Ungrandmotherly Behavior

Q: My husband and I are frustrated and confused. And we were hoping you might be able to help us.

We have, bli ayin hara, three beautiful children: a boy, 5, and two girls, 3 and 1. All three are adorable, happy kids who bring out smiles even from total strangers. The problem is that my mother practically ignores them. She never acknowledges their birthdays with gifts or even a card. When we visit my parents or when they come to our home, she barely speaks with them at all. They, in turn, respond to her coldness by avoiding her. And while my husband notices this too, I am the one who is hurt most by my mother’s attitude towards our children.

My mother was short-tempered and never especially warm to me when I was growing up. And I do understand that some people are simply not very affectionate. I know this can run in families as I saw similar traits in my maternal grandmother, a”h, who was a concentration camp survivor. The reason all of this is so hurtful to me, however, is that I see my mother is capable of displaying warmth to all of my nieces and nephews. So whenever I come to my parents together with any of my married siblings, the contrast between the way my mother treats their children and the way she treats mine is most striking.

What can I do about this?

A: One of my favorite bumper stickers reads: “If I knew how much joy grandchildren bring, I would have had them first.” And one of my favorite one-liners is: “The reason grandparents and grandchildren are so close is because they share a common enemy.” Both underscore the universality of naturally close, warm ties between grandparents and grandchildren.

As with all undeniable truths of life, a source can be found in the Torah. Avimelech insisted that Avraham Avinu swear that he would not deal falsely with Avimelech, his son or his grandson (Bereishis 21:23). And Rashi comments: “The compassion of a father for his son [extends] up until [and including] here (i.e., the third generation).”

Your mother’s behavior, therefore, is truly unusual. And you are most justified in feeling frustrated and confused. What you are seeking from your mother is what would be considered normal in most families. And nothing gives greater joy to parents than to see their parents doting on their children. Even my three-year-old granddaughter beams with boundless pride whenever I include her doll as I dispense hugs and kisses. I can well appreciate, therefore, how painful your mother’s attitude must be for you. And although it may provide little comfort, I do hope that your in-laws treat your children better than your mother does.

What could possibly cause a grandmother to selectively shun some of her own grandchildren in this way? There are two explanations which are not mutually exclusive.

One possibility is that sometimes a child is unconsciously chosen as a scapegoat. The birth order, name and/or gender of one child may trigger a negative association in the mind of one parent. Then this child is singled out for verbal, and at times even physical, abuse. In some cases, this dynamic can be traced back to a preceding generation. In your case, for example, it is possible that your grandmother’s wartime trauma played a role in your being targeted by your mother. If this applies to your family, the most important thing for you to realize is that you did nothing to cause this. And, unfortunately, nothing you will do can change it.

Another option is that your mother is suffering from BPD (Borderline Personality Disorder). While no definitive diagnosis can be made based on a third party description alone, there is no doubt that the behavior you describe in your letter is consistent with the symptoms of that condition. The extreme and chronic disregard and disrespect your mother has shown for you and your children, for example, is a common character trait of people with BPD. Intense and inappropriate outbursts of anger and paranoid thinking are other common features of BPD which your mother may be displaying, at times.

Once again, if this is the case with your mother, there is nothing you can do to correct the situation. Of course, you should be sure not to blame yourself for the irrational manner in which you and your children are being treated by your mother. In addition, it would be helpful for you to learn more about BPD. Today, there are lots of jargon-free resources available and specifically geared for laypeople. Finally, meeting with a therapist would also be useful in helping you and your husband navigate the tortuous path of learning to live with a family member with BPD.


The opinions expressed in this article reflect the view of the author. In all matters of halachah and hashkafah, readers should consult their Rav.