Grandmas have always been everywhere, but now that families are spread across the country and continents, we are even more everywhere. Whether it is walking down the block to visit a granddaughter, or Skyping for two minutes every morning, or flying around the world to be at the side of a grandson, grandmas are there. Some are filled with joy as they laugh and play, some are filled with worry, some give advice, some rarely take advice, some feel unwelcome and alienated, some feel all of the above. Some take on the responsibility of parenting. But all are grandmas, everywhere.
Women in 70Candles conversation groups have been talking about what it means to be a grandma, and from these talks we (Jane and Ellen) can categorize our species into three kinds of grandmothers:
• Those who live for their grandchildren, many even literally relocating to live nearby:
"I love being with my grandchildren more than I loved being with my own children."
"My granddaughter is my life."
• Those who love their grandchildren dearly, but do not consider themselves defined by the grandma role:
"I wish I could spend more time with my grandkids, but we live in different states, I work full-time, and it's hard. I certainly do what I can."
"I could not wait to be called "Bubbe," but I have other identities, too."
• Those who don't want to be involved, or don't know how, or just plain can't:
"Demographics make it difficult for us to maintain our relationships with our grandchildren. I feel like my grandchildren don't know me anymore and also, I feel like I don't know my grandchildren anymore. I go to buy my granddaughter a birthday present, and I don't know what to get her because I don't know what her interests are."
"I turned my daughter down when she asked me to babysit. 'I love you, honey, but there's a reason I put you in daycare'."
These are just samples of the comments we've seen and heard, and this is what we take away from it all: on balance, grandparenting is good for us grandmas, and it's good for the grandchildren.
Through our grandchildren we get to relive childhood and adolescent milestones for a third time -- now through wiser eyes and more compassionate hearts. Through this opportunity to recapitulate and reinterpret, our lives take on a new whole-life meaning. We can counsel using our life experiences as a guide, although we know the kids need to figure it out for themselves as they grow up in a world much different from our own.
At the same time we learn about today's popular culture. Who's in or out, and why. Which tunes are hot or not, and why. We can even share our favorite vintage music, some of which has happily been recycled into modern versions, linking our different generations in song. We can ask them for tips about using our cell phones and laptops. They grow through the interchange; we keep on growing through the interchange.
For those who live at a distance we may be the stuff of legend, images from afar seen on tablet screens. We just appear every so often and just for fun. For those who live nearby, we are flesh and blood old people who know all about their parents' past (but judiciously only share some), and who can offer some good ideas in a pinch. We may be interesting travel companions, and a pleasant shift from parental oversight. We may be a living, breathing, loving archive of information that can't be googled.
Jane says that she has learned much from her experiences with her grandchildren: They ask us hard questions ..."What was it like when you were my age?" "Did you ever get bad grades?" "Were you ever stabbed in the back by a friend?" We try to give honest answers and not glorify our youth in their eyes. We can offer unconditional love, and we let them know we will always stand behind them.
Ellen asked her own grandchildren to describe what their grandparents mean to them, and here are the responses she received (one Dad even pitched in):
18-year-old grandson, Ben -- I think grandparents serve an interesting role for grandkids. They, a generation removed, are sort of the foundation of the influence that kids have via parents. More directly, they, in my life, have shaped my views by both agreeing and disagreeing with the opinions I had developed at any time. Often, the contrast helped me develop my own more than agreeing would have. Also, they are a constant source of love, which is important for any kid. It's always exciting to see grandparents, whether it means good food or a good time.
13-year-old granddaughter, Leah -- Grandparents have influenced my life in a way like no other. Grandparents have a way with their grandchildren; they aren't your parents, but more like your buddy. They're always up for some fun, and they love their grandchildren more than anyone.
46-year-old Dad of Ben and Leah, Gabriel -- My grandparents influenced me by showing me a lifestyle very different from the one I was living. They taught me about growing up Jewish in New York City (not rural Vermont). They taught me the importance of travel and being active. They showed me fine dining and enjoyment of some of the finer things in life. They taught me how to make a gimlet. They also gave me life lessons in kindness and generosity.
9-year-old grandson, Aaron -- They are fun to be with and show me great passion.
13- and 11-year-old grandsons, brothers Curtis and Caleb
Never rushing -- always there
Never too busy -- to show they care
Full of memories so willing to share
A special bond beyond compare
We hope this discussion has stimulated some thinking out there in grandma-land. We know it is only a quick touch on a monumental subject, with much omitted. What about step-families, for example? What about ethnic and cultural differences in experience? Please write in with your own thoughts on the art of being a grandma.
Our book, 70Candles! Women Thriving in Their 8th Decade is now available for pre-publication orders from Taos Institute Publications: www.taosinstitute.com/70candles