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Why Grandma is a Bully

February 23, 2009

Please don’t take offense at this headline, I have a lot of explaining to do. I came across the expression “why is grandma a bully?” from a very insightful ten-year-old farm kid. She had observed the pressures building in the farm home over the holidays and made this astute, honest observation when the smoke from the conflict had cleared.

I hear from many farm families who are earnestly seeking a gentle and gracious way to transfer the ownership of the farm or ranch to the next generation. The labour is mostly done by the younger generation, with some help from the founding dad. Grandma is unclear about her role, as she is not needed like she used to be.  She is still trying to figure out the hurt of being left out of her parent’s estate and inheritance. She vows not to repeat the same mistakes with her beloved family, but it looks like the cycle of disappointment and pushing with shoving will be repeated.

If Grandma is in her 70’s, she was a little girl in 1939 or l940’s. These were the war years, and the tail end of the depression. Her family knew scarcity, and so did she.

Decades later she is still hurt by the notion that boys are more important than girls, especially if there is a farm transfer to take place.  Years go by, and she finds her place on her own farm, a full partner with a hard-working husband, who honors her and treats her as an equal. Unfortunately, when her parents’ will is read, she is not included, or if she is, the amount that goes to her just doesn’t seem fair. She worked hard on the farm as a young girl before she married and moved away.

Grandma may be angry because she is hurt, and afraid that she may not have enough to live on until she is 90. People are living longer you know. She really could have used some cash for her post-farming days and decades. She operates from a sense of scarcity not sufficiency.  She doesn’t think she can safely talk to anyone about this because they might call her greedy. She knows at some level that the amount of money left to the children is not necessarily a true measure of the parent’s love for that child. Girls were expected to marry well and start their families independent of the farm. Boys who stayed on the farm were promised that “someday it would all be theirs” and they hoped that Dad and Mom would invoke that promise through the will and the estate plan.

My two aunts know this scenario. They were given an education. They trained as a nurse and a teacher and married. They were given some money, but not the opportunity to have land or farm assets that their brothers got. “That is just the way is was.” said my relative.

Bullies in the classroom have lots written about them these days. But where does a Grandma who is angry and acting like a bully go for help?

First, do some self-awareness work. Read books on anger and dealing with disappointment. Talk to a professional counselor or pastor who is trained to deal with loss. Engage a coach to facilitate a healthy, respectful family meeting where you can all talk about your expectations around the estate plan, succession plan, and lifestyle plan. Write lots of words on paper, vent, and burn them.  Journal your thoughts and reflect on what you are learning. Have tea with a woman you admire who has experienced similar disappointment, yet seems to have forgiven and moved on. Pray. God knows the hurt, and He offers you healing in your grief.

Get your financial affairs in order and have a reality check on what you really do need to have for an income stream to live well into your nineties. Take action. Engage a financial planner.

Ask forgiveness from your family who is just not sure why Grandma is so controlling, bossy, and mad. Go to the physician who specializes in wellness, and figure out if you have a medical reason for your nastiness, like a low-grade depression.
These things are not easy to admit to or write about. Many people are pretending at the curling rink that all is right with the world when it really isn’t. You don’t want to see the legacy of hurt over estate decisions repeat themselves in the next generation, so you know you need to take the bull by the horns and act.
Both Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall and US President Barack Obama have said that “Hope trumps fear.”

I sincerely desire that you will address Grandma with grace and curiosity, bathed in hope.  “Grandma, we’ve noticed that things have been hard for you lately, we’re curious if you would like to talk about it.”

Family farm history is a great teacher. If you know the stories of the past, they can help family and advisors set the context for some of the current behavior or fears.  We can’t read minds, but we can offer a safe place to share anger, fear, hurt, and frustration.  Come for tea Grandma. We need to talk. I’ll listen.
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Elaine Froese is a catalyst for courageous conversations, and a certified coach and mediator. Her work with farm families is confidential. The stories she tells are woven from real-life scenarios and you may recognize yourself in them. Many do.

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