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 | By Dr. Cathleen McGreal

A Role We Don’t Control

Becoming a Grandparent

I was sitting on a poolside chair, enjoying the busy antics of a toddler splashing by his father on the pool steps. The mother was tossing a baseball cap toward the deep end so that an older child could swim and retrieve it. The middle-aged grandmother and grandfather were relaxing on lounge chairs when he turned to her with a warm smile and said, “Remember when ours were that age?” She nodded and replied, “Yes, and aren’t you glad they aren’t now!” Later, the parents took the toddler up to their room and the grandparents played pool games with the older grandchild.

The scene was a snapshot of grandparenthood: the shared vacation showing a desire for intergenerational intimacy; the older couple recalling their own child-rearing days with fondness, but without the desire to return to those day-to-day tasks; grandma and grandpa moving from the sidelines to center stage when asked to help out; grandchildren expressing loving attachment toward grandparents.

A life transition we don’t schedule!

Becoming a grandparent is out of our control. It might occur much earlier or much later than we expect, which will influence our role. Some couples become first-time parents in their 40s – while their friends are becoming first-time grandparents at the same age!

A role mediated through adult children.

There is no clear-cut “job description” for being an involved grandparent. Respect the desires of the parents, knowing that they will make decisions differently than you did. And activities change over time, based on the developmental level of the grandchild. Grandparents, like parents, can expect adolescents to give a high priority to time spent with peers.

Support parents as needed.

Parents want grandparents to be supportive, but not to interfere – it is a fine line to walk, indeed! Allow the younger generation to explore the parental role. Be ready to listen and provide emotional support. Offer advice when asked. Follow parental guidelines when it comes to gift-giving.

Storytelling and family rituals.

Pass on the richness of your family’s heritage through storytelling and rituals. What were mom and dad like as little kids? What games did they play? Where did their explorations take them? Bring out old baptism and first Communion pictures to share. At my father-in-law’s wake, one of the most heart-rending moments was a “Grandpa Bud” story told by his grandson, Ryan.

St. John of the Cross wrote, “At the evening of our life, we will be judged on love.” As grandparents, let your love of God be obvious.