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Ex-etiquette: Grandma’s favoritism causes rift

Q: When my husband and I married, we created a big bonus family: my four children and his two, all under 16. I share custody with my ex; my husband has sole custody of his because his ex died. The problem is his mother. She severely favors my husband’s kids. She brings presents for his kids and forgets mine. It undermines everything we’re trying to do. What’s good ex-etiquette?

A: I often tell the story of having a birthday party for my bonus daughter and my own mother sneaking my daughter $50 when no one was looking. When I asked why, she said she felt guilty making such a fuss over a stepchild while her own grandchild looked on. Of course, my daughter let the other kids know about the extra cash, and I was left to explain to the rest of the kids why my mother wasn’t really that mean.

Like my own mother, your mother-in-law may be struggling with her own issues. She probably adores her grandchildren and worries that they may feel slighted if she treats her new bonus grandkids as well as she treats her own grandchildren. Since their mother’s death, she could have been the primary “mom” figure, and now you’re here making her role feel less important. Putting yourself in her shoes (Ex-etiquette for parents Rule No. 7: “Use empathy when problem solving”), you can see she probably has no idea how to handle the situation, and she’s walking the same tightrope that parents walk when they try to combine families. How do I show my own children love without making bonus children feel like second-class citizens?

The next step is to have a conversation – but you shouldn’t initiate it. Since it’s your husband’s mother, let him take the lead. In grandma’s defense, she may not realize that openly favoring a grandchild could actually hurt her bonus kids. But if she’s doing this on purpose, she needs to be set straight – fast.

It’s important that new bonus grandparents find ways to support the bonus family by not undermining the progress the bonus family is trying to make. An easy way is to look for one-on-one time with their grandchildren when the bonus kids are with their own biorelations. There are also things such as trusts or special scholarships that can be set aside for biological grandchildren so a preference is not flaunted.

What this bonus family journey has taught me personally is that combining families is not just about the new family created. Members of an extended family have their own struggles accepting new people, and if you don’t prepare them properly, you will face unexpected hazards. I’ve often mentioned the “Before Exercise” that can be found at bonusfamilies.com; it offers help to those combining families by suggesting that they ask one another specific questions prior to moving in together. A sampling: “How do we want extended family to see our bonus family?” and “Will our children call our parents ‘grandma’ and ‘grandpa’ ?” These questions set the stage and establish boundaries for future interaction.

Being a bonus relative is a much bigger responsibility than many people imagine. Understanding that, and acting accordingly, is – you guessed it – very good ex-etiquette.