The Sunday Times

April 3rd, 2011

Granny’s love is binding enough – let’s not tie it up in legal knots

When grandparents are good they are very, very good but when they are bad they are horrid. It is sentimental to think otherwise. That is why it was alarming to see misleading headlines last week announcing that grandparents will soon get legal rights to see their grandchildren after the parents’ divorce under new parenting agreements.

Oddly enough, this news coincided with a BBC radio programme about the daft things grandmothers recommend to their daughters and daughters-in-law about the rearing of grandchildren. This brought to mind some of my late mother-in-law’s remarkable advice on the subject. “I hope you won’t even think of breastfeeding,” she said to me when her first grandchild was imminent. “I mean,” she said with her usual emphasis, waving a dry martini cocktail in the air, “it’s so unnatural.”

She herself had not had much to do with the upbringing of her own infant children, natural or not, but she gave me nanny’s baby book, carefully filled in with details of my husband’s progress, as an antidote to my trendy notions. His diet as a newborn was recorded as diluted cow’s milk with brown sugar, which hardly inspired confidence. A little later my mother-in-law recommended that my baby daughter should be circumcised, whatever she may have meant by that, if indeed she knew what she meant. Given her eccentricity, her frightening mood swings and her occasional violence, which made her the terror of the family and of certain parts of the shires, I was used to ignoring her advice without arguing.

One of her other foibles was to warn me that grandparents had rights. “Don’t for a moment think,” she used to say with a terrifying smile, “that if you get divorced you’ll be able to stop me seeing the children. I’ve got rights. Legal rights.” Naturally I checked and was relieved to find she was wrong: it wasn’t that I wanted to keep my children and her apart, but I wanted to be in control. She was given to whisking my baby off and having her hair cut horribly short, in the unscientific hope of making it grow thicker, and I didn’t want her circumcised.

I don’t think any of this was based on her objections to me personally. My very competent sister-in law suffered, too. Once, while staying with grandma, she discovered her new baby had suddenly disappeared. When she protested, my mother-in-law told her the child ought in her view to have a nanny and that she herself had therefore employed one, who had taken the infant out for the day. This exercise of grandparental power took place only about 15 years ago.

I mention these snapshots of our family life to make the obvious point that it would be entirely disastrous for all grandparents, automatically, to have rights of access to their grandchildren. Admittedly, grandparents can be wonderful. When they are, grandchildren adore them and parents often depend on them or wish they lived nearer so that they could.

My own mother was a wonderful grandmother. Being a loving and beloved grandparent is clearly one of life’s greatest joys, as is having one, and I know that in not having grandparents, apart from a few years of just one grandmother, I missed a great deal of childhood. Equally, some grandparents can be monstrous. Reading the internet responses to the news stories last week, I was struck by the large number of bloggers who wrote how dreadful their parents had been to them and how passionately they wanted to protect their own children from them.

Fortunately, on closer inspection it emerges that grandparents are not about to get legal rights of access to grandchildren. As so often, the headlines were exaggerating. What has actually happened is that a review of the family justice system, commissioned by the government, has just been issued. It is making recommendations before consultation and proposes that divorcing couples should make agreements allowing grandparents to see their grandchildren, with specific contact arrangements, “thereby reinforcing the importance of a relationship with grandparents and other relatives and friends who (sic) the child values”.

Such parenting agreements could then be used as evidence in court, if either parent goes back on the arrangement. However, the report does not recommend any such legal rights for grandparents or legal sanctions: the author, David Norgrove, a former civil servant, says the law is “too blunt an instrument”: giving grandparents such rights could damage the children concerned.

How true. This is the usual, maddening political combination of the obvious and the impossible. It is obvious that, generally speaking, grandparents are a good thing. That is so obvious that it really does not need enshrining in any kind of bureaucratic statement dreamt up by civil servants. When divorcing parents see the grandparents as a good thing, they will not need a bureaucratic statement to encourage them to include them in the children’s lives.

If the divorcing parents do not regard any of the grandparents with favour and feel inclined to exclude them for any reason, good or bad, it will be quite impossible for an optional parenting agreement, which is not backed by the blunt force of the law, however eloquently read out in court, to stop them. What can be the point of such verbiage? It is inexpressibly sad when grandparents lose contact with their grandchildren after divorce. Almost half of them do, according to recent research, and more often they are the parents of divorcing sons. They cannot all be monsters that have brought this on themselves. All too many of them lose their grandchildren simply because the parents are too vengeful or mean or lazy to let them see them: it would be understandable if they claimed legal rights.

All the same, even if there were a law enforcing grandparents’ rights, who is to say they would be any better off as a result than fathers are today? Divorced fathers do have legal rights of access to their children, often laid down in legally binding agreements, yet these are often broken by their ex-wives, deliberately and sometimes dishonestly. If the law, through repeated court hearings, cannot uphold fathers’ rights, there is little hope for grandparents. And if there is any solution to this intractable problem, this new report is not it or anything close to it.

However, at least Norgrove does not recommend the usual misguided solution of creating meaningless, unenforceable new rights. My mother-in-law would have been very cross with him.