by Dr. Ruth Westheimer, Dr. Steven Kaplan

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First published in 1998. Routledge is an imprint of Taylor & Francis, an informa company.


First published in 1998. Routledge is an imprint of Taylor & Francis, an informa company.

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Taylor & Francis
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Ready or Not . . .

Take a deep cleansing breath and don't push! That's probably one of the things your daughter or daughter-in-law is being told in preparation for childbirth. It's not bad advice for prospective grandparents as well!

Although there are lots of classes preparing new parents for childbirth, similar frameworks for expectant grandparents are (pardon the expression) in their infancy and are not available in most communities. Whether you're bursting with excitement or simply shocked, you'd better start preparing yourself for life's next great transition: grandparenthood.

If things seem totally out of control, that's probably because they are. You probably decided when you wanted to marry and begin raising a family, but there's really very little that you can do regarding if and when you become a grandparent. It may happen well before you expected or only after years of anticipation. Pressuring your children to marry and make you a grandparent doesn't seem to have much effect. But if you're reading this book, you probably have a grandchild or at least one on the way.

Becoming a grandparent, like any other new stage in our lives, produces a wide variety of reactions. You may be thrilled or dismayed, surprised or relieved. Whatever your initial response to impending grandparenthood, you'd better prepare yourself for the experience of a lifetime!

But I'm Not Ready!

I was already sixty-two when I became a grandmother for the first time, and I was thrilled with my new status. I'm sure it was one of the factors that eventually led me to stop dyeing my hair. I don't mind looking like a grandmother. However, I know that not everyone is quite so excited at the prospect of becoming a grandparent.

'I'm too young to be a grandparent!' I hear you cry.

One of my favorite episodes in the popular 1980s family program 'The Cosby Show' concerns the birth of their first grandchild. Mrs. Huxtable (actress Phylicia Rashad), an attractive and successful lawyer, was thrilled and deeply moved that her daughter had become a mother. But she clearly balked at being identified as a grandmother. Her dismay at being called 'Grandma' was joked about on several shows. Both she and her in-laws agreed that they were too young to be grandparents. At the time these episodes were filmed, Ms. Rashad had just turned 40, not an unheard-of age for a grandparent but probably somewhat younger than the character she played, a professional woman whose daughter had already graduated college. Her distress at being labeled a grandmother ('I look so much younger than my grandmother did!') is a feeling shared by many other women.

For reasons I think we all can understand, women often have a harder time than men with the image of grandparents as old people. However, this isn't always the case. Take Steve Martin's character in the recent film Father of the Bride II. He dyes his hair, starts frantically exercising, and generally turns his life upside down when he discovers that he's going to be a grandfather. Impending grandfatherhood can trigger a male crisis and make many a man feel as if his better days are behind him.

If the fact that you're about to become a grandparent pushes you to get into shape, I'm all for that. A physician-approved regimen of moderate exercise is highly recommended. Grandparenting is not for couch potatoes, and recent studies indicate that regular exercise has its benefits for all ages. But don't think that you're going to somehow turn back the clock, or that being in shape means that you're not really a grandparent. Contrary to some popular images, most grandparents are neither feeble nor old. Fifty percent of middle-aged adults (ages forty-five to fifty-nine) are grandparents.

Since people become grandparents at such different times in their lives (there's more variety here than there is for age of first marriage or age of first child), you may find yourself sharing an experience with people you've usually thought of as being of a different generation. Don't let that put you off. My experience is that whatever their age, grandparents have an instinctive link with each other.

In the final analysis, the only correct answer to the question 'When is the right time to become a grandparent?' is when one of your children has a child. For better or worse, there's very little you can do about becoming a grandparent, regardless of your age.

Whatever problems you may have about becoming a grandparent too early, you must always remember that they are your problems and not your daughter and son-in-law's. (I will discuss the special case of teen pregnancies and unwed mothers in Chapter 10.) You should never let your concerns about age subtract from their happiness and excitement. Talk to friends who may have experienced something similar. Talk to a counselor, therapist, or member of the clergy. Don't make your children feel guilty that they're making you a grandparent.

Remember, You Are a Grandparent

grand: adj. magnificent or splendid; noble or fine; of great importance and distinction

In all the excitement over having a new grandchild, don't forget that you are still a parent. Every father has probably at one time or another told his daughter, 'No matter how old you are, you'll always be my little girl.' It's very easy to let your enthusiasm over your grandchildren distract your attention from your adult children. We often fail to remember our parenting roles and get caught up in the new experience.

Sometimes this happens even before the new grandchild arrives. One friend of mine was well into her ninth month of pregnancy when her birthday came along. All day long she received calls from family members asking how she was feeling and checking to be sure she hadn't gone to the hospital yet. No one wished her a happy birthday! She was devastated. 'The baby's not even here and she's already getting all the attention,' she cried.

