When Brian and Jennifer Marrs married five years ago, their parents couldn't wait to be grandparents.
But the birth of the couple's daughter, Jenna, turned up the heat in a battle between two unlikely but fierce opponents: in one corner, Brian's mom, Virginia, and in the other, Jennifer's mom, Marsha. It's a grandma battle royal.
"My mom is totally jealous over the time that his mom spends with Jenna," Jennifer said. "She even knows, to the day, how many days she spent with Jenna, and how many days his mom has spent here with Jenna."
"It's just really frustrating that everything seems like a competition in a way," Brian said.
Both sets of grandparents live in the same West Virginia town, which is about two hours away from Jennifer, Brian and Jenna. But with each grandmother insisting on solo time with the baby, the logistics are maddening.
Jennifer's mother, Marsha, won't travel to their home, so the Marrses spend almost every weekend on the road, shuttling Jenna between the two grandmas.
"The burden of getting everywhere is left with us, and we have a new baby," Brian said. "We'd like to keep her home and not be on the road during the frenzy of holiday traveling."
Unraveling the Rivalry
Wanting to be the favorite grandparent is understandable, and it's actually more common than you might think.
Factors like the number of other grandchildren in the family, the distance between the grandparents and their grandchildren, and each family's financial status can intensify competitive feelings, which can become particularly strong around birthdays and holidays.
"I think the rivalry just stems from personalities," Brian said, adding that his mother-in-law even wants to know how much the other grandma spends on gifts for the baby.
"She's very competitive," he said. "I mean everything -- she measures it and compares."
Grandparents competing for affection can often strain their own kids' marriage.
Luckily, Jennifer and Brian have managed to keep a united front, but as baby Jenna grows up, they must make one critical change in how they handle their parents.
Dealing with grandparent rivalry isn't about being fair, because it's impossible to treat both sets of parents exactly the same. They, like rival siblings, want to be appreciated for what makes them unique, and treated accordingly.
Couples like Jennifer and Brian should have a frank discussion with their parents about their expectations, because unchecked resentment can hurt the parent-child relationship.
"The rivalry between the two parents should not exist," Jennifer said. "Neither side of the family sees that they are doing anything [wrong]. They see the other one as the problem."
Tips for Parents
Maintain a united front. The Marrses enjoy an unusual degree of solidarity when it comes to dealing with grandmother rivalry.
More often, there's conflict between mom and her mother-in-law, and dad is caught in the middle. When that's the case, it's critical to get on the same page.
Spend some time talking through hot-button issues, such as discipline, schedules and any holiday rituals you believe are non-negotiable before you approach the grandparents.
Set clear boundaries. Take grandma out to lunch, and in a nonconfrontational way, explain that the competition creates stress for you and your family, and that you need her help respecting the limits and boundaries you and your husband have established.
These limits could be anything from a no-violent-toys policy to a commitment to spend more time alone as a family this holiday season.
Remember, however, that even if you say, "Look, we don't want to overindulge the kids, so we'd appreciate your limiting the gifts to two or three max," grandparents are built to spoil their grandchildren. Lighten up a bit if your mom or your mom-in-law pushes back when it comes to cutting back on presents.
Don't play into the rivalry. Sometimes we inadvertently (or deliberately) fan the flames of rivalry by gossiping about our in-laws or our own parents behind their backs.
If your in-laws are driving you crazy, keep it to yourself or speak to your husband or wife. Don't share your feelings with your own parents -- especially if that's exactly what they want to hear.
Tips for Grandparents
Respect the rules. So you think your daughter-in-law is too strict, or your son is a pushover? Unless you believe they're doing your grandchild irreparable harm, keep your "constructive" criticism to yourself. And if they've established certain rules, such as no candy between meals or no TV after a certain hour, do your best to support them.
Develop special rituals with your grandchildren. Don't get hung up on who's giving the grandchildren the most elaborate gifts. What the kids will remember are the special rituals and routines you develop with them.
Children love repetition and predictability, so find games or stories or family photos that you can share whenever you're together. It's the quality time, not the quantity of stuff, that form the basis of loving relationships.