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Why Modern Day Grandparenting Is So Hard

Grandparents must continually strike a balance between their needs and those of the families they helped create. This is never easy.

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Still raw is the memory loop of those awful Sunday afternoons when I stood by, trying to appear cheerful, trying to make it seem as if this were the most normal thing in the world—my kid packing up his clothes, his toys and books and baseball cards, as well as Batmite, the guinea pig (which, I'm certain, set the world record for rodent longevity), and the portable black-and-white TV that Clay liked to have with him at all times. As five o'clock approached, our conversation became studded with awkward pauses and mumbled half-sentences, both of us aware of the ticking clock, both of us already leaning into the near future, when our daily lives would diverge. Then, suddenly, his father was there. It took him a couple of trips—more as the years went by—to load the mountain of stuff into the back of his dad's aging green pickup. They'd make a fast getaway: a quick hug on the sidewalk, then my boy would turn around from his perch inside the cab so we could blow each other kisses. We'd slap our cheeks hard, a pair of exaggerating clowns, each of us intent on assuring the other that the kisses had hit their mark—a ritual we still practice when we say good-bye, even on Skype. I'd stand there waving until the truck disappeared around the corner, then I'd run upstairs and fling myself on Clay's bed, weeping, burying my face in his pillow, trying to inhale his sweet-salty boyish essence while it was still fresh. To an outside observer, the transfer of a child from mother to father may have looked civilized, but to me it felt like an abduction. It didn't matter that my son's father and stepmother and, later, his half-siblings lived 10 blocks from my flat in San Francisco: it felt like an ocean away then, too.

Unanticipated Joy

Sometime in the late 1980s, the prevailing wisdom shifted. Psychologists began warning that children who shuttled back and forth between their parents' homes risked feeling like traveling salesmen. But by then it was too late. "I never really belonged anywhere," Clay says now. "I always felt like a visitor."

There were other, less obvious, abandonments, too. I was a young, single mother when none of my friends were having kids; after my unhusband and I separated, I was too easily distracted—by a string of bad boyfriends, and by trying to forge a new identity, now that the '60s were over and hating society was no longer a viable career path. Later, after I'd figured out how to support myself and had settled down with Hugh—a kind, funny man, who became a devoted stepfather on our second date—his job took us from California to New York just as Clay was finishing up his junior year of high school. Now I was the one making the break. And though there have been bright patches—summers and vacations during college, frequent visits, trips en famille—my son and I have lived on opposite rims of this continent, and then on different continents, for nearly 20 years. For both of us, bonded in the unique way of single parents and their only children who more or less grew up together, the separations have been circumstantial, painful, like a persistent ache you learn to live with, but that never goes away.

And then.

Three years ago, I was seated on the edge of a chair in my living room in Washington, watching the late-morning sun filter through the gauzy curtains and perform its shadow dance on the rugs and furniture, when Clay broke the news over the phone.

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