Another friend said jokingly, 'I can remember when my parents used to say hello to me and ask me questions when I came for a visit. Since they have grandchildren, it's almost as if I'm invisible when we arrive.'

Although it's often overlooked, the birth of a grandchild offers lots of opportunities for you to be a grandparent. If it's their first child, your son or daughter will probably be both excited and scared. Everyone will be paying lots of attention to the new grandchild. Be special by paying attention to the parents. Find out in advance how you can be most helpful in the days immediately after the birth. Listen to them tell the story of the birth over and over. Buy a present for the proud mother and father, not just for the grandchild.

If it's a second or third child, there's probably lots you can do for the parents and your other grandchildren. You might offer to do some extra babysitting to give them some free time before the new baby arrives. As much as the parents will try to reassure their other children that they've gained a brother or sister, not lost their parents, it may be hard for them to believe that when everyone is paying so much attention to the new baby. How wonderful for your older grandchild that grandma bought her a favorite comic and came up to her room to read it with her, or that grandpa baked her favorite cookies and is having cookies and milk in the kitchen with her.

Remember that being a grandparent is a marathon, not a sprint. Long after the other well-wishers have come and gone, you will still be around. So when everyone else is fluttering around, cooing and aahing over the new baby, don't be just one more person making demands on the parents. Be the person they can count on.

Choosing a Name (for Yourself, Not for the Baby)

Your family may have particular traditions about the naming of children. Perhaps you would like your grandchild to be named after one of your parents or another beloved relative. If your son is John Jr., you may be hoping your grandson will be John III. If you are asked you should certainly express your preference, but even if your children do consult you, it's up to them to choose a name for the baby. You, on the other hand, get to decide what your grandchildren should call you.

While your children are browsing through the countless books of baby names currently on the market, you can be thinking about whether you want to be called Grandmother, Grandma, Grans, Granny, Nana, or Nanny. Those are just some of the English choices. Maybe you want your grandchildren to use a term that reflects your ethnic background. In Greek, grandpa is Papou; in Italian, it's Nonno; in Swahili, it's Babu; and in Spanish, it's Abuelo.

Carolyn J. Booth and Mindy B. Henderson have recently published a delightful little book entitled Grandmother by Another Name: Endearing Stories about What We Call Our Grandmothers, in which they've collected stories of how grandmothers got their special names.

My grandchildren call me Omi. I asked my daughter, Miriam, to have them call me that because that's what I called my grandmother when I was a child living in Germany. 'mi isn't the formal word for grandmother in German that's Grossmutter but it's an affectionate name that many children use. The grandchildren called my husband, Fred, Opa, although the real German term is Grossvater.

When Steve was growing up he called his mother's mother Grandma and his father's parents by the Yiddish terms Bubbe and Zayde. His children call his mother Grandma, and for their mother's parents they use the Hebrew, Savta and Saba.

Take advantage of the period before the birth to choose your new name and wear it well and long.

Great Expectations

Learning to Listen

One of the most special times in any family's life are the months leading up to the birth of a child or grandchild. For the expectant grandparents, especially if this is your daughter or daughter-in-law's first child, this is a crucial time for building memories and sharing dreams. Whether you're around the corner or miles away, the months leading up to childbirth offer an excellent opportunity to learn about your children's hopes, fears, plans, and expectations. It's also a good time to begin practicing many of the skills that make for good grandparenting, such as holding your tongue, listening, and being supportive. As any successful grandparent has learned, there's a very good reason why we were created with two ears and one mouth: so we can listen (at least) twice as much as we talk.

One of the most important things you can do between the time you hear that you're going to be a grandparent and the birth of your grandchild is devote yourself to your relationship with your children. Open up the lines of communication. Find out what books they're reading about baby care and what decorating ideas they have. This is a wonderful time to begin discussing such topics as visits, babysitting, holiday celebrations, and gifts. You may want to go shopping with the expectant parents for clothes or baby furniture or raise the matter of a baby shower.

Although the birth of a grandchild can be a great unifier and bring together families that have been divided, don't count on that being enough. Most research indicates that the frequency of grandparents' contacts with their grandchildren are intimately connected to their relationship with their adult children, especially their daughters. According to Cherlin and Furstenberg's study The New American Grandparent, 'grandparents who reported that their relationship with the study child's mother was 'extremely close' saw their grandchildren about twice as often as those who said 'fairly close' or 'not very close' . . . Grandparents who want frequent contact with their grandchildren need to get along well with their daughters or daughters-in-law. . . . (emphasis added)

I'm not suggesting that you should work on your relationship with your adult children in order to get more time with your grandchildren. You should do it because they're your children.

