Each time I see a woman of a certain age proudly wheeling a baby carriage down the street, flashing a radiant smile at a younger woman who bears a slight resemblance, the pangs of a distressing emotion appear.
Every time I spot an ad with two gray-haired adults sporting wide grins as they shepherd a gaggle of toddlers through the crowds at Disney World, bang! Slam!! There it is again. An ache I cannot easily shake off.
But what is this unexpected envy? It doesn't take long to identify it: Grandparent envy.
Why was I not prepared for this to hit me? And why now? Why have I, who had never envied friends or relatives throughout their countless radiant moments of parenthood, suddenly succumbed to it now? Why had I not been braced for envy of this new kind of love affair?
Not having had children was a life situation that I thought I had dealt with years before. Parenthood had eluded me, and I accepted that fact without enormous regret. So why does grandparenthood, which holds less ballyhooed emotional and societal rewards than being a parent, seem so appealing to me now?
I discussed this with a friend who considered it for a moment, then suggested, "When they started getting pregnant, you and I were so busy with our careers and romances that we didn't have time to be jealous."
It was true. Recalling those long ago years, I realized that I had been enjoying life in another groove. Career, lovers, travel. Envy wasn't in my emotional repertoire. My friend and I admitted to each other that having children hadn't been at the top of either of our "To Do" lists; but this grandparent business had made us feel as if there was a gaping hole in our lives.
Even if I had detected the advance warning signs, I asked myself, would anything have changed? The answer, of course, is not really. Then why had this envy taken me so much by surprise? Perhaps it was simply the fact that buying into the old bugaboos about the trials and tribulations of senior citizen territory had blinded me to its rewards. I had imagined it as a barren stretch of life, totally lacking in appeal, devoid of heart-filling events, and therefore, unenviable. Obviously, I had been wrong.
Another friend had been turned into a bowl of pablum when her granddaughter, Amanda, entered the world. Not only had Amanda transformed Terry's world, but she also illuminated her life.
"It is an unvarnished emotion," she told me, "and possibly because people have such low expectations for grandparenthood, it's all a bonus. Amanda is my joy, my delight, and occasionally my concern, but not my problem.
"Grandchildren are all gain, no sweat, mostly pleasure, no pain. What can I tell you? I didn't dream of it or hope for it. It just is. And when it happens, it takes you over completely."
I considered that for a moment. "A link to immortality?" I suggested.
"That too, but more tactile, more now!"
Tactile. Translation: huggable? I was beginning to understand. The unadulterated joy experienced by friends whose hearts have been captured by grandchildren is not only created by the new role that is thrust on them, but also by the feel, scent, and touch of them. A grandchild in all its innocence, curiosity, and openness is a walking advertisement for life and its manifold possibilities. But there had to be something more.
A New York psychotherapist and grandmother of five, Ruth Saks told me, "Grandchildren provide a way of recapturing the joys of parenthood without taking on any of the burdens. Young parents are so involved in their work, so wrapped up in making their way through the corporate jungle, scrounging up enough money to make mortgage payments, they don't have the time to react to their children with the wonder and attention they deserve. Now at a more settled time in their lives, they do have the time to spend with grandchildren. The fact that grandchildren carry some of their DNA undoubtedly plays a role, but it is the sense of love without obligation, adoration without responsibility, that adds a special dynamic to the relationship."
Finally, she mentioned one of the pluses that made enormous sense. "Grandchildren keep you happily anchored in the present. No loitering in the past. No apprehensive time-travel to the future. They're all about now."
A few days later, I was talking to my brother. I asked about his weekend, "How could it be? Perfect, marvelous. I spent the day in the park with Shelby and Jamie." Shelby, a sloe-eyed charmer at six, and Jamie, an amber-haired beauty at four -- two enchantresses who offered my brother, the father of three sons, the heady and previously unexplored experience of what being a father of young girls would be like. I have to admit, sometimes it's hard not to be envious, but seeing his happiness brings me enormous joy.
It is almost impossible to find an answer that will cure the unsettling emotion of Grandparent Envy. However, I have a few ideas of how to sap the energy out of this unwanted emotion. First, shared DNA is not essential. Having younger friends who will share their lives, their travels and triumphs is part of it. And some will have children. Even though they are not "mine," they will become part of my heart.
I am still aware of what's missing: the curiosity, the innocence, the wonder, the sense of possibility that are the lifeblood of a small child. Certainly with the turmoil tearing families apart all over the world, we can find a way to dispense attention on those neglected and needful children. In addition to needing massive doses of good nutrition and doses of medicine, they could flower after heavy doses of affection.
Introduce yourself to a child in need, and next introduce that child to the world. After all, every child needs a grandparent as much as, if not more than we, surrogate grandparents, need them.