In the past fifteen years, I’ve read more than a hundred books on grandparenting. Jane Isay’s newest book, Unconditional Love: A Guide to Navigating the Joys and Challenges of Being a Grandparent Today is my all-time favorite. What made Unconditional Love so unique and appealing to me was the last part of her book titled: “Growing Up. Growing Old.” It’s a hopeful message for grandparents of adolescent grandchildren about the pleasures and possibilities of a deeper relationship with an adult grandchild.
As grandparents suffer through the distancing of our teenage grandchildren, when we are no longer at the top of their “favorite people” list, we must remember that they will come back: wiser, better, and grown. We just have to live that long. And we will, because as statistics show, we are living longer and healthier lives. More young people have living grandparents at their college graduations and even at their weddings.
Baby boomers are the beneficiaries of the longest life expectancy in American history and we can expect to be part of our grandchildren’s lives for a very long time. Boomers have the opportunity, Isay suggests, to participate in the rebirth of the connected family after family closeness took a big hit following World War II.
Grandchildren Are Stardust
Isay is a devoted grandma of four grandchildren. She is also a masterful storyteller with a talent for creative metaphors and beautiful language. She begins her book with the romantic notion of “stardust.”
Every time a child is born, a new star shines and we grandparents see our grandchildren as stars who we shower with unconditional love — the magic bridge that spans the generations. We love them unconditionally, and they love us back without reservations. It’s a two-way experience. It grows the children and gentles the grandparents.
Isay explains that grandparents come in three age groups: Young grandparents may still be working full-time and may not have much time to linger with the grandchildren. The middle group may have it the best with the time and energy to crawl around on the floor with them, babysit and be a big part of our grandchildren’s lives. Elder grandparents may be in line for a new generation — great-grandchildren.
I expect I may have that privilege if genetics favors me. My 95-year old mother has three great-granddaughters and my two grandmas lived long enough to see me celebrate my fortieth birthday. The love and respect I had for my grandmas grew stronger with time. The gift of seeing them as great-grandmothers gave me a deeper appreciation of the bond we’d forged over the years.
Isay suggests the age of our grandchildren informs how we relate to them. When they’re babies, access has everything to do with our grown children, their parents, and our relationship with our adult children. Many grandparents are shocked to discover that parents have total control over our access to those babies and we better learn how to adjust to this shift in power.
Based on her experience as a grandma and interviews with all three generations, Isay believes that even though we are no longer in charge, grandparents can, with our perspective and experience, find a way to keep the love flowing. With conversation, forgiveness, and acceptance, we can nurture opportunities for healing and redemption in our families.
Preparing for a New Grandchild
The first part of the book offers sound advice on how to prepare for a new grandchild. There is work to do, she explains. Try to deal with old wounds and make peace. Become more accepting, take responsibility for any early negativity and develop patience and empathy for parents who are the busiest generation we’ve ever known.
Learn how today’s parents are raising children. The more we know about what they believe, the more prepared we will be to understand their rules and worries. Think of this work as preparation for a long voyage to an exotic spot. Always keep in mind that our adult children don’t love our advice. This super sensitive generation of parents hear our suggestions as criticism. Never compare your experience to another grandma’s — appreciate what you’ve got — it’s all good.
There’s a wonderful section on why we spoil our grandchildren and why our children resent this behavior. Our culture promotes indulging grandparent stereotypes; our own life history may have included spoiling by our grandparents; and we feel the insecurity of age in a world where we are becoming invisible.
The Intangible Gifts
The second part of the book explains in so many beautiful ways the intangible gifts we give our grandchildren. Isay calls them the four pillars of the moral imagination: empathy, perspective, knowledge, and agency.
We can have a powerful influence on how our grandchildren show up in the world and the underlying ethics they carry with them. Isay wants grandparents to imagine that the attention and unconditional love we give our grandchildren can help them grow and eventually help to mend our troubled world. The little bits of conversation we have with them will exist as “tiny shards of color in the great mosaic of understanding.”
Another intangible gift we can give our grandchildren is to become the griots (storytellers) of our family and acquaint them with all the generations we have known — our grandparents, our parents, ourselves, and our children. As the keepers of family stories, we can pass down values and history. And don’t forget to tell them about the day they were born.
The third part of the book covers real issues and real solutions: grandparents who are becoming caregivers when their children are incapable of parenting; strategies for staying close to long-distance grandchildren; and the biggest issue of all — generosity and fairness with our time, money and resources.
Unconditional Love: A Guide to Navigating the Joys and Challenges of Being a Grandparent Today lives up to its title. You can tell Isay gives her grandchildren plenty of unconditional love. She also provides a comprehensive guide for navigating the joys and challenges of being a grandparent.
Isay’s book is filled with poignant stories to illustrate all of her points. I plan to share some of them in future posts. In the meantime, I encourage you to buy Unconditional Love and savor the whole thing.