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I thought I had my life organized. Then I became a grandparent.
The Things Nobody Talks About
My first thought when my daughter told me she was expecting my first grandchild was, Oh no, someone else for me to take care of. I was dismayed by this ungrandmotherly thought, but there it was. Not that I didn't want to be a grandma, but the timing was not what I would have planned.
My daughter, Carrie, and her husband were newly married and not yet established in careers. I was enjoying the relative freedom of having grown children, up and out and living their own lives, especially enjoying it because of my strong sense of responsibility for others, an attribute I ascribe largely to my being a first child. Now, like it or not, I was handed a new caretaking responsibility with a new set of demands. Besides, grandmothers were old, not like me. I was fifty-three, with a busy career and a joyful, new marriage after my widowhood at age fifty. But now, ready or not, I had a new role. I kept my thoughts to myself. It doesn't matter if you are eager for this new role or a bit wary, it happens anyway.
We have no choice in our grandparenthood, even though it profoundly affects the rest of our lives. We're accustomed to having some measure of control and choice over matters that affect our lives. We choose our careers, our spouses and where we'll live. We have the option of parenthood, but our grandparenthood is not up to us.
For some, this happy event may come too soon or too late. When grandparenthood arrives early in your thirties or forties, it does not coincide with the expected timetable and can be jarring. You are pushed into a senior role prematurely. A grandchild arriving when you're in your seventies or eighties will challenge your physical stamina, limiting your energy for active involvement. Others may find that the baby's arrival complicates their life by giving rise to new, nagging worries, concerns about the health of the new parents and child, financial problems, the stability of the parents' relationship or how they're raising the child.
When told of her married daughter Emma's pregnancy, Aurora's lip began to tremble. "Emma, it's not the point . . . you shouldn't have . . . ," she said, suddenly on the verge of tears. "What's the point then?" Emma said. "Mee!" Aurora cried. "Don't you see? My life is not settled. Me! Who will I ever . . . get now? What man would want a grandmother? If you could . . . have waited . . . then I might have . . . got somebody."
Later Emma said to her mother, "You're not going to lose your suitors." Aurora's expression was once again a little bemused. "I'm not sure that's why I cried. The shock may have made me jealous, for all I know. I always meant to have more children myself. . . . "
Terms of Endearment, Larry McMurtry
The Age Thing
Some new grandparents may be surprised by sadness or depression, for the advent of grandparenthood confronts them with their own aging. Becoming a grandparent is one more of life's events that wakes us up to our age and where we are on the continuum of life. Like it or not, it moves us along and makes us aware that we are advancing on life's journey. It is a sobering reminder that we are, or are almost, part of the oldest surviving generation. We can number our remaining years. This usually gives rise to a review of our lives, our successes and failures. Take this as an opportunity to rethink priorities. What is worth doing in our remaining years? Grandparenting should rank high on the list.
Our active lives may defy the stereotypical images of the gray-haired grandparent in a rocking chair, but our new status is still a shock. It's an assault to our self-image, like finding our first gray hair or being offered the senior discount.
I'll never forget the first time a salesperson at a Danish bakery in Solvang interrupted my reverie over the chocolate delight I was purchasing to inquire if I would like the senior discount. My first thought was, Oh, I'm not old enough, but on second thought I figured a discount is a discount, so I gulped and agreed. Feeling young and energetic didn't count. You know, I still can't believe I look like a senior. I actually expect to be challenged to show my ID when I request a senior ticket.
As a psychotherapist, I expect and understand the complexity of the feelings stirred by becoming a grandparent as part of being human. Somehow, though, the mixed feelings of joy and trepidation about something as sacred as grandparenthood can make you feel ashamed and want to keep them to yourself. I urge you not to be afraid to admit these contradictory feelings to yourself. The best way to handle the discomfort or shame of mixed feelings is by accepting them as a normal part of life, not by fearing and burying them. Bring them into the open by talking about them. You are not alone. Other grandparents have these thoughts, too.
In fact, you can be pretty certain your adult children have mixed feelings of their own. At times, your children can't help but feel overwhelmed or trapped by the endless demands of parenthood and wish to escape. By remembering the freedom you relinquished to child raising and the resources you spent to support the family, you will find it easy to understand that some misgivings are natural.
Our life choices are often accompanied by a sense of lost possibilities. Acknowledging and accepting mixed feelings without judgment diminishes their power to interfere with our relationships and allows us to give our love and care freely. We become more comfortable in our new role and gain insight into the feelings of others. Becoming a grandparent is yet another reminder that life is bittersweet.
