When my parents received news of their first grandchild’s birth in June of 1967, my father was so struck by the milestone that he convinced my mom to climb on a southbound train with him and three antsy kids in tow and travel from our home in the St. Paul suburbs all the way to Jacksonville, Fla., just to get an introduction.
This was uncharacteristically flighty behavior for a guy who generally kept a pretty tight lid on his emotions — and a strong grip on his pocketbook. So we all knew something was up.
I recall the trip probably like any other 15-year-old who’d never traveled beyond western Wisconsin. Details of the journey itself — busing between train stations in impossibly crowded Chicago, grits and black-eyed peas for breakfast in Birmingham, Ala. — remain vivid even 50 years later, but the magic my parents must have felt upon laying eyes on their grandchild was mostly lost on me. It was just a baby, after all.
The arrival last week of our first grandchild has revived these memories and sparked a certain appreciation for what my dad was going through back then. That’s not to say I’m completely clear about how I’m supposed to react or even what the job of grandpa entails.
So I was slightly relieved to stumble upon a piece Lesley Stahl penned last week in the New York Times. The longtime CBS News correspondent — a grandmother herself — assures us newbies to the grandparenting world that it’s a thoroughly joyful exercise. That’s because boomers have been reinventing the role in a way that benefits everyone involved.
For various reasons — economic, cultural, historical — grandparents now are more present in their grandkids’ lives than in years past. They’re expected to communicate more frequently and offer more day-to-day assistance.
“It used to be that the middle-aged took care of their elderly parents; more and more it’s the other way around,” Stahl writes. “Today most 60- and 70-year-olds have more money than 40- and 50-year-olds. Grandparents get their monthly Social Security checks; many have paid off their mortgage; and large numbers remain on the job, earning money. Almost a third of women aged 65 to 69 still work, while 18 percent of those 70 to 74 do. Some grandmas put off retiring specifically to help support the grandkids.”
Stahl suggests much of this behavior — at least on the part of grandmothers — stems from feeling guilty about splitting time between career and parenting when their own kids were growing up. “Many of us want a second chance,” she explains. “As working mothers, we carried around bales of guilt because we felt (or were made to feel) we weren’t there enough for our kids. We know what we missed out on, so we’re making up for it by pouring not just money but also time into our grandchildren.”
There’s no question that parenting can create a reservoir of guilt that fills more easily than it empties, but I’m not feeling like I need to go the extra mile with my grandson because I came up short with his dad (or his new aunt) when they were growing up. Besides, as Stahl points out, it’s a different relationship.
“With our own kids, the love was tempered by responsibility,” she writes. “We had to guide them, keep them safe, get them through school, teach them manners, on and on. Grandparent love is unfettered and pure. And we feel better about ourselves being ‘yes’ people than scolding mamas.”
Thankfully, My Lovely Wife and I didn’t have to travel 1,500 miles to see our day-old grandson. Maybe that had something to do with our response. It was sweet to hold little Finnley and puzzle over where he got his nose and what he might be dreaming about. But it’s not the same life-changing moment that arrives with the birth of your own kids. The connection in that case is immediate and intense; you know you’re somehow inseparable.
Still, there is something deeper there. I’m just not sure what it is yet.
Stahl calls grandchildren “the great reward for enduring the indignities of aging,” and if I take that in the way she seems to be intending — that it offers us an opportunity to serve, a way to create meaning in our later years — I’m happy to be the recipient.
Fifty years after my first brush with the magic of grandkids, I understand that Finnley is not just another baby. And while I’m still pretty clueless about how this is all supposed to play out, I’m open to the possibilities. I’ve got a feeling the little guy is going to help me get there.