Almost inevitably, the grandfathers-to-be will have to make more of an effort than their wives will to be in on things. Mothers and daughters have the shared experience of pregnancy as a natural conversation piece. Grandfathers do share the father-in-waiting experience with their sons and sons-in-law, and it's important to use that as a basis to strengthen those ties. Don't forget that the father-to-be also has concerns and worries.

With a little bit of effort, almost every grandfather can find a way to share in the excitement and express his involvement. Whether it's painting the nursery with the mother-to-be or just sending along newspaper clippings of interest to an expectant couple, there are lots of things you can do to let them know you want to be part of the process.

Although it's natural that you devote most of your attention to your son or daughter, it's important to use the time before the birth to build your relationship with your in-laws as well. The birth of your grandchild means that you are now related by more than marriage. You will be sharing the joys and trials of your grandchildren for many years to come. Good communication will avoid future misunderstandings about gifts, holiday visits, vacation plans, and countless other areas in which your concerns overlap.

Learning to Talk the Talk

One way to ease your communication with your children during the pregnancy is to familiarize yourself with all the basic medical terms they'll be using. Whether it's an ultrasound exam or amniocentesis (one of several possible ways to detect genetic conditions), it will be easier to be involved if you know what medical procedures they're doing, what each one is called, and what information it provides. Although such tests are performed routinely to ensure that the fetus is developing normally, several of them also indicate whether it is a boy or a girl. Your children may have indicated that they don't want to know in advance; or they may be keeping the secret to themselves. Whatever their choice, respect their wishes and hold your peace.

Once you begin talking about the medical aspects of pregnancy, you may find it hard to stop. Although it's fine to share information and experiences, remember to be reassuring and supportive. The last thing an expectant couple needs to hear are stories about difficult deliveries or other mishaps. And always remember, not only aren't you the mother or father this time, you also aren't the doctor. Leave the medical advice to the professional they've chosen.

Health Matters

Even before you get involved in the knotty issues of child care and discipline, you're bound to have lots of questions about prenatal care and childbirth. It probably has been at least twenty years since you gave birth and, although the process of conception and birth are pretty much what they've been since time immemorial, many of the practices surrounding the birth have changed over that time.

Jokes about pickles and ice cream notwithstanding, expectant mothers often have very specific dietary needs. In recent years, these have followed the dietary trends among the general population, with an emphasis on fruits, vegetables, and low-fat milk products. Many doctors advise expectant mothers to avoid alcohol and caffeine. Smoking is strongly discouraged, of course. Although it's up to the expectant parents to adhere to the diet their doctor recommends, it's a good idea for you to inquire in advance before they come to visit you to be sure you have plenty of whatever they need.

Diet is only one of the recent trends in prenatal health care. One grandfather I know had always known that his smoking bothered his children. In recent years, his children had become increasingly critical of his habit. When his daughter-in-law became pregnant, she declared her house a no-smoking zone and made it clear that she didn't want him ever to smoke in his grandchild's presence. Needless to say, he was far from pleased, but he resigned himself to this new regimen.

The general proexercise spirit of our times has also had its impact on childbirth preparation. Gone are the days of lots of bed rest and strictly limited activity. Unless her doctor has specifically cautioned against it, the expectant mom is likely to be enrolled in an exercise class and may continue most of her normal activities, including travel, well into her pregnancy. One friend of mine continued to lead hiking groups well into her eighth month, and another went into labor during her aerobics class!

Birth Options

The past quarter-century has seen the growth of tremendous openness and diversity in the way couples handle the childbirth experience. Only a generation ago, the father's involvement was limited to phoning the doctor, driving to the hospital, and pacing in the waiting room. Today, coaching and being present at the birth are commonplace. As the generation of those who pioneered natural childbirth move into grandparenthood, many are eager to share the same immediacy of experience at the birth of their grandchildren as well. Don't be embarrassed to raise this option with your children.

Whether you're present or not, be supportive of your children's choices for their child's birth. Whether it's natural childbirth or high-tech intervention, soothing music or hard rock, a birthing chair or a conventional hospital bed, it's their decision. If their physician approves, hold your tongue, whatever you may think of their ideas and preferences. It'll be good training for the many times you'll have to choose silence over conflict after your grandchild is born.

The New Arrival and Timing Your Arrival

One question that always comes up around the birth of a grandchild, particularly if the grandparents live far way, is when and for how long they should come to visit. Obviously, your first inclination will be to see your new grandchild as soon as possible, but it's a good idea to discuss this with the parents before the birth.

