by Amanda Schoenberg
Just as baby boomers reinvented everything from therapy to birth control, they are now ushering in a new era of grandparenthood that may involve long distances, stepparents and working grandmothers who aren’t necessarily home baking cookies.
“Boomers are so selfreflective — some might say self-navel gazing — we feel like we invented parenthood,” says Barbara Graham, editor and contributor of the 2009 book of essays “Eye of My Heart: 27 Writers Reveal the Hidden Pleasures and Perils of Being a Grandmother.” “I think the same is going to be true for grandparenthood. We will tease these relationships apart, reflect on them and examine them in ways that previous generations haven’t.”
Perhaps the biggest adjustment for baby boomer grandparents is realizing “this is not your child,” says Graham, 62, of Washington, D.C., who also writes an advice column for Grandparents.com.
“It’s very weird for baby boomer women, in particular, who have redefined marriage, motherhood and career,” she says. “All of a sudden you become a grandparent and you realize you have no say in anything.”
It can be tough for new grandparents to create boundaries, says Tamara Auger, an Albuquerque psychotherapist. She advises grandparents to let adult children rear the grandchildren and let them make their own mistakes.
“My perspective is, if it is not behavior that’s abusive to the child, then they just need to stay out of it,” she says.
Problems often emerge when grandmothers try to tell daughters-in-law what to do, says Auger. In that case, she recommends the children’s father ask his mother to back off.
The most popular group on grandparents.com is Mothers-in-Law Anonymous, which has more than 2,300 members. Many say they don’t get to spend enough time with grandchildren but Graham says there isn’t much to do except gently approach a daughter-in-law and ask for more access.
New role, new rules
Early in her new role as a grandmother of three, Cathy Bell, 58, a teacher at Zuni Elementary School, learned who makes the final call when it comes to childrearing.
When her granddaughter Jillian, now 11, refused to eat the food on her plate, Bell was ready to fix whatever she wanted instead. But Bell’s daughter, Amber, wanted Jillian to taste it first.
Before other food dilemmas emerged, Amber and Cathy had a quick conversation and settled on a plan. Now, when the kids visit Bell and her husband they live by their rules, which may mean staying up late and eating the occasional sugary cereal.
“When they’re here by themselves they get to do whatever I’m comfortable with,” Bell says.
But when her daughter and son-in-law visit with the kids, they make the decisions.
“I don’t agree all the time,” she says. “But I also see the big picture. (The children) are very well-loved. They’re treated fairly. They’re in a safe, loving home. It’s not your call, it’s their call. I can support that.”
From a distance
Many grandparents today also must negotiate long distances, Graham says. When she was growing up, her grandmother lived nearby. But her own grandchildren have lived near her home in Washington, D.C., as well as in Paris and San Francisco.
Competition can erupt between sets of grandparents over who gets to see the kids more, says Graham.
But long-distance grandparenting has some benefits, especially for those who get to be the “big event” when they see their grandchildren, she says.
Many grandparents also take advantage of technology. Using Skype to talk online isn’t the same as hugging a child but it lets grandparents keep in touch, she says.
When Bell learned her daughter’s family planned to leave New Mexico for Arizona, it was rough at first.
“I missed them so badly,” she says. “We had always been extremely close.”
They now have a system that works for them. Now that her granddaughters are older, they each spend time with Bell and her husband, Paul, alone for a week and then the whole family visits together.
As a long-distance grandparent, Bell has learned that every day doesn’t have to be packed with kid-friendly fun. During the family’s July visit, she took the kids to breakfast, visited the Explora museum and ate ice cream. On another day, they hung around the house and cooked.
Memorable moments are often simple ones — cooking meals or watching the girls hold snail races with their grandfather, Bell says.
A little perspective
While some grandparents see grandchildren a few times a year, others live with grandchildren or help raise them. In 2007, about 6.2 million grandparents lived with grandchildren under age 18 and about 12 percent of children were cared for by grandparents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Renee Chavez, 43, who manages the city of Albuquerque’s Foster Grandparent program, calls herself a “daily grandma” who helps her daughter, Valerie, a single mother, by picking up her grandsons from the baby sitter.
As a grandparent, she feels much less stress than she did raising her own daughter. At the end of the day, she can’t wait to spend time with her grandchildren, Chavez says.
Unlike a relationship between parent and child, grandparents tend to benefit from a little perspective.
Marty Perez, 54, an office assistant in the city’s Department of Senior Affairs, says she is more relaxed with her five grandchildren than she was with her own children.
“You get to appreciate them more than your own kids,” she says.
Chavez says her best advice for grandparents is to use positive reinforcement. When foster grandparents work in classrooms, she tells them to stay away from “don’t, won’t, can’t” and not worry about coloring inside the lines.
Chavez advises other grandparents to spend time teaching family traditions. She often looks at old pictures with the grandchildren, telling stories about relatives they will never know.
“It gives them a sense of who they are,” she says.
In the Bell family, the whole family always ate Saturday night dinner together. Those early traditions make for strong bonds, she says. Her close relationship with her daughter paved the way for a close relationship with her grandchildren, she says.
“You can only be as close to your grandchildren as the parents allow,” Bell says.
Boomers must also learn to balance time with grandchildren and their own busy lives, says Graham. Grandparents who rely on adult children and grandchildren to make them happy will end up disappointed.
“As with parenthood you gain wisdom and perspective through experience,” she says. “The same is true as a grandparent.”
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