Author Barbara Graham’s story sounds like a novel. It’s got so many twists and turns she couldn’t have made it up if she tried.
Grandmotherhood is a journey, she says. Sometimes it’s amazing and joyful and sometimes it can break your heart. Barbara has lived it all — immediately feeling such passion for her first granddaughter that she “hungered for the baby when she was out of range.” Then her heart was broken when her son, daughter-in-law, and new granddaughter moved to another continent. She also recognized the complexity of her role and wanted to figure out what sort of grandmother she wanted to be in the world.
In 2007, she invited authors to contribute their stories to her anthology in order to better understand the landscape of grandmotherhood. The result was Eye of My Heart: 27 writers reveal the hidden pleasures and perils of being a grandmother. Click here to read my review of Eye of My Heart.
For our May 16 GaGa Sisterhood Zoom meeting, Barbara shared her journey from the past 15 years including her challenging daughter-in-law, long-distance grandparenting, divorce, the “other” grandparents, and some favorite quotes from her book.
Barbara Graham’s Story
At the birth of her first granddaughter, there were six grandparents (two step-grandparents) all vying for the child’s attention. Barbara described her experience as a “crash course in how to do this with ease and grace.” She felt like she was auditioning for her role and had to win over the parents. The role was way more complicated than she’d imagined.
Her first wake-up call came when the baby came home from the hospital. Her daughter-in-law and her mother were upstairs bathing and feeding the infant while Barbara sat by herself in the living room feeling like “chopped liver!”
In 2006, her son, daughter-in-law, and infant granddaughter moved from Paris to Washington, D.C., and bought a house a mile away from her. Barbara was ecstatic — envisioning Sunday dinners and babysitting. After just six weeks, the new little family moved back to Paris. Barbara was heartbroken; she felt like they’d kidnapped her granddaughter and it “hurt like hell.” Their move also forced her to abandon the memoir about grandmotherhood she’d planned to write.
Every Grandma Has a Story
Barbara still wanted to write about grandmotherhood so she reached out to writers she knew and asked if they had a story to tell. She wanted to do the non-Hallmark version because there are so many nuanced issues in being a grandma.
In 2009, her son and his little family moved from Paris to Italy. Barbara went for an extended visit to take care of Isabel when her baby sister Azalea was born. In 2010, her daughter-in-law’s father died in a single-engine plane crash. The family returned to San Francisco where they’d grown up. But after one year, they moved back to Paris.
The next move happened in 2012 when the son and daughter-in-law were restless and came back to California. That same year Barbara and her husband moved from D.C. back to California where they’d originally met. Once more there were Sunday dinners and sleepovers with the granddaughters.
In 2014, Barbara’s son took her out to lunch and told her they were going back to Italy. Now not only was her heart broken but it became calloused because nobody cared about her feelings.
But that was not the last twist. In 2016, her daughter-in-law came back to California with her two daughters, left her husband in Italy, and emailed him that she wanted a divorce. He had a business in Italy and couldn’t leave.
And that’s not the end of the story. In 2020, Barbara’s ex-daughter-in-law accepted a job in Malta and took both girls with her. Though it was another blow for Barbara, her son was now closer to his daughters and saw them often.
Barbara has no idea where the story will go next but she does know it’s been a great lesson in surrender – “what else could I do,” she lamented. “I have no control over anything except loving my granddaughters, my son, and daughter-in-law and how I respond to all these endless changes.”
Lessons from the Journey
After years of being women who owned our own voices, Barbara says we must now learn to defer to our adult children. She offered these takeaways:
- Learn to defer and not speak your mind. Better seal your lips.
- Abide by the parents’ rules – don’t say “we did it differently.” If you’re a paternal grandma, you may not have intimate access in the beginning.
- The heart is a very generous muscle and capable of loving many people at the same time.
- Don’t be surprised if old insecurities pop up and rivalry comes into play. “Will I still matter,” Barbara wondered.
- Your grandchild may reject you in favor of her own parents. Don’t take it personally. Sometimes they’ll like you better when they get older.
- Be prepared to flash your credit cards and wallet. Barbara made the mistake of introducing her granddaughters to American Girl dolls. Sometimes she wakes up to a text from one of them wishing they could have this “brand new adorable outfit.”
- Let go of expectations in every aspect of life because stuff happens. We get older – let go of whatever agenda you have or else you’ll suffer — you’re not in charge.
- Get a life – maintain your own sense of self. If you put everything into one relationship or try to fill what’s missing in you, you’ll be heartbroken. Getting so embroiled and anxious over a situation doesn’t do anybody any good – try to maintain the integrity of your own being apart from your role as a grandmother. Find meaning and purpose beyond the grandchildren because they’re not your whole story.
- Hold onto the big picture. We can get very caught up in the petty stuff, arguments, feeling wounded, not invited, and all the dynamics of human relationships that play out, and we can get triggered by our emotions.
Note: Our GaGa Sisterhood meetings take place on Zoom every month and are open to all grandmas. You can check out our upcoming speakers on this link.