likely to provide disabled elderly parents with more assistance (e.g., personal care), although it may be provided through paid care. The level of assistance provided is higher than that provided by either single-adult children or widowed adult children.

From the perspective of stepgrandchildren, their relationship with stepgrandparents is characterized by less contact when compared to the relationship between grandchildren and grandparents. In fact, differences have been found in the level of contact between these generations by gender of stepparent. For example, less contact is reported by stepgrandchildren with the stepmother's parents than with the stepfather's parents. Interestingly, stepgrandchildren report that the amount of contact they have with their stepgrandparents is less than they desire. At the same time, they indicate that they don't expect more frequent contact.

There is evidence that the parent and stepparent play an important role in the relationship that is maintained between the grandparent-grandchild generation. When conflict occurs between the grandparent and adult-child or the adult-child's new spouse, the connection with grandchildren is diminished. In addition, stepgrandparents report that their failure to treat the stepchild as their adult child desires can result in severing of this relationship. Behavior that facilitates continued interaction across generations includes acknowledgment of the new marriage and stepchildren and equitable treatment of stepgrandchildren. Adult children can facilitate interaction between generations by communicating their understanding of the loss grandparents experience when divorce and remarriage occur and by offering suggestions on how their parents can be helpful in fostering adjustment in the new stepfamily.


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