When I was 8 years old, my paternal grandmother moved in with our family. My mother, who lost her mom when she was 18, was very close to her mother-in-law. My father was overseas at the end of World War II when my older brother was born. My mother was 21 years old at the time. Living in a multi-generational family wasn’t new to her.
I loved having my grandmother live with us. My mom worked full time, and so my grandma took up the slack. In those days, I came home for lunch. I remember steaming bowls of chicken soup waiting for me. When I came home from school, she was there to greet me. We would play cards together for hours.
When she died suddenly, from a heart attack when I was 13, I was devastated. It was my first encounter with death as a child. She had become my second mother.
Jane grew up in a dysfunctional family — her parents were alcoholics. She spent countless hours at her grandparents’ house. There, she felt safe and secure. Her grandparents provided her with a sense of stability that she didn’t have at home. Jane feels that her grandparents saved her life.
Grandparents can play a pivotal role in a child’s life, especially if they live nearby and have both the ability and desire to help out. My friend Tracy is fortunate that he has seven grandchildren who live in our area, and three who live down the street. “My wife and I get to fill in the gaps for their parents, who both work full time,” he said.
For him, it’s not just about showing up for a birthday party. Being part of their lives on a daily basis gives him a sense of purpose and meaning. I hear this from many of my grandparent friends.
Our kids were little when we moved to Seattle. Both sets of our parents lived on the East Coast, so they weren’t able to be involved in our day-to-day lives. But when our kids were older, and could travel independently, my mother made an intelligent offer to her grandkids. Whenever they wanted to come visit her, she would pay for their airfare. This way, their visits weren’t dependent on their parent’s finances.
My daughters spent many school vacations with my mother and, as a result, developed a close relationship with her. When they were older, my mom helped them out financially. When my mother was elderly, all of her grandchildren helped take care of her. It was a blessing for everyone.
The relationship that grandparents forge with their grandkids becomes a model for their children and their grandkids on how to be a grandparent. My grandmother and mother set a high bar for my brother, one I that we hope to reach.
Active grandparenting is a challenge in the 21st century. Two working parents have become the norm and a financial necessity. Young people are highly mobile and find work far from where they were raised. Baby boomers, like myself, had children later in life than our parents and are older when they finally have grandchildren. And older adults, like myself, are often still working and therefore are less available for grandparenting duties.
Both of my kids live (too) far away. One is in California, and the other is in New York. Sure, like a lot of tech savvy grandpas, I rely on FaceTime to video visit with my grandkids. But it’s not the same. I haven’t given up hope that someday we may all live closer to each other. I know many older adults who have moved to live near their children so they can help out and enjoy the pleasure of being part of their grandchildren’s life.
Don’t underestimate the importance of grandparents. We can be life savers.
Paul Schoenfeld is a psychologist at The Everett Clinic. His Family Talk blog can be found at www.everettclinic.com/family-talk-blog.