By Esther Mann, LCSW

Dear Esther,

Last year, my son got divorced from an evil, selfish, and probably emotionally disturbed individual. She really has no right being a mother and it’s a crime that just about anyone is allowed to become a mother, without any screening process.

I could probably write to you at least 20 different letters, in my attempt to understand how we wound up where we are today, with such an awful situation on our hands. But what good would that do? I’ve made some mistakes that added to this mess, but the bottom line is that I have three granddaughters that I am worried sick over.

My ex-daughter-in-law, whom I’ll call Rena, has custody of their children. She has them most of the time. My son gets to keep them every other weekend and he takes them out to dinner once or twice a week. But the majority of the time they are with their mother, as is typical in most divorces.

My son is a good father, but basically plays a secondary role in the rearing of these children. He’s spoken to his lawyer about full custody, but he tells me that it’s very rare for the father to get full custody. It’s just not the American way!

To say that Rena is an unfit mother is an understatement. The girls’ lives have to revolve around her schedule with her boyfriend. If it helps her out somehow to keep them home from school, she doesn’t think twice about it. She is not on top of school projects, book reports, special assignments, or even basic homework. On a Sunday afternoon, if she’s supposed to pick the girls up from my son at 5:00 p.m. so that they can get home and get to bed at a decent time in order to be awake for school the next day, she’ll often just not show up or show up ridiculously late, so that the girls start the week off already feeling exhausted. If my son winds up keeping them overnight Sunday night and takes them to school Monday morning, they have to go to school without their knapsacks and schoolbooks.

I am shocked and appalled daily when stories filter my way about her neglect and basic mistreatment of the girls. I know that she hits them, squeezes their arms, etc. I called Child Protective Services once and was told that unless there is an actual mark on the child, there is nothing they can do. Parents are allowed to spank their kids. Though Rena is extremely stupid, she is smart enough to make sure she doesn’t leave any marks.

My son is naturally very upset over all of these problems, but kind of throws up his hands and has resigned himself to the fact that “it is what it is,” and there is nothing he can do about it. Maybe he just gets defensive because he feels guilty over creating this mess in the first place. But who can truly gauge anyone else’s pain? Maybe he worries as much as my husband and I do, but just covers it up better. When he can’t deal with something, he says that when they are old enough to decide which parent they want to live with, he’s sure they will come live with him. That happens to be true. The girls have told me as much. Unfortunately, that won’t be for quite a few years.

I’m worried sick over these children. I worry about their safety as Rena is absolutely negligent. I’m worried about their emotional well-being, spending so much time with a mother who probably doesn’t even love them and certainly doesn’t know how to show it. I’m worried about them getting through school without someone encouraging them on a daily basis to do what is necessary to keep up. I just worry all the time.

Rena doesn’t speak to me so it’s not like I’m able to call her and try to stay involved or even help her do things right. I tried for years to keep some kind of civil relationship going with her for the sake of the kids. But she makes it impossible. She’s not a normal person.

When I see my granddaughters every other week when they are with my son, and I see that they look whole and all right, I breathe a deep sigh of relief. During the time I don’t get to see them, I worry constantly. What is a grandmother to do? How can I do something that will contribute to the girls’ healthy development? How do I keep myself from obsessing over all of my fears about what could befall those three helpless girls?

Worried Sick

Dear Worried Sick,

It sounds as though your son does not have an abundance of power over this situation and I understand why you feel as though your hands are completely tied. It’s so difficult to watch what looks like a train wreck happening in slow motion and feel you must stand by and be an observer as the wreckage is taking place. But perhaps you have a bit more power than you realize when it comes to having an impact on your granddaughters.

Firstly, I can’t really comment on the specific legal realities you addressed in your letter. I can neither comment nor advise you on legal areas; I would, however, consider suggesting to your son that he might want to go for a consultation with another lawyer, just to make sure that his hold over this situation is as bleak as you describe. I’m not surprised to hear that even though your son should logically be the one raising your granddaughters, he only has partial custody. I’ve heard that the system doesn’t always make sense and that the odds of a father raising his children are usually not stacked in his favor. It is a crying shame.

So what’s a grandmother to do? I’m glad to hear that you spend time with your granddaughters every other weekend when your son has them. Even though those times probably feel fleeting and insignificant, you have no idea the kind of influence your presence can and will have on those girls. As people look back upon the individuals in their lives who have had the most profound effect on their development, it is not necessarily a parent who comes to mind. A grandparent is often mentioned as a key figure in shaping one’s mind and also, just as important, creating a sense of safety, especially when one is not feeling particularly safe.

Use your time wisely with those precious girls. You’ll want much of your time together to be relaxed and fun. At the same time, be mindful of the ability you have to introduce subtle and even direct messages about what a successful life should look like. Realize that they will be observing you and your husband and have an opportunity to take in what a normal marriage should look like. Discuss the importance of school and homework. They are never too young to hear that. Get into the long-term rewards of taking school seriously, and being the best they can be. Make sure they know that you will always be there for them and that you care about their safety and happiness. And most important, though I suspect you already have this down pat, when they walk into the room, allow your eyes, smile, and body language to inform them that they are the most beloved creatures on the planet! That they truly matter.

Encourage your son to get more involved with his daughters’ teachers and even the administration at their school, so that he can pick up some of the slack, at least every other weekend. Try to work with him, rather than create an atmosphere where he will get defensive and shut down.

If you are truly concerned about your grandchildren’s safety, make sure they understand they can dial 911 if they ever feel threatened or scared. Encourage them to talk to teachers in school if something bothers them. Help them feel free to talk openly about their lives. Listen carefully for possible clues or red flags. But also, try to use humor whenever possible, so that every story doesn’t wind up being a pity party for all involved.

It is far from a perfect situation. Divorce never is. But there are good divorces and horrible ones. From what you’ve described, this falls into the latter category. But that doesn’t mean that your grandchildren won’t grow up to be amazing adults, capable of discerning right from wrong and making wonderful choices along the way. Isn’t that what you are basically worried about? That they should have a shot at normal, happy lives?

It’s vitally important that you have faith that things can and will work out. It’s also important that you have faith in your son, yourself, and your husband that between the three of you, your granddaughters will get enough love, guidance, and opportunities to absorb what is good and true in life and reject what is so awful. My guess is that they already know where the truth lies and where despicable behavior can be found. It is sad that at such a young age they have to be exposed to so much ugliness, but hopefully it will build something powerful within them.

In the meantime, I would like to ask my readers who may have found themselves in similar situations to share ideas that might be helpful toward your son ultimately gaining full custody, sooner rather than later.

In the meantime, continue to love those girls to pieces. That’s the greatest gift you can give them.


Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Lawrence. Esther works with individuals and couples. She can be reached at or 516-314-2295.

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