"Watching bad parents become great grandparents is a strange type of grief"
One woman’s account of the dilemma many face, but few would own up to
It’s the kind of question that’s likely to be on many people’s minds, but few are able to say it out loud. How does someone go from being a lousy parent to suddenly becoming a wonderful grandparent? Are we even allowed to say our parents were ‘bad’ at their job?
People talk about the natural maternal and paternal instincts that kick in after you become a parent. But what if, for some people, those instincts can’t go past first gear?
Nabiya Sultan (37) watched her bad parents become great grandparents to her two children and often wondered about this. Researchers have theorised that we go through a “U-bend” in life — men and women reported increased happiness until the age of 30, which takes a big dip during midlife. It’s after age 65 that our happiness starts to peak again. It could be the shift of responsibilities as we get older, post-retirement life, or new wisdom and perspective that we gain from experiences that change how we view relationships.
The high pressure and work stress that had mom travelling across the country and lashing out when she was at home melts away, and her focus shifts to valuing personal relationships instead. With grandchildren, many people see a fresh start, a chance to get it right. Parent-adult child relationships are complex, more so than when you’re a hormonal teenager, and you think your dad is nothing but the all-seeing thanedar that monitors your ins and outs of the house.
Sultan has her own theories as she looks back at her childhood and relationships. This is her story.
Have you ever met a couple and thought, wow, these two should never have children? My parents are one of those couples. Half the time, it didn’t seem like they liked each other very much either. My younger brother and I grew used to their squabbling over the years. Whatever anger they didn’t show towards each other came out on us. Our father was a typical old-school travelling salesman. The days he’d be at home would be spent watching cricket in the study no one else dared to enter, arguing with mom, or pulling off his chappal to throw at one of his children. My mother played rummy with her friends, snuck brandy into her tea when she thought no one was looking, and let out deep sighs over her regret of having two children – one would have been more cost-effective.
My brother and I learned to care for ourselves, and our parents mainly seemed happy that the load was off their backs. But they had big plans for our futures. My brother was shipped off to a boarding school after 6th standard and then straight to a university abroad. I yearned for any sign of happiness, appreciation or validation through school achievements. Still, their emotional unavailability was something I grew accustomed to.
I fought hard to go to college when they wanted to marry me off. I took part-time jobs and tutored neighbourhood kids to make some money to pay for my own way.
I saw girls crying about being away from their homes and parents when moving into the college hostel, but I don’t think I got homesick much. Life moved on, and I met the love of my life at my first job. My parents weren’t pleased that he wasn’t of our faith, but his family’s affluence was a salve for their hurt sentiments.
My parents aren’t monsters. I think some people get married and have children to fulfil a life milestone without thinking much about what comes after that. With therapy and a great support system now, I’ve come to accept that they are who they are and, in their own way, try to do what they can. Raising my brother and me was probably tricky. I wasn’t a difficult child, but perhaps I wasn’t easy either.
People still find it odd that I don’t remember much from the day I gave birth. My first pregnancy was difficult. I was not the glowy delight that people in my family said I would be; instead I mainly dealt with the not-so-wonderful ways pregnancy changes your body. The c-section and recovery were all the more difficult. One of the few things I remember very clearly is waking up one day in the hospital after the procedure and seeing my mother holding my firstborn, my father beside her, as they gazed down at her with the biggest smiles on their faces. That was five years ago. I gave birth to my second child nine months ago and saw that same joy on their faces in the hospital. I couldn’t remember the last time they looked at me with such glee.
I have watched my bad parents become great grandparents to my two girls. It fills me with warmth, watching my father rock my younger one to sleep as he hums his favourite ghazals. Every Sunday, they come to my house with home-cooked food, smiles and cheer, as my older daughter runs to them. I see their arms and hearts open to embrace every first my children have – steps, words, or solid food – as well as their stumbles.
My husband’s parents live in a different city. My parents moved in with us briefly for safety when the pandemic hit. They stepped into the caregiver role, sharing a load of responsibility with my husband and me as we struggled with working from home and looking after our daughter. Every time she fell, my mom would run to her, sweep her up into her arms, and give her a soothing pat on her back. Mealtimes would be filled with songs as mom made heart-shaped parathas slathered in ghee for her granddaughter.
It’s a strange kind of grief when you watch bad parents become great grandparents. You can’t help but wonder whether they had this in them all along. The willingness to be loving, open, supportive, and affectionate. Was there something wrong with me?
I think bad parents become good grandparents because they don’t have to deal with the stress of disciplining, childcare responsibility, late-night crying, and problems at school. That’s for the parents to handle, while the role of grandparents is different.
Sometimes I get jealous. It’s ridiculous. When my father says shabaash bitiya to my daughter after admiring one of her artworks, or my mother puts her arm around her grandchild while they take their afternoon naps together. It’s everything I wanted as a child.
When I bring this up with my husband, he tells me that any bitterness I have, I should set aside and forgive them. What they didn’t do for me, they are now doing for my children. What’s the problem, then? If they have changed, then I should too. There’s no point dwelling on the past.
I’ve tried to speak to my parents about it, but they do what most people of that generation do. Hush it away with the wave of a hand as if that wipes away years of emotional neglect. “It’s not easy. There’s no guidebook for parenting. Now you’re a parent. You’ll also learn.” I’ve heard versions of this sentiment from my parents, friends, and other close family members I’ve opened up to.
But two things can be true at the same time. My parents failed me, but they are lovely to my children. They are everything I could ever have wanted my kids to have in their nana and nani. I know that if there is a problem tomorrow and I pick up the phone to call them, they’d drop everything and come running in a heartbeat. I will forever be grateful for that. But it still hurts that this wonderful version of them is not something I could have experienced in my formative years.
I can be upset and happy. I know getting some acknowledgement from my parents that they let me down would ease my resentment, but I’m not going to hold my breath. Maybe time does heal all wounds, or perhaps, we get used to the scar tissue. I’m focusing my energy on breaking the cycle and being the parent I wish I had growing up. Rather, what my children need me to be. Becoming grandparents hasn’t transformed them into good parents as well. But I love them. Every minute they spend together creates happy memories for my kids, which matters most to me.
This is an anonymous personal account, as told to Sara Hussain.