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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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And then.

What seems too good to be true often turns out to be just that.

When my granddaughter was little more than a month old, Clay asked me to go for a walk. It was September, but still blisteringly hot. We padded our way through the neighborhood, keeping under the cover of trees.

"We love you," my boy, now a father, said nervously after a long silence. "We really love being near you, that's why we came. And we love having grandparents around, but we're just not happy here. This is your place, not ours. We never should have left Paris."


"We've decided we're going back."

In that moment, the first, immutable law of grandparenthood struck me like a body blow. It didn't matter that my granddaughter stirred in me the same rush of maternal feelings that I'd felt for my son. I had no say—in anything. Isabelle was mine, but not mine. No doubt, this was natural and appropriate: children belong with their parents. Anyhow, who was I to protest? I, who never for a minute considered raising Clay within 3,000 miles of my own parents? I, who, when Clay was 6 months old, moved him from a dairy farm in British Columbia to a plywood shack in the mountains of northern California, where we had no running water, no electricity, and no phone, and our nearest neighbors—sometimes way too close for comfort—were bears.

Everything that happened next took place in a hurried blur—at least to me. In little more than a month, Clay and Tamar disposed of the house and the furniture, and with Isabelle strapped securely to Clay's chest in a baby carrier, they boarded a plane bound for Paris. Clearly, being shuttled back and forth between his father's house and mine for most of his childhood had turned my son into an expert mover. Watching him pack took me right back to those awful Sunday afternoons—only, this time, there were no guinea pigs or baseball cards: there was a baby, my granddaughter, and where they were going was more than 10 blocks away.

The Constancy of Relationship

At first, it was Isabelle I missed most. She was so new—and something ineffable and mysterious had happened between us during those long hours when I'd held her and rocked her, some mingling of molecules that left me physically hungry for her as soon as she was out of range.

Still, she was so new. We'd bonded on a primitive, preverbal level, but that was just the start of something, and though I grieve for missing out on both the small, ordinary moments, and the giant leaps she takes in between our visits, once I got over the shock of her absence, I realized that it's Clay that I miss most of all. He isn't new to me.

There's no getting around that, as a lifelong, fully vested member of the In Treatment generation, I've spent more than half my life talking through just about everything with my son: the divorce, the years he spent commuting between his father's house and mine, the rotten boyfriends I subjected him to before I met Hugh, his marriage to Tamar, his longing for fatherhood, the difficulty we both still have when we say good-bye—a difficulty he now also experiences in relation to Isabelle when he travels for photo shoots, as he does often. He and I don't have many secrets, not the usual scenario among previous generations of parents and children—certainly not in my family of origin, where just about everything that mattered was sealed away in some dark collective psychic attic, never to be opened.

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