The other side of grandparenting

We love being grandparents, but we're also honest with one another about the challenges of the role

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In October, I hosted a reunion of 13 women, ages 63 to 65. We went to school together in Michigan but we are now scattered across the country. Over dinner, we talked about our experiences as grandmothers, and how they differed from the relationships we had with our grandparents when we were kids.

We found that unlike our grandmothers, many of us were pitching in — financially, physically, and emotionally — to make life more manageable for our children and grandchildren. In our children’s two-parent households, both parents usually work outside the home to earn enough to support their families, leaving little time to nurture a marriage, share dinnertime conversation, or supervise homework. In single-parent families or families of divorce, we are involved at all levels as the lone parent struggles to raise children, deal with custody issues, and hold down a job.

During our weekend, eight of us agreed to continue sharing our grandparenting stories, hoping to be able to help each other discover solutions to sticky situations or at least to find solace from understanding listeners. As our discussions went on, I was surprised to learn how many of my friends’ struggles mirrored my own:

* We help with our children’s mortgage payments, medical bills, day-care and summer-activity fees, school tuitions, and divorce attorney payments. Some of us go to court to support our children through custody hearings.

* We are regular caregivers and carpoolers, often taking on overnight duty, and we are physically exhausted by the effort. But we don’t know how to say no, and we don’t believe our children will understand our limitations.

* We spend long hours on the phone, consoling and, when necessary, cajoling daughters who are overburdened with household chores and full-time jobs, but who still must find time to raise well-balanced, happy children.

* Our daughters don’t trust babysitters and have so little time to spend with their children that they are unwilling to enjoy an evening out with their husbands.

* We’re unhappy seeing processed food served to our grandchildren, as well as late bedtimes, messy rooms, and unmade beds.

* For those of us who are no longer married, the emotional strain of grandparenting is even greater. Our own ex-wives and ex-husbands are grandparents of the same children and we are asked to share uncomfortable holidays or even vacations, just to keep the peace.

* Most of all, I was surprised to discover how many of us had adversarial relationships with our children’s spouses. Many of us told stories about ongoing efforts to work around challenging situations just to stay involved with our grandchildren.

Real life, real struggles

We all had stories to share and my own was similar to many of the others: My husband and I have six grandchildren in all. My daughter is a divorced attorney, working long hours to establish her own firm. She has a boy and a girl but is challenged by co-parenting issues. My son, Mark, also has a boy and a girl. He is a stay-at-home dad; his wife frequently stays late at the office and works on the weekends. I also have an adopted daughter who married a man 25 years her senior and became an instant grandmother on her wedding day. My husband’s son lives in Tennessee; his wife has a little girl from her first marriage; they have a two-year-old son together. My husband and I have a different relationship with each of these families and we constantly analyze our efforts to love and support each one. He thinks I am too involved with my children and grandchildren; I don’t think he is involved enough.

My friend Sally has an unmarried daughter in New York, and a divorced daughter, Christine, who is raising three little boys here in California. Sally was widowed in her early thirties. She stayed in Detroit to raise her children, with financial support from her family and emotional support from her husband’s. Now Sally’s three grandsons need her help. She helped her daughter pay for a messy divorce, including a court battle to win full custody of her boys after their father used cocaine in front of them. Christine works part time but receives no child support and relies on her mother for help with her bills. Sally visits frequently, but now has medical problems to deal with and isn’t sure how long she will be able to support both her grandsons and herself in a recession.

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Another friend, Elizabeth, has two grown sons by a husband who left her years ago. She has remarried, but continues to struggle with bipolar issues and worries that she failed her sons during their formative years. Her older son has worked in Asia for years and lives in China with his Australian wife and their three children. Elizabeth struggles to have a meaningful relationship with her aloof daughter-in-law, Katie. Annual visits of ten days are hardly enough time to connect with the children or establish a friendship with Katie. She has a visit scheduled this month; she promised to let us know how it goes.

Grandparents for better or for worse

By the time most of us became grandparents, we were healthier and more productive citizens than our own parents were at the same age. That is a good thing, but many of us stay in the workforce far longer than our parents did, and it is a challenge to balance the physical demands on us to be involved grandparents and still maintain our careers. We worry about our finances but remain committed to helping our grandchildren financially for as long as we can.

For this group of old friends, “being there” as a grandparent means far more than birthday gifts and occasional visits. We never expected to be so caught up in the lives of our adult children or to be such a major factor in raising grandchildren. It’s not always easy, but honestly, we love each opportunity our involvement provides.

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