There was a time when new mothers spent as much as a week in the hospital recovering from the birth. These days, if there are no complications, forty-eight or even twenty-four hours is more common. Under such revolving-door policies, a visit to the hospital can barely be squeezed in and is often impossible if you live far away.

Once they've brought their new baby home, the new parents may prefer to spend the first few days bonding with their new baby. Your daughter-in-law may feel more comfortable if her mother comes to stay for the first few days, and dealing with two grandmothers (and two grandfathers) and the experience of a new baby all at once may be too much for her. On the other hand, she may welcome the presence of someone who can help with the laundry, cooking, or keeping a watchful eye on her other children. Discussing such issues in advance not only will help prevent misunderstandings at the last minute, it will also enable you to plan your schedule, arrange for vacation time, and do whatever else is necessary for a successful visit. Even if you decide to delay your first visit for a while, you can send flowers or other gifts.

Steve's mother, for example, waited almost three months before visiting her grandson overseas. She knew that the other grandparents were close by and ready to offer any immediate assistance needed. OAt three months, the baby will be more alert and the parents will be more relaxed, she explained.

Welcoming the New Family Member

One of the touchiest issues for many families is how to commemorate the birth of a child. Many young couples give little thought to the place of religion in their family until the first child arrives, so discreet inquiries about their plans for a baptism, christening, brit (bris), or other ceremony may push them to begin thinking about their plans. For couples who come from different religious or cultural traditions, the celebration of their first child's birth often serves to highlight the differences in their traditions or between their ritual preferences and those of either or both sets of grandparents. Disagreements over such issues are among the hardest to resolve amicably.

Unfortunately, there are no magic formulas in this case, or in the many other instances of differing rituals and traditions, some of which I discuss in the next chapter. It's best to sound out your children on their plans before the birth. This will avoid unpleasant surprises caused by mistaken assumptions and will give everyone a chance to think a little before the birth itself. If you're lucky, you may have some special family traditions that you can pass on with the blessing of all involved, even if you can't do everything you'd hoped.

Don't Forget to Celebrate Yourself!

In all the excitement about the new baby and the concern you have for your children, it's easy to forget one very important person: YOU.

Dr. Lillian Carson, author of The Essential Grandparent: A Guide to Making a Difference, suggests that grandparents should create their own rituals to mark their transition into a new stage of the life cycle. Perhaps you wish to sponsor a kiddush at your local synagogue in honor of your new status, go to church, or just have a quiet dinner with some friends. As Dr. Carson says, OYour rite can be anything you want it to be. What's important is that it be a meaningful way for you to mark your entry into grandparenthood.

Although it's been almost twenty years since President Jimmy Carter proclaimed National Grandparents' Day, it really hasn't caught on as an annual holiday. Its content, like so much about grandparenting, remains vague and undefined. Even if florists and the general public haven't made it the same sort of big event as Valentine's Day or Mother's Day, there's no reason not to celebrate it! The next time your children call you on Father's Day or your anniversary, remind them that Grandparents' Day is the second Sunday in September. Until they catch on, celebrate it yourself with a special treat or by being in touch with your grandchildren. Perhaps a group of your friends who are also grandparents would like to celebrate the day together.

Anthropologists and psychologists have taught us that rites of passage serve a vital function in the lives of individuals and societies. On the personal level, they assist us in our transition from one stage in life to another. Rites of passage remind us of our place in the circle of life and help us to announce and share with others our entry into a new role. On a larger social level, they enable us to identify with our traditions and the generations that preceded us and blazed a path for us.

Whether you want to let the whole world know or share the news more intimately with your nearest and dearest, don't pass over your transition in silence.

I wanted to shout it to the world: I'm a Grandparent!!!!

Meet the Author

Ruth K Westheimer is a psychosexual therapist best known for pioneering the field of media psychology with her radio and television shows. While the world has long turned to "Dr. Ruth" for answers to sex-related questions, her doctorate from Columbia Teacher's College is on the study of the family and ever since becoming a grandmother herself, she has devoted part of her recent activities to exploring this stage of human relations, first with a book aimed at children, Dr. Ruth Talks About Grandparents, and then with a documentary, No Missing Links, which examines how grandparents have transmitted traditional values from generation to generation. In the field of sexuality, she continues her private practice in New York City where she resides, and answers people's questions with her syndicated column and on the Internet at and She has two children and three grandchildren.

Steven Kaplan is currently Associate Professor in Comparative Religion and African Studies at the Hebrew University. He has been a Visiting Fellow at Boston University and Harvard University. His previous books include a co-authored work with Dr. Ruth Westheimer, On Surviving Salvation: The Ethiopian Jewish Family in Transition (1992), and an edited collection, Indigenous Responses to Western Christianity (1995).

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