Premium

'We haven't seen our grandchildren for 14 years - our daughter-in-law cut us out of their lives'

'We haven't seen our grandchildren for 14 years - our daughter-in-law cut us out of their lives'
‘As far as we know, our daughter could have told the children we are dead’ Alan and Hannah Credit: Alice Zoo

Hannah and Alan* haven’t seen their grandchildren for many years. There are now one million children in the UK who are being denied contact with their grandparents, often because of a daughter-in-law’s parental agenda. Sally Williams reports on the rise and rise of fractured families

'How many grandchildren do you have?’ is a casual question for most grandparents, but for John* and Kate it is a very painful one. Kate’s response is to gloss over the facts. But John will give the real answer, ‘We have three grandchildren, but we haven’t seen our oldest two for 14 years, even though they only live 10 minutes away. Our daughter-in-law has cut us out of our grandchildren’s lives. At first we tried writing and calling but it was too upsetting, so now we’ve given up.’

John admits that most people will assume it’s their fault – ‘I know I would.’

The couple are still bewildered by how it happened. ‘We once wrote to our son and daughter-in-law and said, “What is it we’ve done wrong?”’ says Kate. ‘And they replied, “That’s exactly your problem. You don’t know what you’ve done wrong.”’ 

What surprises them now is how normal life once was. John, 76, worked as a sales rep, Kate, 74, as a secretary. They had three children: Michael, 49, David, 47, and Clare, 37.

‘It wasn’t the Waltons,’ says Kate, ‘but we got on.’

In 1996, Michael married Kirsty.

‘We liked her,’ says Kate. But without them really noticing it, Kirsty started to pull back from the family. ‘She’d say she couldn’t come around for supper because she had things to do at home. Michael would come on his own. But we never fell out.’

The turning point was the arrival of Nell in 2002. It was a happy time, but Kate and John had other worries. Their daughter Clare, then in her early 20s, was in hospital with viral meningitis. The conflicting claims on their attention came to form the core of their daughter-in-law’s complaint – ‘that we didn’t care’. They know this because Kirsty ‘let rip’ with an inventory of grievances when Nell was barely four weeks old.

‘We found out that she’d kept a diary of everything we’d said or done that she took exception to,’ Kate explains. Small things. For instance, Kate promised to buy a changing mat, but didn’t get around to it before Nell was born. ‘I didn’t attach much importance to it,’ she says. ‘It’s so ludicrous, so trivial. But she raked up things from the past –we hadn’t done this, hadn’t done that.’

‘We know our grandchildren’s names and when their birthdays are – but that’s it’ John and Kate Credit:  Alice Zoo

Hadn’t helped them out financially. (‘A lie,’ says Kate, ‘we’d given them a few thousand pounds for a deposit for the flat.) Hadn’t told their daughter-in-law what they wanted to be called – Grandma and Grandpa or Nanny and Pap. ‘This being our first grandchild, we hadn’t thought about it. I said, “Whatever you like.” But that was interpreted as us not caring.’

Bit by bit they were shut out of their granddaughter’s life. When they asked if they could see the baby, Kirsty said she was asleep, or they were busy, or that Michael would phone them.

‘Michael used to bring her here once every month or so, but he’d soon be looking at his watch. He had to get back,’ says John.

By the time their grandson was born in 2005, when Nell was three, relations were so soured that they have only seen him twice in his life: once at a party to celebrate his arrival and once when he was five months old. He is now 13. Their last memory of Nell, 16, is as a three-year-old. 

The fallout has been dramatic. Never seeing the grandchildren is bad enough, but they don’t know their likes, dislikes, or even what they look like. ‘We know their names and their birthdays and that’s it,’ says John.

They say that David and Clare are ‘disgusted’ with their brother, and that while they all see each other regularly – somewhat unexpectedly the whole family meets secretly every six weeks or so – John and Kate avoid mentioning the things that should be discussed, such as why they haven’t been allowed to see their grandchildren for nearly 14 years and how hurt and furious this makes them feel. When they do try to confront Michael, he ‘puts his head down and it goes quiet for 30 seconds and then the subject is changed and we get on with the evening’, says John.

‘Now, with Facebook, people say they’ve seen photos of my grandchildren, and someone said to me, “Do you want me to show you pictures?” I said, “No.” I don’t see the point in torturing myself,’ says Kate. 

‘We stopped sending birthday cards and birthday money when our granddaughter was about four,’ she says. ‘But we have left money for them in our will. If the opportunity ever arose, we would want them to know that we always wanted to see them. This was not our doing.’ 

It is estimated that around one million children in the UK are denied contact with their grandparents. Reasons include family quarrels or being shut out after a divorce or separation. ‘Often the situation begins before birth. A falling out becomes increasingly strained, and by the time grandchildren come along, the distance seems irreparable,’ says Lara Crisp, editor of online community Gransnet.

