The Grandfather Clause
Tom and Gina just had their first child, a baby boy named Christopher. Both Tom and Gina’s parents were overjoyed. In particular, Karen, Gina’s mom, was especially excited because it was her first grandchild. She knew it would be an adjustment for Tom and her daughter, so she went for a two-week visit to try to help out.
Unfortunately, what was supposed to be a great mother-daughter bonding opportunity turned into a disaster.
“I’ve never been more hurt in my life, certainly not by my daughter.” Said Karen. “She acted like I couldn’t do anything right. I tried to take the baby so she could get some rest and she got upset. She’s trying to nurse, but she was having a little bit of a hard time, so I offered to give the baby a bottle and take some of the pressure of her and she just lost it. I bought her a baby swing—she loved hers when she was little—but wouldn’t use it the whole time I was there. Everything I did was wrong. I ended up leaving after a week. I’m just devastated.”
Becoming a grandparent is a milestone that we all expect will be one of the most joyful times in our lives. But the reality is often at least a little bumpier than people expect it will be. For some, the challenge is figuring out how to relate to their adult children. Others can feel as if their own parenting skills are being negatively judged when they see their grandchildren being raised differently than they raised their children. For other’s, it the mini-crisis brought on by, “I’m not old enough to be a grandparent, am I?”
The good news is that new grandparents don’t have to trip over these and other common hurdles. The following are some suggestions for negotiating terms of your grandfather (or grandmother) clause.
Learn to Love the Reality More than Your Fantasy.
When people approach the major milestones in life like marriage, childbearing and grandparenting, they often have a fantasy about how it’s “supposed” to be. But our ability to be happy in any state in life tends to depend upon how quickly we’re able to adjust our expectations to–and make peace with–the reality of our situation over our fantasy.
“I used to imagine that my grandkids would be over all the time and that I’d be able to see them whenever I wanted,” says Jean, who has three kids and 5 grandchildren. “But shortly after having their kids, all of my children ended up having to move out of town because of job situations. The closest ones are 3 hours away.”
Jean’s learned to adjust. “There are more ways to stay in touch than ever these days. I’m not really a tech person, but I had my kids show me how to text and Skype and other things you can do. Between that and making regular trips back and forth I’m more involved in their lives now that my parents ever were in my kids’ lives. And we lived on the same block when we started out!”
Jean tells the story of a friend of hers who can’t make the jump. “My friend Carol’s kids live long distance now too and she’s miserable. I’ve tried to show her how I stay in touch with my grandkids, but she just keeps saying, ‘It’s not the same.’ She doesn’t even try. It’s like she’d rather be lonely and miserable.”
Life doesn’t always work out the way we’d imagine it would but when we’re willing to meet life on its own terms instead of wishing it were different, we can actually enjoy life more than we imagined.
Don’t Play a Role. Be Real.
A close second to loving reality more than your fantasy is “Don’t play the role of grandparent. Be a real grandparent.” We all want to love people how WE want to love them and do for people what WE want to do for them. It’s hard to ask people what they need from us because they might tell us and then we’d have to do THAT instead. When we do this, we end up just playing the role of a loving person instead of being a loving person to the people we are trying to love.
Grandparents who have the best relationship with their kids and grandkids take their cue from their kids and grandkids. “My parents love to give gifts. They think the more gifts the better, no matter what they are, “ says Bill, the father of 3 kids, ages 14, 12, and 9. “But they don’t have a lot of money, so they go to the dollar store and buy, like, 100 things and wrap them all individually. The kids get tons of presents and hate most everything. We’ve taught the kids to say ‘thank you’ and be polite about it—they know my folks mean well–but my parents never understand why the kids aren’t jumping up and down for joy. I’ve told them 1000 times, ‘Mom. Dad. Just buy one, thoughtful, thing.’ I would even tell them what to get if they’re stuck. But they’re heck-bent on doing things their way and then they wonder why the kids groan when they see mom and dad with a big garbage bag full of gifts. I feel bad about it and part of me feels guilty that we’re not all more grateful for their effort, but the truth is they’re not really giving the kids presents. They’re giving themselves presents at the expense of what would genuinely make our kids happy. They do lots of things like that. They don’t do what you ask. They do what they want. I try to talk to them about it and they just say, ‘Don’t tell us how to be grandparents.’ Yeah, well, I feel like someone needs to.”
