My first thought when my oldest daughter told me she was expecting my first grandchild was “at last!” I was 64 years old, with four adult children more focused on their careers than on starting families. Most of my friends were already grandparents. Some of them even had great-grandchildren. I was ready to join the grandparenting club.
What I wasn’t prepared for was how I would feel when my daughter placed her infant in my arms. I suddenly realized I was holding the future of our family. Before I could process that thought, the tiny creature curled her hand around one of my fingers and I was instantly in love.
My granddaughter was born in February. I retired from teaching and moved over a mountain range to live a few houses away from my daughter and granddaughter. Many new parents would have cringed to have their parents so close, but this new mom had asked for my help, and she was fine with my proximity.
From then on, I took my granddaughter for long walks in her stroller while her mother rested or painted. As she was able to go longer between feedings, I expanded our walks to include the grocery store, the bakery, and the park. We built traditions together – singing, reading, playing outside in my patio, now furnished with a water table, sand box, and child-safe plants. My guest room became her playroom.
When she graduated to overnight visits, she slept in a day bed with me on the trundle beside her. When she started preschool, I helped with afternoon pickups and dancing lessons. Soon it was carpools and summer camps, art lessons, and Taekwondo.
Now I have six grandchildren. Each child has a unique place in my heart, and we make special memories together. We’ve planted seeds, made gingerbread people, furnished doll houses, and enjoyed hot chocolate around campfires.
There are 70 million grandparents in the United States today. The average age to become a grandparent is now 50, although many individuals become grandparents earlier. By 2030, there will be more people of grandparent age than children and youth. We can have a tremendous impact on society by becoming active grandparents and mentoring younger generations.
My first grandchild helped me see life differently. I slowed down, observed on my hands and knees the progression of a line of ants across the pavement, or the fuzziness of a Lamb’s Ear leaf against my cheek, or the way sand felt when poured slowly from one hand to another.
As a single parent, I hadn’t had the leisure to watch my own children play, to observe them discovering the world, to notice their growth. Now that I didn’t have to worry about my job, the dishes, the laundry, the shopping list and all those other daily tasks of parents, I was free to play with her and the other grandchildren to come.
Soon we were engaged in deep conversations about friendship, family, homeless people, and saving the whales. Spending time with my grandchildren took me back to the basics and enriched my life.
But I have also enriched the lives of each of my grandchildren. Young children experience their world as an environment of relationships, and these relationships affect all aspects of their development. I hope my grandchildren have rich memories of the times we spend together. Even if they don’t, I know that I have provided experiences and conversations that have helped in some way to make them the adults they will soon become.
As I write these words, we are two years into the Covid-19 pandemic, and I haven’t seen some of my children or grandchildren in person for many months. Like many others, Covid-19 led me to sequester in my home, with only rare sightings of my family, mostly on my computer screen.
I miss them, of course, but more than that I worry about how they are coping with so many changes in their lives, and how we can maintain our special relationship in these trying times. I know my children are exhausted, apprehensive, ready for life to return to normal.
Fortunately, technology has provided new ways for us to communicate. Thanks to the magic of Skype, FaceTime and Zoom, whether I am reading a bedtime story, being taken on a tour of the garden, watching a virtual dance recital, or sharing the excitement of a loose tooth, we are building memories. I am continually reminded of what matters in life.
Parenting is difficult. Not all families can have, or wish to have, grandparents just down the street. But most families will be richer for including the grandparent generation in their children’s lives. Teaching a seven-year-old how to knit, or play chess, or plant vegetables will give children a heritage of connection. Participating in family activities and engaging with your grandchildren will add a richness to their lives as well as yours.
One of my daughters who works from home has encouraged her five-year-old daughter to FaceTime her grandparents on snow days, holidays, and other occasions when Mom is on the computer and the hours stretch out ahead of her.
Her daughter has become adept at including each of us in her arts and crafts projects, detailed recounting of weekend activities, and singing silly songs. It’s not always possible for families to connect like this, of course. We don’t always agree across generations, and sometimes the little hurts build up and make it hard to reconnect. I’ve thought about this a lot and spoken with many families who have done so successfully.
These conversations have prompted me to write a book about grandparenting. Grandparenting Matters will be about the changing nature of grandparenting in the western world, and how families can most effectively meet the challenge.
It won’t be a book about activities to do with your grandchildren or a keepsake album or stories about how grandparenting changed the lives of 20 of my closest friends – there are lots of those already. Rather, this book is a guide to grandparenting in this fast-moving world, both interpersonally and technologically.
Some of my stories will be about cross-generational families and how they mended broken relationships and built new, stronger ones. Other examples will be of single parents, single grandparents, and how illness, unemployment, or incarceration can derail the best of plans. I will give suggestions for building resilience in the children of struggling families.
During my research for this book, I will talk with grandparents of different cultures, grandparents who live thousands of miles away, grandparents who live with their children and families who move in with Grandma. We’ll explore the changing needs of maturing grandchildren and aging parents, the value of sharing family history with children, and of teaching ethics and kindness and how to say thank you.
Grandparenting does matter. The distinguished developmental psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner wrote, “The grandparent/grandchild relationship is… second in emotional importance only to the parent/child relationship.” That makes grandparenting worth understanding. I would love to hear your stories about grandparenting. Let’s have a conversation!
What is your relationship with your grandchildren? What was your relationship with your grandparents? In what ways are you a different grandparent to your grandchildren?