Fourteen per cent of its users are estranged from grandchildren, according to a recent survey.

The stories recounted on the site are heartbreaking. ‘I have gone from watching my grandchildren being born, and spending nearly every day with them to nothing… this feels like a bereavement. I can’t sleep, eat or stop crying,’ says one.

Grandparents who are pushed away soon find out they have no legal rights to see their grandchild. They can apply for a court order seeking contact. But this is expensive (anything up to £30,000) and there’s no guarantee they’ll win.

‘Grandparents have to jump over two hurdles,’ says Vanessa Lloyd Platt, a divorce and family lawyer. ‘UK law [apart from in Scotland] demands that grandparents have to apply for leave [of the court] first’ – in other words they must produce ‘evidence’ of a relationship with the child, such as photos – ‘and if the court believes contact is in the grandchild’s interest, they will allow the grandparents to apply for a child arrangement order.’

Even if an order is granted, enforcing it can be a problem. ‘There are penalties,’ Lloyd Platt explains, ‘but what grandparent is going to put their own children in prison if they fail to comply?’

Grandparents in the UK are particularly sidelined. ‘In virtually every other country in the world, grandparents have the right to apply to see their grandchildren,’ says Lloyd Platt.

Bereft grandparents can also find they have nowhere to go with their grief. But this is changing. A number of organisations have sprung up in recent years that offer support and are lobbying for change.

‘We are all in the same situation,’ says Lorraine Bushell, coordinator of the Hendon Grandparents Group, which has 40 members and meets every six weeks. ‘We listen, share, help. People can tell us their story without fear of criticism.’

Jane Jackson runs the Bristol Grandparents Support Group, and was denied contact with her granddaughter when she was seven. ‘I’ll never forget holding her in my arms just after she was born,’ she told the Telegraph. ‘It was such a magical moment. She was my son’s daughter, my first grandchild, and we quickly became very close. However, when she was seven my son separated from her mother and contact stopped. It was like a living bereavement. I thought about her every day.’

Jackson wrote to her local paper, explaining her situation, and several grandparents got in touch. She started her group and has since been contacted by over 7,000 grandparents.

Not only has ‘grandparent estrangement’ been taken up by a network of groups across the country, it has begun to draw political attention.

Last May, the issue was debated in Parliament after Dame Esther Rantzen, patron of the Bristol group, brought the subject to the attention of MP Nigel Huddleston in 2017. The movement is calling for an amendment to the Children Act to include a child’s right to have a close relationship with members of their extended family after family conflict, or parents splitting up.

The issue will be further discussed at Grandparents’ Action Day, organised by Bushell, in Westminster on 4 September. Speakers will include Huddleston, Rantzen and Lloyd Platt.

Jane Jackson lost contact with her granddaughter when she was seven years old.   Credit: Courtesy of Jane Jackson

Unusually, for Hannah, 69, and Alan, 70, the source of their anguish is not their son’s partner – daughters-in-law are often blamed for problems. The tragedy for the couple is that the person shunning them is their own daughter. Hannah, a retired welfare officer, and Alan, a taxi driver, live in north London and have two children, Stephen, 45, and Naomi, 43.

The children grew up in a family that was strict but loving. Hannah had a hard childhood with a cold, volatile mother and she was determined to do things differently. She says that of course she had arguments with her daughter, but mainly about not doing chores, or wearing inappropriate clothes. When Naomi was in her late teens, she started to see a boy who, although helpful and polite, was not Jewish.

Hannah and Alan are not devout, but religion played an important part in their life when the children were young. They kept Jewish holidays and rituals, such as a family dinner every Friday evening, and sent their children to Jewish schools.

‘We weren’t happy with the boyfriend, but we accepted him,’ says Hannah. Tragically, Naomi had only been with him for a year when he died of cancer. He was 21. Naomi had been devoted. ‘She would stay in the hospital day after day, and sleep on the floor right by his bed,’ says Hannah.

After his death, Naomi was vulnerable and in need of direction. She found it in Aish, a charity that aims to ‘inspire a deeper connection to Judaism’. One of the experiences on offer was a year-long, expenses-paid programme in Israel.

Naomi announced she was going to Jerusalem. She planned to stay a year, but stayed for two, celebrating her 21st birthday in Mea She’arim, one of the city’s oldest Jewish neighbourhoods. On her return she was transformed. ‘She laid down demands,’ says Hannah. She wanted the kitchen to be kosher, with separate dishes, utensils, pots and pans – one set for dairy and one set for meat. Hannah bought a new set of everything

‘She got more and more demanding,’ say her parents, and after 18 months she moved out of their home and in with other orthodox Jewish women.

In the summer of 2003, she announced she was to marry Harold, who was from a close-knit, ultra-orthodox family. They had a big orthodox wedding barely four months later. 