Good grandparents don’t make grandparenting about themselves. They made it about being there for their kids and grandkids in a way that will be meaningful to their kids and grandkids.
Hold Off on the Advice-Giving.
This one is tough. You have a lot of wisdom and experience. You want to share it with your kids. Chances are, you will get your opportunity. But do yourself and your kids a favor. Wait until you’re asked for advice before you give it. If you aren’t sure whether to speak up or pipe down, and your kids seem to be struggling, feel free to offer, “Honey, parenting is tough, and if you ever want to talk something out with me or get some ideas don’t ever hesitate to ask, but regardless, just know I love you and support you.” Offering support instead of advice is the best way to be invited to give more of both.
Take the Long View (Faith and values stuff)
There is precious little that is more heartbreaking than seeing our adult children appear to leave the faith behind or not raise our grandkids Catholic.
Terri was heartbroken when she found out her kids weren’t going to baptize her granddaughter, Emily. “I couldn’t believe it. I know that they haven’t gone to church in a while, but I just thought they would get the baby baptized at least! They just said it’s not part of their lives and they weren’t going to do it and nothing I said made a difference. I’m just sick about it. A friend of mine suggested baptizing Emily on the sly when I babysit. I’m thinking about it, believe me, but I’m not sure it’s the right thing to do.”
Just to be clear, secret baptisms over the parents’ objections are definitely not—in a manner of speaking—kosher. Capice? We can only propose, not impose, when it comes to influencing our adult children, not only on matters of faith and values but in other life matters as well. We especially need to respect the Church’s wisdom that parents, not grandparents, are the authority in our grandkids lives. No end-runs allowed.
If you are frustrated by the choices your adult children are making, especially around passing on the faith and values they were raised in to your grandkids, try to take the long view. First, make sure that you are praying for your family. The Holy Spirit is responsible for conversion, not us. When we bring our family to God, he will find opportunities for us and others to bring them back to him.
Second, don’t lecture. Lead. Ask yourself what it would take for you to be a more credible witness of your faith and values. Our faith and values are not merely something we have and church can’t just be something we go to. Our faith, values, and religious involvement should be a source of joy and strength in our lives. The degree to which our adult kids can see that our faith, values and religious involvement challenges us to grow, strengthens us through hard times, enables us to have healthy and loving relationships, and lead a joyful life despite the struggles is directly related to how credible they will see us as examples of how to live. If your kids aren’t passing on your faith, values, or religious commitments on to their kids, it may be that there are ways you are unintentionally undermining your witness. If so, instead of lecturing your kids, or trying to do an end run around them by teaching your grandkids about the faith behind your kids backs, work on developing your own witness to the power of faith in your life.
Of course, even when a grandparent’s personal witness is strong, we must respect that everyone comes to God in their own way and in their own time. We have to be patient. Go ahead and invite your kids to participate in faith related activities with you, and to consider your values in making decisions, just resist the temptation to lecture or nag.
Growing into Grandparenting
The most important thing to remember though is that grandparenting is an evolving role and there is no cookie-cutter way to do it any more than there is a cookie-cutter way to be a parent. Good grandparents do what good parents do. They pray for their family. They lead by example. They listen and serve the way their family needs them to serve not just the way they want to serve. And they change what they can to be better sources of love and support. It’s a simple formula, but it’s one that helps grandparents be everything they would like to be to their family.
Dr. Gregory Popcak is the author of many books on marriage and family life. He is the director of the Pastoral Solutions Institute. www.CatholicCounselors.com