The Essential Grandparent: A Guide to Making a Difference
By Lillian Carson
When your children have their own children, a new phase of life begins in your life and theirs. Your attention is turned toward them. Their attention is on their new family. Your kids don't have the time they previously had for you. It's not the same. Even when they come for dinner or you go on an outing together, the baby is there demanding attention. Of course being with the baby is ever fascinating, but their preoccupation with her changes the dynamic between you and may be experienced with a vague sense of disappointment or loss. Even though your support is needed now more than ever, your relationship with your adult children undergoes many changes. They are not able to be as tuned into you or your interests. It's not that they don't care as much but that their focus has changed. If you formerly enjoyed long conversations with them and "hanging out" together shopping, skiing or whatever, it's different now. If time for togetherness was in short supply before the baby, it may be even shorter now. Each step forward in life requires relinquishing some of what has existed before. It is a law of nature that growth necessitates loss. When the infant is weaned to a cup, she gives up that special closeness of being held. We applaud it as growth, but to her and her mother it is also an end to the special closeness of nursing and feels like loss as well. Sadness creeps in even while rejoicing. Acknowledging it helps. Then celebrate.
When we say of a couple, "They are starting a family," we are recognizing that the new unit being formed is made up of its own mix of genes. It is the start of a truly new and unique combination. The arrival of the first child is a watershed event for the parents. The change a baby makes in their lives is often much greater than they anticipated or at first realized. Some parents initially try to go on about their lives just as before, but they soon become aware of how their days are altered. The new external arrangements that caretaking requires mirror important internal changes in the new parents. Parenthood precipitates deep-seated and far-reaching modifications in their views of themselves and of their purpose in life.
As soon as the first baby arrives, there is a shift in the marital relationship. A spouse is no longer seen and experienced only as ones mate, but simultaneously also as the parent of ones child. The situation is not made any easier by the fact that parents often harbor contradictory hopes or values which coexist peacefully beside each other in their fantasies. A mother may wish for a tranquil, accepting baby while at the same time expecting her to have a strong personality with a "mind of her own." One new father told me he was looking forward to active involvement with his new baby although his fast-track job demanded most of his time.
Becoming a parent also subjects one to the reliving-partly consciously but largely unconsciously-of many of one's childhood experiences and problems. It tempts one to try to solve these by doing things differently than their own parents. New parents often tell me, "I'm not going to do it the way my parents did."
If they felt you were too strict a disciplinarian, they will vow to be lenient. If they longed for more of your time, they are determined to be more involved. Parenthood recalls baggage from the past. As some painful experiences or perceived injustices from their own childhood surface, they vow to do better. The trouble, I've observed, is that they're not sure what they should do instead. This uncertainty unexpectedly activates negative feelings toward us and can be the source of tension between the two generations. They are torn between the conflicts from the past and their need for our support. This leads to emotional distancing. You can see why it's risky to jump in with your advice. Waiting to be asked your opinion is frustrating but more effective in the long run. Criticism, even "for their own good," is damaging to your relationship.
The mere presence of the child and the necessity of taking care of her forces the parents to deal with these issues; thus living with a child involves much more than reality testing against one's fantasies of how good a parent one might be, how wonderful or troublesome one's child will be, or what kind of a parent one's mate will be. Parenting makes it necessary to measure ones fantasies about what a family can and should be against the everyday reality of family living.
Of course change brings rewards, too. When your kids become parents you are offered new experiences. It's a thrill to sec them in their new role. As they seek their new identity as parents, you, too, are finding your way as a grandparent.
Over time, the challenges of parenting begin to soften your child's hurts of the past. She or he develops a new respect for the difficult job of parenting and is more forgiving of your imperfections. This brings an opportunity for dialogue between you on an entirely new plane, because you have something new in common. You're both parents and you're both focused on the welfare of the same person, your grandchild. New understanding and the healing of past grievances then can take place and lead to closer family ties.
One thing all new parents have in common is an abundant need for your support. When we are able to praise our children's parenting efforts, we are filling that need. Find it in your heart to praise even imperfect efforts, remembering that we learn from our mistakes.
Grandma Lynn, who has two infant grandchildren, spoke of her unexpected pleasure watching her daughters as mothers. "It's such a joy to see them in their new role as parents, and I find that I don't have any desire to tell them how to do it. They seem so comfortable with their babies and they're enjoying them so much. I was much more anxious when I was a new mother."
Most of us look with hindsight on our parenting years with some regret about what we might have done differently. Grandparenting allows us to do it again, only better. It gives us a chance to heal.