Why we don’t love being called grandma

What you let the kids call you says as much about you as it does about them.

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So The New York Times informs us that Goldie Hawn goes by Glam-Ma and Blythe Danner by Lalo. (Danner had lobbied for Woof, but her granddaughter, Apple — Gwyneth Paltrow’s cherub — had other ideas.) The recent Times piece, one of the most-shared pieces on the paper’s website, also introduces one family’s pack of eight grandparents (not uncommon in these days of spiraling multi-generational divorces) that includes a Q and a Buya Buya — the latter perhaps the most spot-on description of what grandparents actually do.

Baby Boomer grandparents, “resistant to being called anything that makes them sound old,” the Times reports, “have taken to accepting toddlers’ neologisms and ethnic variations or, better yet, naming themselves.”

Following the Herd?

Full disclosure: As a charter member of Generation B, I went the ethnic route and chose Nonna, Italian for grandmother, which to my ear sounds groovier (now that’s a word that really dates me) than Grandma. My husband, our grandchildren’s step-grandfather, chose G-Daddy — which could double as his stage name should he ever choose to front a blues band.

As Lin Wellford, herself a Mimi and the coauthor of The New Grandparents’ Name Book, told the Times, most boomers love the idea of becoming grandparents, but hate the conventional names. “We are such a herd,” she says.

True. But here’s the thing. To quote the Bard, “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” — and that which we call a grandparent by any other name is still a person who’s moving up a notch in the great food chain of life.

No two ways about it: We are growing older. In her essay in Eye of My Heart: 27 Writers Reveal the Hidden Pleasures and Perils of Being A Grandmother, Letty Cottin Pogrebin writes: “Only by growing older can we witness our grandchildren growing older. It’s an existential trade-off. We lose years, they gain them.”

Yes, we may be living longer, healthier, more active, and productive lives than previous generations. Yes, we may shun signifiers of age — Grandma, Grandpa, Nana, Bubbe, Zayde — that conjure up images of frail old ladies baking and knitting, and old men hobbling around in worn slippers. Yes, 60 may even be the new 40, but I can assure you from observing my mother and her friends that 90 is not the new 50.

The ticking clock stops for no one — not even youth-obsessed Boomers.

Beneath our drive to create original, hip, and young-sounding names for ourselves lurks fear — terror, really — of our inevitable decline. Though elders were once universally revered for their age and wisdom, and titles like Grandmother and Grandfather once automatically conferred respect, age is not something our contemporary culture celebrates.

That’s a shame. With any luck, by the time our beloved grandchildren become Glam-Mas, Boom-Booms, or G-Daddies, the trend will have reversed course once again.

Enduring Truths

It’s not that I oppose our giving ourselves cool, updated names — I’m as guilty as anyone of trying to hang on to the youthful aura I once believed was our generation’s birthright — but it’s also essential to acknowledge our age and stage. Holding these two opposing views may be paradoxical — truth, in my experience, generally is — but it helps me cope with the fact that I am aging.

Today’s grandparents may call ourselves by new names, but some aspects of grandparenthood never change. As author and psychologist Mary Pipher put it in her introduction to Eye of My Heart: “In the end, we grandmothers have always wanted the same things. We want our grandchildren to grow up happy and safe and to live good, long lives. We want our spiral helix of talents and quirks, bones and wit, to tumble on across time.”