Crossing the Threshold
As my daughter grew larger, the happy thoughts of grandparenting grew on me. I began to get used to the idea, relishing my fantasies about the baby and thoroughly enjoying my daughter's interest in talking to me about pregnancy and parenthood. Although my trepidation was not completely assuaged, I was excited. With the reality of a new baby on the way, I began knitting a sweater and lingering in baby shops. The clincher was meeting the baby, a healthy little girl who arrived three weeks early while I was out of town. I couldn't return to Los Angeles fast enough. Driving to Santa Barbara, I could hardly contain my excitement as we rushed to the hospital.
There she was, Caitlin Lilly. The Lilly is after me. Carrie, my little girl, was holding her little girl. At that moment I crossed the threshold of grandparenthood, a crossing I'll never forget.
I feel a bit uncertain holding this tiny baby. She looks so fragile. I look for familiar features . . . her mouth, ears, eyes, the shape of her face. Whom does she resemble? Could that be my father's chin? Are those my mother's eyes or, maybe, even mine? It seems easier to think about her looks in terms of others than of myself. Are her long fingers like her father's? Yes.
Reluctantly I recognize that I must share her with the "other side." They, too, have a claim on her. I feel possessive. She's minemy grandchild. I'm her grandma. Although she has no idea who I am, she will. I will see to that. In her I see my history carried forward. The experiences of my ancestors are now stored in her, and she doesn't even know it . . . or me. She is the future. She will carry the genetic thread forward, beyond me, beyond my time. This is breath-stopping. It is life, past, present and future all rolled into one six-pound, twelve-ounce person. It is difficult to give words to my feelings. A wave of time and emotion is washing over me. It is heady. I ask myself, "What can I do here? What is my place in her life?" I want to do so much. I want her to have everything . . . everything good and beautiful, only kindness and warmth and a pony. Yes, she must have a pony as her mother did. May she be blessed with a strong body and mind in order to savor life, a fine education, a peaceful world. She will not have to escape the pogroms of Eastern Europe as her great-grandfather, my father, did.
While I think of all I want for her, how I will guard the history she holds, how I will nurture all of the possibilities for the future she possesses, how I will protect her and keep her safe, her father approaches. It is time for her to be fed. An abrupt reminder that she is not mine, that it is not my will or vision that prevails. I must entrust her to them, my daughter and son-in-law, lovely children with no experience. How will they know what to do? They are going to raise this baby? This precious bundle who holds the key to continuity in my life, the link to my past and future? How can that be? Is that safe? Smiling, he takes her from me. I smile, too, to cover up my sense of loss. She is my link. But she is not mine. I must learn to share. But I will find a way to make my mark. I will put my two cents in. She will know she has a Grandma Lilly. She will have a wonderful life. I am resolved. But how do I do it?
Jack Lemmon commenting on the birth of his first grandchild: "I thought I was in total control. I became insane. I was sure the baby's long fingers meant an absolutely brilliant career as a concert pianist. In the birthing room they were doing Lamaze together. The nurse looked at me and decided she'd better take my blood pressure. It was 195 over 86, which set off an alarm, because it's normally 125 over 70."
How to Do It
Our role as a parent never ends, but it changes radically. Parenting our children and grandparenting our children's children are not the same. For one thing, our role as a grandparent is not as clearly defined as our parenting role. It's not a daily demand, relieving us of the mundane responsibilities for meals or bedtime, getting to school on time or signed up for Little League. We don't have to answer those incessant questions like, "What should I do?" or, "Do I have to take a bath?" or, "Can I have a sleep-over at Ann's?" The dilemmas inherent in parental decisions around discipline or health or school, to name a few, are not ours. Grandparents have the freedom to choose how much time to devote to the family. Each of us determines the amount of our involvement.
Because the extent of our grandparenting is optional, we must define our own role. That definition shapes our actions and the nature of our involvement. On becoming a grandparent we are immediately faced with such questions as:
How to do it? That is the question. How do grandparents establish close relationships with their grandchildren? How do we contribute to their life experience in ways that make a difference? How do we shift gears from parent to grandparent?
Contrary to the popular myth, grandparenting does not come completely naturally, any more than parenting did. It's not always reliable to count on your instincts. Although tuning in to our gut responses is invaluable in human relationships, doing what comes naturally may not always be best. We need to think before we act. Think about the effect our responses may have on our family relationships and needs. This does not rule out spontaneity. By adopting a thoughtful attitude, however, we will make it more certain that our words and deeds are providing the support that is needed and that they will enhance our relationships. Just a simple comment like, "Oh, her little feet are cold," might be taken as criticism by new parents.
