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Do All Grandparents Have Visitation Rights?

A dad with full custody faces demons from the past in the form of irresponsible, but insistent ex in-laws.

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Dear Goodfather, 

I’m a divorced dad still trying to make the holidays work and figure out what the hell grandparent visitation rights mean. We divorced in no small part due to my in-laws. They hated me. They hate me. They thought I was, to quote drunk Grandpa at Thanksgiving, “a cuck dad raising a pussy.” Needless to say, I was very protective of my five-year-old boy and didn’t want them having him for a full week every summer at their seriously hands-off grandparenting pad. I didn’t want his uncle taking him on a four-wheeler while they were hunting (he was 18 months!). I didn’t want anyone on that side doing anything with him. They live a life that’s different from the one I want for my boy. Also, it’s dangerous! They’re unfeeling hardscrabble folk who drink hard and think there’s no better lesson for a boy than falling out of a tree and “seeing the fucked up world for what it is.” 

My wife sided with them mostly, cheated on me repeatedly with her new husband, and now I have full custody. I’ve worked out an arrangement with their mom who wants to be there once a month, but is also starting her own life and new family. Now here’s the thing: Two years later, the grandparents demand to see my son. They say it’s their right and won’t take no for an answer. My wife doesn’t get involved here and doesn’t care either way. Can I just ignore them?

Fighting in Florida

 

I know the people you describe. Well, not personally. But I know that world. You’re talking about rednecks, basically, although kudos for your charming “hardscrabble folk” euphemism. I also know that you’re not talking about Steinbeck characters. I grew up with rednecks and continue to maintain ties with many of them. Which is also to say that I’ve experienced a modicum of the prideful disdain you’ve received and have had the displeasure of being on the wrong end of a redneck’s bad side. It’s not pleasant. But I also know that these folks are fiercely loyal and have huge hearts. And I think you’ve done yourself, and possibly your son, a disservice in not interrogating your in-law’s motivations. 

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Of course, you can ignore your kid’s grandparents. After all the rights of grandparents only extend as far as asking for visitation. You have no obligation to allow that visit to happen. But I would suggest you have an obligation to figure out if there’s any way to keep them in your son’s life.  

I suspect, for as gruff, rough and tough as they might be, they actually have feelings for their grandchild. Have you considered that they’re making demands because they have a love for your child? Is that a bad thing?

I tend to live my life believing the more people who give a shit about my boys, the better. Of course, I have to be discerning. Just because someone cares about my children does not mean they are a safe choice for prolonged contact. Just because a drugged-out nephew loves his cousins doesn’t mean I’m going to let them hang out unsupervised for hours on end. That said, if I can support healthy interaction, I want that nephew to have my kid’s back. And I want my kids to know their nephew because everyone has something to offer. 

I get that your kid’s redneck grandparents rub you the wrong way on a cellular level. And I would never advocate for you to put your child into a situation that you consider dangerous. But I will say that there is probably a way for your kids grandparents to spend time with them in a safe way that everyone might be able to find fulfilling.

I wonder if you’ve ever entertained the notion that maybe these folks have something to teach your kids that may be beneficial. Do they have skills they can pass down? Knowledge of family history or tips on ways to be resourceful? Think about it. 

The way you interact with your rough in-laws is educational for your kids. We live in a world where we often let ideology get the better of us and keep us from understanding one another. I think you’d be doing your kids a tremendous service if you modeled reason and compassion and tried to find a solution. 

That means you’re going to have to be the bigger man and offer a middle ground. What if you invited them to your turf? That would give them an opportunity to see their grandchildren while allowing you to have some control over the environment. It might also give you room to talk. 

You might think you have nothing in common with these people but it turns out that you do. You all like your children. That’s a good place to start a conversation. Have you ever asked them what they think of your kids? Have you ever asked them what their favorite part of being a grandparent is? Showing a bit of curiosity might be beneficial. It will certainly be beneficial for your kids because by starting this conversation your showing them that family is a valuable resource. 

Of course, there is the possibility that you try and find the differences between you and your kid’s grandparents to be irreconcilable. If you truly feel that they will be detrimental to your children’s welfare and they are unwilling and unable to find a compromise with you, then you may just have to keep your distance.

Happily there are ways to keep your distance while still ensuring your kids have some kind of relationship with them. How about phone calls and video chats? You can encourage letter writing. There are ways to keep a thread of a relationship without cutting it completely. And I urge you to not cut that thread. Because the fact is that people change. And as long as there’s a thread then a relationship can be built back up again. 

I would strongly encourage you to avoid complete estrangement. Your kids have already gone through a divorce. No matter how well your co-parenting skills might be, or how delicately you treated the matter, losing grandparents may be another emotional trauma for your kids. And ultimately all of this is about their well-being, not your own feelings. The last thing you want is for your kids to blame themselves (or you) for not being able to see grandma and grandpa. 

If that is your ultimate course, however, I would suggest that you bring a family counselor on board. It’s quite likely that your kids will need to process this stuff, with you or without you. 

I really hope that as you move forward you choose to build bridges with your “hardscrabble” kin rather than burn them down. In a world that seems to be hopelessly divided, it’s the noblest task you could undertake for your kids and future generations.