My grandmothers were always old to me. They had grey hair, wore baggy dresses and sturdy shoes and never played with me. They cooked great meals and gave me lots of hugs and love, but I could never imagine being sassy with them or expecting them to play hide and seek or jump on a trampoline (Just to set the record straight, this is where I draw the line!). Amazingly, they were probably in their early fifties when I was a kid. They lived a long time, but "in my heart they still remained forever old."
My mother was a young, fun grandma. She was only 48 when my first child was born; she wore stylish clothes, had brown hair, was slim and spry and loved to get down and dirty with my kids. She had eight grandchildren, and the youngest was born when she was in her early sixties -- still young enough to do fun things together. Also, my mother was available all of the time because she didn't work much outside of the home until she and my father ran an art gallery in their early sixties. Even then, she visited often and was always ready for fun. Thus, my children have the image of this type of grandma embedded in their brains.
But what happens when kids don't have kids until much later in their lives? Their children get grandmas who creak when they have to get up from the floor or throw out their backs picking up a 20-pound baby! These same tired grandmas may also still be working.
When my first grandkids arrived, they were twins. I was 58, working full-time, and feeling like I could certainly do it all. As a preschool director, I was able to cut my on-site hours a bit and finish tasks from home, freeing me to babysit and help my daughter as needed. I was pretty proud of my ability to carry both of the girls down the stairs at once until my back started telling me I was almost 60. After much pain and major surgery, I developed a better sense of my limits. My friends who have become grandparents and "seniors" at the same time have shared my pain.
We ought to form a union with work rules. These rules might look like this:
If you wait until I am in my 60's to have your kids...
- Do not expect grandma to watch more than one child at the same time -- this could result in injury, hopefully not to a child.
- Do not expect grandma to deal with several car seats and buckles to transport your children -- this could result in never venturing outside of the house.
- Do not expect grandma to play on the floor with your kids and get up quickly in an emergency -- it will take a while.
- Do not expect grandma to remember how to open your traveling stroller or to find the right setting on your baby monitor or white noise machine -- why do kids need these things?
- Do not expect grandma to "work" long hours -- by this time, she needs a shorter workweek.
- Do not expect grandma to do heavy lifting.
Waiting a while for those grandkids to arrive is not all gloom and doom, however. No matter how old we are, we can all appreciate that there is no purer love than that of a grandma for her grandchild. My last grandchild arrived shortly after my 68th birthday. I may not be as youthful as my mother was, and I may not cook those great feasts like my grandmothers did, but I feel blessed to have a special place in my grandkids' hearts and to hold all eight of them in mine (even if I can no longer hold them walking down the stairs).
An earlier version of this post appeared on ChicagoNow, December 30, 2013.