For the generation of baby boomers who thought they would never get old, adding grandparent to the job description can be a real “aha” moment. Borrowing a line from Montecito’s Dr. Lillian Carson, “I knew becoming a grandparent was possible but could not imagine it.”
A grandmother for the past 26 years and author of several best-selling books related to grandparenting, Carson knows of which she speaks. Her books — The Essential Grandparent: A Guide to Making a Difference and The Essential Grandparent’s Guide to Divorce: Making a Difference in the Family — have each earned acclaim, the former winning a Parents’ Choice Award and the latter chosen ForeWord Magazine’s Best Self-Help Book in 1999.
Carson currently is working on the next book in her series, The Essential Grandparent’s Guide to Teenagers. Even after several decades, her observations and guidance are just as essential today, and I’ve found that they help verbalize a lot of what I’ve been experiencing myself.
When I called her last week at her High Road home to talk about baby boomers becoming first-time grandparents, she had some words of wisdom that have helped me put into perspective this new role in my life. My first assignment was reading her book.
For those of us who still live in town and bump into each other regularly, the questions most often asked first are how old are your kids now and what are they doing? It’s understandable since so many of us forged lasting friendships after meeting through our children.
Most of my friends who have segued to grandparenthood from parenthood have done so without losing their youthful demeanors. But in addition to becoming a new grandparent, I’m also part of the sandwich generation, which means I still have a child at home (although not for long) and an 88-year-old mother in a skilled-nursing home in Los Angeles.
Despite my youthful demeanor, my sandwich does not come with bacon, lettuce and tomato, but with a dollop of overwhelmed.
I was told by friends who were already part of what they considered to be the “best club to belong to” — the grandmother’s club — what joy was in store for me. They were so right.
When my first-born daughter gave birth to her own daughter last fall, the moment that has stayed with me was seeing my baby holding her baby for the first time. Julia looked like she was 12 holding a doll. It had been 21 years since I was at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital delivering my third child. I had not been pining for a grandchild as were some of my friends, because my life was still so busy caretaking for myself and others.
But when Eloise arrived, all bets were off. I fell in love, hard.
With Facebook at my fingertips, I began posting photos of my granddaughter. It’s not a formal blog, but more like an intimate photographic journal of her growth and progress. It helps keeps my family and friends in the loop — you know, a modern-day grandma’s brag book.
I’ve also discovered that a much-asked question has been what I want my granddaughter to call me. Grandma? Nana? Glamma? Gammy? Grammy? The list is endless. Maybe the baby will name me herself and I won’t have to choose.
I had no sad thoughts about being too young to be grandparent, although I know many who feel slightly sad or depressed because grandparenthood confronts them with their own aging.
“Becoming a grandparent wakes you up to your age and where you are on the continuum of life,” Carson told me. “Like it or not, it moves us along and makes us aware that we are advancing on life’s journey.”
The grandmother of six — ranging in age from 26 to 10 — is not shy about discussing “the age thing.”
A psychotherapist with a private practice, Carson has served adults, children and families in Santa Barbara and Los Angeles for more than 30 years. She is a child-care consultant and advocate for children, and has an almost 20-year association with Girls Incorporated, including chairing The Golden Circle in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara and serving on the nonprofit organization’s national board.
Her books on grandparenting address how “essential grandparents can be” and the opportunity to influence the future of grandparenting. In addition to her awards, she’s had numerous television appearances (Today Show, CNN, MSNBC and CNBC), been on countless radio shows, and has had multiple speaking engagements to talk about grandparenting issues. She’s also the grandparent spokeswoman for AARP’s “Life after Fifty” national convention.
“Our active lives may defy the stereotypical images of the gray-haired grandparents in rocking chairs, but our new status is still an adjustment,” Carson said. “For some, it’s an assault to their self image, like finding your first gray hair or being offered a senior discount.”
My own grandparents in Chicago were 47 when I was born. They were very youthful and played an active, very important part of my life, as well as with my two siblings. My desire is to do the same with my grandchildren, although most people I’ve met don’t really talk about how becoming a grandparent affects our lives or changes our view of ourselves, or the change it has with you and your children who are now the parents.
As Carson reminded me upon congratulating me on this new part of my life, “grandparenting is a new territory.”
I would have some learning to do. I was not in charge of the parents or the parenting. My relationship with them has changed. Pitfalls will be avoided by giving thought to the effect of my actions and responses.
Grandparents, according to Carson, “must learn the value of exercising incredible amount of tact along the way.”
“Biting your tongue and zipping your lips may sound like a tall order, but it’s doable,” she related. “It’s just like everything else in your life, you reap what you sow.”
Although you don’t have to do anything to become a grandparent, if you want to reap its rewards by developing a meaningful relationship with your grandchild, you do have to do something. You must struggle and juggle to make room for it in your life. To form a relationship and make a difference requires time, creative, planning and effort.
As I gazed in awe at that beautiful little human being in her hospital crib and thought about the continuity of life and what she would mean to me and me to her, I was emotionally overwhelmed. When she came home from the hospital, I arrived for the first of many weekly visits because — lucky for me — her parents live in Santa Barbara!
I was surprised at how easily I picked the baby right up, and changed her diaper without fear and trepidation as I did her with her mother for the first time. Just as no baby comes with a how-to manual for parenting, grandchildren don’t come with instructions either.
Now, as a grandma, I’m more relaxed, and content to read Goodnight Moon over and over again with relish, and to skip a few nonprofit luncheons or yoga classes. Of course, I know I can go home and not have to put in sleep-deprived nights and baby-proofing.
I have many interests and activities outside my family life, but the truth is there is no place I’d rather be having fun than sitting on the floor playing blocks with Eloise, dodging a blueberry in the face or sharing a cup of coffee with my daughter, Julia, and getting a second chance for love with the baby and my grown daughter because I appreciate living in the present now more than when I was first-time mom.
It is gratifying and joyful transition in my life.