By Jerry Witkovsky, MSW, Author of The Grandest Love: Inspiring the Grandparent-Grandchild Connection and the Grandparent-Grandchild Connection School Program
Barbara is counting the days until she and her husband, Dave, become first-time grandparents. A startlingly clear sonogram picture of their grandson in utero is the cover image on their daughter Carrie’s Facebook wall. His name will be Tyler. “I know it’s crazy,” says Barbara, “but I love him already!”
No seasoned grandparent considers this “crazy” at all.
Inside a wicker bassinet in the guest room, Barbara has collected her dreams for Tyler’s first years: a christening gown that was his mother’s; a collection of board books and stuffed animals; tiny rubber water-shoes to protect tiny feet from hot sand and jagged shells. “Dave and I always loved taking Carrie to Jones Beach when she was growing up,” she says, her eyes filling with happy tears. “Now we can’t wait to take her little boy.”
Like many of her friends who live near their adult children, Barbara (not her real name) has offered to care for her grandson several days a week after her daughter returns to work part-time. She is facing this new role with a heart full of love, anticipation, and no small amount of anxiety. Barbara is a very competent woman, but she’s scared – really scared – she’ll mess up.
“My own parents were extremely critical and overbearing, and I HATE when I hear myself ‘butting in’ just like they did,” she admits. “Dave’s folks – they were more reserved. But frankly, I want more of a connection with Tyler than they ever had with any of their grandchildren.”
On the positive side, says Barbara, their relationship with daughter Carrie is in a good place now, after some difficult years during her teens and early 20s. And they are cordial with their son-in-law and his kin. Still, Barbara frets: “My friends keep telling me there’s only one sure way to stay welcome in your children’s and grandchildren’s lives: ‘Keep your mouth shut and your wallet open.’ A lot of the experts seem to agree! But do you really need to wear a permanent muzzle to be a good grandparent? Because, frankly, I don’t know if I can manage that!”
Mouth Shut. Wallet Open.
“My Children… Hear My Voice in a Special Way”
“Mouth shut/wallet open” – quite a strong prescription for preventing intergenerational conflicts. To be fair, it does contain some basic truths about human relations. Nobody appreciates tactless, relentlessly opinionated purveyors of unsolicited advice. And everybody appreciates people who are, to the best of their abilities, genuinely and joyfully generous, both materially and spiritually. In that sense, we should all go through life guarding our tongues, and opening our “wallets” and hearts to support one another!
For many grandparents, however, the poignant observations of author Anne Roiphe will hit home. “Ah, my poor tongue is sore from being bitten,” writes Roiphe in a grandparenting.com blogpost, excerpted from an anthology of essays titled Eye of My Heart (ed. Barbara Graham, Harper, 2010). Her well-intentioned advice is never welcomed, she points out ruefully:
When my daughter’s first baby had colic and woke every 20 minutes, I suggested that she be left to cry a little while before being picked up. My daughter glared at me, a thousand daggers. ‘You would suggest that,’ she said, and burst into tears herself. I could see that my daughter was at her wits’ end and could tolerate no suggestions at this tender, early stage of motherhood. She needed me to say, “You’re doing everything right,” which she was, essentially — or would be soon enough. I regretted my remark for the entire hour-long subway ride from her home back to my apartment.
I don’t want to risk hurting my children, who hear my voice in a special way. A friend or neighbor can say almost anything without raising hackles. I can say almost nothing without causing pain. When I say, “I think the bath is too hot,” I simply mean that the water may be too warm for the baby. But my daughters might hear me say, “You can’t get the bath temperature right, what’s the matter with you?” From me, my daughters want support, admiration, encouragement — and that is all they want. They have books, the internet and friends for everything else.
Each one of us, at some time, has felt the pain of having a “sore tongue.” Nonetheless, I’m convinced that we’re headed in the wrong direction – as families, and as a society – if we embrace the notion that grandparents must serve as unequivocal cheerleaders who risk banishment if they say what’s on their minds.
We’ve come a long way, thankfully, since the repressive and regressive decree that America’s children should be “seen and not heard.” Yet grandparents not so long ago the wise old oracles – are now supposed to be muzzled
Like most unbalanced relationship-paradigms, it’s ultimately a loss for all parties. But how do we achieve that elusive balance between overstepping our bounds, and feeling silenced? How do we steer clear of repeated, corrosive conflict, but still hear what’s in each other’s hearts?