An example of how uncharted grandparenting remains is the call I received from my friend Ethel. She, a take-charge executive, the first female vice-president of a major entertainment corporation, was in a panic. Concerned about her new granddaughter's health, she couldn't figure out how to talk to her son and daughter-in-law in a supportive way without interfering. Here she was, a pro at handling emergencies and solving problems, but grandparenting had her stymied. Her dismay was evident as she wailed, "I thought grandparenting was supposed to come naturally." This is one of the myths that causes us to feel inadequate.
My friend had some legitimate concerns. Her granddaughter was not thriving. Something was wrong. Ethel hesitated to voice her alarm, since she did not want to alienate her children by appearing to be critical. I suggested that she share her concerns with her children. When this is done thoughtfully, without alarm or judgment, it can be helpful. "The baby does seem listless and her appetite is poor. This is cause for concern. I'd check this out with the doctor if I were you." Then, having stated your opinion, leave the rest to the parents. Ethel had the satisfaction of expressing her views. Her manner was low key to avoid upsetting the parents. Actually, her statement was helpful. It validated the parents' concerns and prompted them to action. When we do express our views we must be ready to let go of the outcome. The rest is up to the parents.
After much deliberation, I recently shared my concern that two-and-a-half-year-old Harrison's unusually high activity level might be hyperactivity or ADD (attention deficit disorder), as it is now known. His parents disagreed.
I explained a child's need to focus on activities and complete tasks in order to develop a sense of competence and self-esteem. This is a problem for hyperactive kids. I suggested that Harrison would benefit from special attention in these areas.
Now when I'm told of Harrison's exhausting, nonstop behavior, I am sympathetic, but I do not mention ADD. What purpose would it serve? Whatever it's called, this child is a handfuladorable, loving, smart and exhausting. My input is confined to bringing toys, blocks and books, for example, activities that might capture his attention and help him to focus. I enjoy him and focus on creatively thinking of activities that might occupy him. Water play is a winner. When we're together I try to help him focus and complete activities. I've defined my role as that of supporter and creative influence but clearly not in charge. It's not always easy and, yes, I do worry. The good news? His attention span is growing. Maybe I am wrong.
Grandparenthood is new territory. We have some learning to do. We are not in charge of the parents or the parenting. Our relationship to them has changed. Pitfalls will be avoided by giving thought to the effect of our actions or responses.
Along the way, we grandparents learn the value of exercising an incredible amount of tact. We regularly bite our tongues and zip our lips. Sound like a tall order? You can do it. It's just like everything else in life: you reap what you sow. This book is my guarantee that it's absolutely worth it. I offer you my ideas and my encouragement to "go for it."
As parents we are offered the experience of two childhoods, our own and that of our children. As grandparents we have a third chance to experience "the first great wonder at the world," childhood's view. This is a gift to us that can be fully received by opening ourselves to its many possibilities.
Opening ourselves to the wonder of childhood means entering the child's world. By getting in touch with our "child within," we can free ourselves and our imagination. Can we allow ourselves to be playful or silly? Can we stop to take the time to watch the shapes in the clouds and create stories from our mind's eye? Can we nurture our curiosity? To the child, the world is endlessly fascinating.
Among the most valuable but least appreciated experiences grandparenthood can provide are the opportunities it offers for exploring, re-living and resolving one's own childhood problems in the context of one's relationship with one's grandchild.
I'll never forget what a little five-year-old patient told me. We were enjoying an activity together when I spontaneously exclaimed, "I'm having so much fun!" She looked at me quizzically and responded, "Grownups aren't supposed to have fun." How many of us are bound by this belief? What keeps us from letting go and having fun? Can we shake off the self-imposed restrictions that keep us from joy and wonder?
Two-and-a-half-year-old Harrison wanted to use the camera. He kept saying, "I want to hide." I finally figured out that when I'm taking a photo the camera is in front of my face as if I were hiding. It made perfect sense.
One day as Caitie and I entered the zoo she went running and skipping ahead of me. She turned and called, "Come on, Grandma!" I answered by running and skipping, too. As I skipped, I had a thought of recognition, I remember how I used to do this. For the moment I experienced the sense of freedom and pure joy of my childhood. Caitie and I were sharing an experience that linked us together. Only later did I imagine how silly I must have looked to any onlooker.
(c)1997. All rights reserved. Reprinted from The Essential Grandparent by Lillian Carson. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the written permission of the publisher. Publisher: Health Communications, Inc., 3201 SW 15th Street, Deerfield Beach, FL 33442.