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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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You say good-bye and I say hello

Hello, hello.

I don't know why you say good-bye

I say hello.

—The Beatles

My son has just sent me a video shot moments before on his BlackBerry. He's poised on the banks of the Seine, and in the distance the sun is beaming off the fabled rooftops like flares. The action stops, and then starts up again near the Eiffel Tower, where my 2-year-old granddaughter howls with glee as she runs away from my son. Every so often, she stops and turns around to make sure that her father is still there. Thrilled as I am to see Clay and Isabelle, awed as I am by the technology that transports them in a flash from Paris to my computer screen in Washington, D.C., the sight of them fills me with more yearning than joy. They seem so close—and yet really they're so far away. Instead of bridging the miles and time zones that separate us, the immediacy of our communicating does the opposite and underscores the distance.

Here, but not here!

I feel the same way when I "visit" with them on Skype in "real time." Even as I delight in watching Isabelle take a bubble bath or dig into a croissant (the good kind), I'm painfully aware that we're on opposite sides of a vast ocean. I'm left feeling unsatisfied, as if I've been invited out to a fine restaurant and then made to leave just as the main course arrives. My longing to be with Clay, his wife, Tamar, and Isabelle—see them, touch them, laugh with them in real real time—only grows stronger. I'd love to join them for an impromptu dinner or a lazy walk by the river, instead of the scheduled visits that always feel like state occasions, in which we must be on our best behavior because we know that months will pass before we meet up again in the same dimension. Isabelle seems frustrated, too: yesterday, she tried to pin her Dora the Explorer barrettes in my hair through the computer screen.

Maybe I feel the distance so acutely because my history with my son is pockmarked with more hellos and good-byes than in most families. Soon after he turned 2, his father and I divorced. Ironically, though the divorce agreement bears the official stamp of a court of law, the marriage itself was a common-law affair. We didn't believe in stifling social contracts back in 1971, the year Clay was born. They were the work of the man, the pigs, the whole hateful military-industrial complex, and, worst of all, our parents. We were writing our own rules—by which we meant no rules. We were freaks. That was our calling, as well the nicest thing you could say about anybody. My unhusband and I vowed to renew our love every day, freely, joyfully—until one day the love ran out.

The prevailing wisdom then, especially in northern California, where we lived, was that shared physical custody was in the child's best interest. Back and forth between Mom's house and Dad's house, a few days here, a week there, a new generation of portable children, led by their parents, was redefining the meaning of home. So even though I'd been granted full legal and physical custody by the judge, even though my son's father was a deadbeat when it came to child support, even though I worried that living in two dissimilar households would make my son feel as if he were on a permanent camping trip, I went along. By his fourth birthday, he was spending almost a third of the time with his father. When he turned 10, both he and my ex pushed for half-time; reluctantly, I agreed. At first we were on a week-to-week schedule, then every two weeks, and finally, by the time Clay entered high school, he alternated living at his father's house and my house for a month at a time.

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.

"We decided we want to be near family when the baby comes.

We love Paris, but we don't really have anyone here."

Pause.

I thought he was afraid of hurting me because he knew that I knew what was coming next. He'd tell me that they were moving back to San Francisco to be close to Tamar's parents and his father and stepmother. Not only that, Clay, a freelance photographer, already had an established career in California. It was the obvious right decision—and I was waiting for him to finish so I could let him know that I was pleased, not hurt. The Bay Area is fewer time zones away from Washington than France. Besides, it's always been my not-so-secret desire that one day we'd all—my husband and myself, my son and his family—wind up back in northern California, the fractured family reconstituted and made whole.

But then he said something that nearly caused me to pass out.

"We want to be near you. We're moving to Washington."

My son, my daughter-in-law, whom I've known and loved since she was 16, and now with a baby—coming to a neighborhood near me

Hello, hello!

The Pleasure of Connection

A month later, they were here, living at our house until they found a place of their own—which they did, one mile away! Hugh and I were so overjoyed that we let go of the rent-stabilized apartment we'd been hanging on to in New York and moved all its furniture into their new home—our housewarming gift.

Summer came. They found work and made friends. When Clay was free, we trolled the farmers' markets, and then we whipped up one feast after another. We took spontaneous walks and met for coffee. For the first time in our adult lives, the pressure began to ease. My son and I could spend time together without booking plane tickets months in advance or worrying that we needed to make every second count. One day, when he dropped by the house to pick something up, he looked at me and joked, "Now that we live so close, are we supposed to hug every time we see each other or what?"

As the summer wore on, it began to feel as if we were all biding our time, slogging through the sodden days, our internal compasses set for early August, when the baby was due. I knitted a crib-sized blanket, tried and failed at a tiny sweater, and started on another blanket, resigned to the fact that I could knit only squares and rectangles, nothing that required a shape—and even then, the squares and rectangles were riddled with dropped stitches and gaping holes. But it didn't matter, because for the first time in years I felt whole.

I was going to be a grandmother—in the abstract, a slightly unreal, somewhat ironic, and improbable notion. I didn't fit my own image of a grandmother, spun from Bessie, my nana, who was renowned from one end of Pittsburgh to the other for her melt-in-your-mouth chopped liver. No one ever asked her what she wanted to do with her life, and she certainly never entertained the question herself. She took care of people: her husband, my grandfather; their two children; and later her aging parents, who lived until their deaths with her and Pa in their famously spotless one-bedroom apartment—the shtetl relocated to Squirrel Hill. Nana was permanently on call to take care of her grandchildren, too, all of whom lived nearby. I adored her. She had a salty tongue and a sense of humor that killed—survival tactics, no doubt, that kept her sane after being stoned by the Cossacks at age 6. Everyone adored her for her generous, indomitable spirit—my most prized inheritance. Still, our lives could hardly be more different. Could I, a semireformed hippie writer, rise to the occasion and fill the mythic shoes left behind by Nana?

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.

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."

Pause.

"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.

I sometimes wonder what it'll be like if Clay and I ever do find a way to occupy the same latitude and longitude for more than a few weeks or months at a time. Will we take each other for granted? Forget to call? Annoy each other in the petty ways that parents and adult children who live in close proximity often do? And this: can geographic proximity heal the fissures that rent us apart, each in our own way, so long ago? I hope that someday we'll have the chance to find out.

Until then, our lives will continue to be a little bit like the video my son shot of his daughter running toward the Eiffel Tower—each of us turning around every so often to make sure the other is still there.

Barbara Graham is a regular contributor to Utne Reader and the author of Women Who Run with the Poodles (Avon, 1994).
 
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