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Help! My in-laws don’t like their grandchild

Everyone loves babies, right? Maybe not. Dr. Gail Saltz advises a woman whose standoffish in-laws are detached from her 6-month-old daughter.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

Q. My in-laws don’t seem interested in our 6-month-old daughter, who is their only grandchild. They are in their mid-50s, healthy, and always have time for their own hobbies and activities, but can't seem to spend more than an hour with our daughter every few weeks.

I have given them ample updated pictures of her and am always willing to fill them in on her new skills and developmental changes, but they don’t display her picture anywhere in their home and don’t seem to want to know what she is learning and experiencing. It’s as if she doesn’t really exist in their very structured, adult-oriented world.

I don’t know why my in-laws are exhibiting this detached behavior, and I am concerned that as my daughter grows she will begin to perceive their lack of interest and be hurt by it. Do you have any suggestions?

A. Hard as it may be to believe, not everyone is as gaga over babies as a first-time parent. I hear how painful it is for you to not get the response you would hope for on behalf of your daughter; however, what you are interpreting as their lack of love or interest could be more about their general lack of interest in babies.

Babies, adorable as they are, don’t really do a lot but eat, burp, spit up, etc. They aren’t infinitely interesting to everyone.

It is clear that you are taking your in-laws’ seeming standoffishness incredibly personally. I am sympathetic to that. When you have a baby, your world revolves around that little critter. It feels sad and unbelievable to you that everybody related to this new addition doesn’t feel the same.

But look at it from a more objective viewpoint. Your in-laws might be relieved they are “free” of children for the first time in decades, and glad they are at last able to indulge their grown-up interests without the constant demands of children, teenagers or college students.

They may simply not be interested in baby stuff. Maybe you are trying to saddle your in-laws with minutiae that is exciting to you but boring to them. They might grow impatient at the expectation they thrill to every detail of what the baby ate or when she rolled over, just as you might grow impatient at hearing every detail about how they picked out new wallpaper or had trouble finding a parking place.

Your in-laws might be more amenable to an activity, like accompanying your daughter to the zoo, where they can see her react to the animals. In other words, they might relate more to interaction as opposed to a report.

Is it that they have one picture of your daughter up at home or none? Maybe they just don’t put photos on the wall or devote a lot of shelf space to display. Maybe you have given them so many pictures they don’t know what to do with them. You don’t say how many “ample updated pictures” you have provided, but they may not be as aware of updating each baby change as you, her mother, is.

If you are hurt about this, however, there is nothing wrong with asking why they haven’t put any pictures up, whether they have too many pictures, would prefer just one computer photo now and again, etc. It might be easier for your husband to ask them. Understand, though, that you might not get the answer you seek. But a more open discussion of how this makes you and your husband feel, as well as an understanding of where they are coming from, would likely be very helpful, even if it doesn’t resolve in the way you wish it would.

Your concern is that your daughter will perceive her grandparents’ lack of interest and be hurt by it. This is unlikely to happen. Kids are focused on their immediate close circle — parents and siblings, along with friends and teachers.

It is wonderful to wish to build a nice relationship with the grandparents, but that isn’t the primary relationship in your child’s life. It’s not as though they are highly involved and are withdrawing their love. You are putting the cart before the horse. Your daughter won’t be old enough to notice for years. Once she is old enough, if they have maintained this stance, then she will not perceive them as her “inner circle” and so not be really pained by their distance.

In fact, in the coming years, she won’t notice at all, unless you make it clear to her that she should be hurt, or unless her grandparents are actively dismissive toward her, neither of which sounds the case. They can love her without smothering her.

Some people enjoy older children more than they enjoy younger ones. So it’s possible your in-laws are not so excited to sit around holding an infant with a soggy diaper, but will be great with your daughter when she is old enough to talk.

Here’s another point, that really may be what is going on, that has nothing to do with your daughter. Some people have trouble with aging. The whole idea of getting old is terrifying to them; they equate it with sickness, decrepitude and death. Becoming a grandparent means “old” to them. They are afraid to be too acknowledging of a grandchild’s presence because they are reluctant to embrace the role of “elderly” grandparents, even though having a grandchild doesn’t make them any older than they actually are.

You could gently broach the subject by asking if there is something about the role of grandparent that is hard for them. They themselves may not even be aware of this. I would bring this up because if this is the underlying reason, it will keep you both from missing out on what can be a truly wonderful, mutually gratifying relationship for all.

Dr. Gail’s Bottom Line: First-time parents, when bumping up against unenthusiastic grandparents, should try to figure out if it’s fear of being “old” or difficulty relating to babies.

Dr. Gail Saltz is a psychiatrist with New York Presbyterian Hospital and a regular contributor to TODAY. Her latest book is “Anatomy of a Secret Life: The Psychology of Living a Lie.” She is also the author of “Amazing You! Getting Smart About Your Private Parts,” which helps parents deal with preschoolers’ questions about sex and reproduction. Her first book, “Becoming Real: Overcoming the Stories We Tell Ourselves That Hold Us Back,” was published in 2004 by Riverhead Books. It is now available in a paperback version. For more information, you can visit her Web site, .