The morning after the wedding, Naomi walked into the hotel reception where her parents were waiting to say goodbye. She had on a wig and a loose dress that covered her elbows and knees. Hannah says she wasn’t surprised. ‘I have orthodox Jews in my family. I knew what to expect.’ What confused them was their daughter’s attitude: she was offhand and remote. ‘It was obvious she didn’t want to see us,’ says Hannah.

‘She didn’t want us to go to her flat, didn’t want any phone calls,’ says Alan. Eventually, a mediator arranged a meeting in a rabbi’s house in north London. The couple were excited to see their daughter again. But, as she walked in, Hannah realised, with a stab of pain, that Naomi was pregnant. ‘And I’d been shut out.’

With the guidance of a therapist and a rabbi, both parties were encouraged to come to some agreement about how and when to meet up. ‘We didn’t want to lose our daughter,’ says Alan. The mediation worked and what followed was a period Hannah and Alan now refer to as wonderful, a golden time. They got to look after baby Eve and then also Avi – because Naomi got pregnant again after only three months.

They worked hard to keep their daughter happy. Hannah served only strictly kosher food, either bought in a deli, or cooked in the microwave, which is easier to keep kosher than the oven. They babysat at short notice and had the children to stay for up to a week at a time. Hannah baked biscuits, made papier-mâché masks and didn’t care if paint sploshed on the kitchen floor. ‘We loved it, loved every second of it and that is what they’ve taken away from us,’ says Alan.

Lara Crisp, editor of Gransnet Credit: Courtesy of Lara Crisp

The golden period came to an end after 18 months. ‘Naomi suddenly said we couldn’t see the children because they might mix with non-Jewish people,’ Hannah explains. It came to a head at a dinner Hannah and Alan had planned to celebrate paying off their mortgage. Naomi called and said they couldn’t come. ‘Our son’s girlfriend isn’t Jewish,’ says Hannah. 

Hannah last saw her daughter and her grandchildren in March 2008, though Alan had a brief but bruising meeting in 2012. Word is that their daughter now has four children. ‘I’ve tried letters, texts and intervention through a dozen different rabbis,’ says Alan. ‘We’ve lost them, and his [Harold’s] parents have got them,’ he says. ‘As far as we know, she could have told the children we are dead.

‘I used to sit in the playpen with them, crawl under the table with them and I loved it,’ he continues. ‘My favourite picture is the last one I took – both of them just bathed, sat on the floor wrapped up in towels.’ He still has it on his phone. ‘I wanted to show them the world and teach them things,’ says Hannah, ‘tell them how things used to be and what it was like when I was a kid so that they know where they came from.’

‘You go to the zoo, walk in the park, meet friends, and I see grandchildren wherever I go and it hurts, it hurts all the time,’ says Hannah. The big hope for estranged grandparents is that their grandchildren will come looking for them when they are 18. ‘That’s what we’re banking on,’ says Alan. ‘That’s the last straw to hold on to.’

But Frances, 58, shows the future can bring surprises. She was cut off by both her daughters in the summer of 2016 – a two-pronged attack that was all the more devastating as Frances had looked after their children – four in all – at her house for six years. Each grandchild had a bedroom, plus toys and books, and a garden with swings.

‘But when her younger daughter’s marriage started to fall apart and Frances helped find a place for her son-in-law to rent – ‘He’s a good dad and I was frightened of him losing contact with the children’ – Frances’s concern was seen as meddling. ‘My daughter said I was interfering and to get out of her life and not to contact her again. My older daughter decided to support her sister and stopped talking to me as well.’

Frances begged, ‘absolutely humiliated myself. I felt as if I’d been bereaved and was worried my grandchildren wouldn’t understand why I wasn’t there any more.’ But the girls cast their mother out. ‘My elder daughter said, “You need to make a life for yourself. You are controlling.”

‘I was totally shocked, but it brought me to my senses. I told my husband. I thought he would be furious, but he just said, “Well, she’s got a point.”’ She’s since thought more deeply about what happened and has seen a therapist. ‘It took me until about six months ago to realise that perhaps I was too much at the centre of their lives.’ Her care had become oppressive.

About two years passed before her older daughter texted and asked her to go for coffee. That was nearly a year ago and she now sees two of her grandchildren every Wednesday. She picks them up from school, takes them to riding lessons and drops them back at school in the morning. ‘Then my younger daughter got in touch to ask if I would have her children on a Monday night. It’s early days, but sometimes it does work itself out, even when you think it never will.’

‘Some people call this denial of contact emotional abuse,’ says Penelope Young, coordinator and founder of Worcestershire Grandparents Support Group. ‘Personally, I was lucky enough to grow up with both my grandmothers, who were an invaluable source of stability and support. Grandparents have a great deal to offer.’ 

*Not their real names. 

Should grandparents have a legal right to see their grandchildren? Join the debate in the comments section below and in the Telegraph Family Facebook group.