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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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Motherhood hadn't upended my sense of self the way the prospect of grandmotherhood did. Waltzing through my days with my son on my hip was the most natural thing in the world; the image of Earth Mother fit nicely with my starry-eyed pioneer persona. But becoming a grandmother—both the wonder and implications of it—stopped me in my tracks. Often in the month before Isabelle was born, I caught myself gazing into the mirror, studying my face and body, wondering: is this what a grandmother looks like? How could someone with my history possibly be called Grandma? (The answer is: I couldn't; I became Nonna, the Italian for "grandmother," which to my ear sounds hipper and younger than "grandma.") Still, that's just word play. Unlike mother, which carries with it a sense of urgency, the rush of the all-consuming present tense, grandmother sounds archetypal, ancestral. It evokes a sense of history, of a lineage going back generations, and going forward, too—far beyond me. Comforting. Terrifying!

And though I'm certain that humans throughout history must have felt a jolt of shock as well as joy when they, too, moved up a notch in the life cycle, my sense is that we baby boomers, who cling to our youthful self-image despite mounting evidence to the contrary, may feel the jolt ever so much more acutely. Even if we don't, we're bound to discuss this new stage of life and dissect it so thoroughly that someone listening in from another galaxy might suppose that we're actually inventing grandparenthood.

Which, in a certain sense, we are: more accurately, we're putting our generational stamp on a role that's as ancient and universal as parenthood, but which has changed radically since we were children. In the introduction to Eye of My Heart: 27 Writers Reveal the Hidden Pleasures and Perils of Being a Grandmother (a new book, which I edited), psychologist Mary Pipher writes: "Grandmothers today confront different issues than our grandmothers. Even the look of many contemporary families has changed: there are single-parent daughters, custodial grandchildren, divorced adult children, and blended-family and adopted grandchildren." Now, many same-sex couples are becoming grandparents, too. By comparison, my extended family—with a mere four biological grandparents and two stepgrandparents—is as common as a one-dollar bill.

The Ache of Separation

My worries over my new role dissolved the instant I saw Isabelle, shining like a freshwater pearl under the warming lights in the delivery room. I got to hold her less than an hour after she'd been born, and I continued holding her through her first days and weeks—as much as her parents would let me. I was as swoony and lovesick as a teenager with her first crush. Tamar and I joked that this little girl was being cradled and rocked more than any baby outside of Bali, where infants are famously cupped to the bosoms of family members 24 hours a day.

The other grandparents came and went. I made myself scarce during their visits, cushioned by the knowledge that I was the one our granddaughter would know intimately. And I'd know her. I'd be able to track the subtle changes in her as she grew from an infant to a toddler to a young girl. I'd tell her stories and take her out for banana splits, to her first ballet—and, needless to say, her first James Taylor concert. And though on the surface my life in no way resembles Nana's, I vowed to become the same sort of steady, loving presence and personal safe harbor for Isabelle that my grandmother had been for me. I felt as though I'd won the lottery, and in a certain sense I had. There'd be no more terrible good-byes—at least not in the foreseeable future.

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