Grandparenthood has become a more complicated business today than it was in the past. The last of mine died before my tenth birthday, leaving my parents to fend for themselves in their early forties. Memory of those four strangers has left me with momentary glimpses and a handful of photographs. My first french fry, spinning on a stool at a coffee shop, bulging veins, a scratchy beard, a spongy lap. My parents, on the other hand, lived a lot longer. They participated in their grandchildren’s weddings and saw three great grandchildren become teenagers. Why didn’t Erikson fully explore this phase of human development? I suspect he was baffled by the prospect as much as I am. Whatever fantasies I had about the idyllic life as a grandparent have been supplanted by the reality that it’s a complex, challenging experience.
I currently juggle five different family dynamics with eight grandchildren (soon to be nine) all of whom present a potpourri of personalities, perspectives and experiences with an exponential factor of 200 variables in rules, expectations and discipline. And I thought these would be the golden years.
Relationships between parents and children continue to evolve far into adulthood. Just because a thirty year old has a baby doesn’t mean that any difficulties he had with his parents disappear. In fact the opposite often occurs as childhood issues are revisited as the baby matures.
Daughters- and sons-in-law create additional complications because they’ve got their own family inheritance to deal with. Partners have to merge their experiences into their parenting with very little awareness of each other’s early history. Since grandparents also know only one side of the story, they need to respect and appreciate differing viewpoints while the young family forges its own path.
Sometimes grandchildren arrive in the middle of a catastrophe. Zoe was born the same week her Uncle Ben’s ALS diagnosis became final. I was fortunate to be present for her birth, but too numb to appreciate the gift. My heart closed up, afraid to risk the embrace of another baby. Zoe spent this past weekend alone with us and for the first time in nearly five years, I felt powerfully connected to this energetic, intelligent, creative soul.
Because isn’t that the essence of grandparenting? Being connected to the future through the generation that carries our essence and light? I love watching my children parent their children as they relive experiences they most enjoyed, develop their own parenting style, and teach their children to embrace values of integrity and responsibility.
At the same time, I’m a bit jealous of my children. After all, they enjoyed their grandparents' influence long into their adulthood and have a fine grasp of that relationship, while I’m still threading my way through the labyrinth. If it's true that childhood experiences guide our parenting expertise for better or worse, it may also be true that our relationship with our grandparents provides the foundation for this final relationship. Nevertheless, I trust I’ll find my way.