Sensitive Californian

Dear Sensible Midwesterner,

My parents rarely visit, which means we have to drive several hours away in order for our two young children to spend time with their grandparents. I often ask them to come and they usually decline and come for a visit maybe once every one or two years. We don’t have a guest room so they have to stay elsewhere, but money isn’t a big problem for them as they often stay in hotels in other nearby places.

Luckily they live in a place that we love to visit, and otherwise we have a good relationship. But how can I tell them that their lack of visits and seeming lack of interest in our lives, not to mention the kids’ soccer games and dance performances, bothers me?

-Sensitive Californian

Dear Sensitive Californian,

First things first, let’s all take a moment to relish the phrase “we have a good relationship.”

That is an excellent starting point.

Second, I’m sure many readers will read this with great envy, wondering how they can get their all-up-in-their-diapers parents to back off and stop coming to every single event, trip to the park, and sneeze the grandkids have.

The problem, of course, is that knowing other people would like our situation doesn’t help us like it much better. The other problem is that while the relationship is good, it isn’t quite good enough for you.

It sounds like you’ve taken some solid initiative and actively and pointedly invited them for specific occasions and events. To be clear, “You should come visit sometime” isn’t an invitation; “Petunia has a dance recital on April 20 in the late afternoon, we’d love it if you two could come visit that weekend and see her dance” is an invitation. If you’ve been general, get specific. See if that works better.

If, indeed, you have issued specific invitations for specific dates and/or events and those have been declined, I can see why that bothers you.

You ask “How can I tell them their lack of visits… bothers me?”

Most Sensible Midwesterners would say “You don’t.”

But I have a soft spot for sensitive Californians, and I understand that sometimes you can’t help yourselves and simply have to share your feelings.

First, make sure you’ve done the tough work of being honest with yourself about what really bothers you about the situation. Is it something that more frequent visits will actually address, or is their failure to drive to you more often merely part of a more systemic problem? Are visits the crux of the matter, or are there other ways you feel neglected? Having a solid understanding of where, exactly, you’re coming from is key here.

Ideally you initiate this conversation in person, in a relaxed state, and, dare I specify, when sober. In other words, don’t bring it up over the phone when facial expressions won’t help convey meaning. Don’t bring it up after a wine-filled holiday meal – even if everything seems jolly and the good will seems like it could take everyone along for your happy “let’s see each other more” ride. This Sensible Midwesterner find walks or car rides perfect times to bring up these emotionally tough topics – the possibility of avoiding eye contact, if necessary, can make one a bolder speaker and a better listener, two skills you may need. Sitting on a deck drinking coffee and looking at a view works well too.

The trick with this conversation is to make yourself understood while not making your parents defensive. Avoid the phrase “hurt feelings” or anything in that family. “We have such a good time with you when we visit, but the drive is a long one and I really wish you would come visit us more often.” Something along the lines of “I know you love us, but it bothers me that it seems like I have to make so much of the effort for us to see each other” might be uttered as well.

The more specific you can be, the better. Is there a recent event they missed despite an invitation? That could be a good starting point: “Otto’s basketball tournament was really fun. I was disappointed you couldn’t join us that weekend. It’s been awhile [or be specific here – over a year? since spring?] since you two came to visit – let’s set something up before we leave this time.”

Then listen to what they say. You may or may not like the answer. (This is why most Sensible Midwesterners would tell you not to open this can of worms.)

If the response you get is vague – claiming an unsure schedule or generalized busy-ness, I can only say that it sounds like they’re not that into you.

Harsh? Perhaps.

I’m sure they love you and your children. It sounds like you see them, through your own effort, with some regularity and enjoyment all around. And that may be how they like it: on their turf, at their convenience.

Our stereotype of doting grandparents who will do anything to spend a few precious moments with their beloved grandchildren is a powerful one. Like all stereotypes, it tells us nothing about any individual. Plenty of people thoroughly enjoy seeing their children and grandchildren – and love them all to pieces – without being completely devoted to them or, dare I say, willing to do much driving.

Good luck.


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