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4 Secrets About Being a Modern Grandparent

A personal experience story with tips for new grandparents.

Last month my eldest daughter became a mother, I became a grandmother, and my mother became a great-grandmother. Our grandson, Jaxson Alexander, got his middle name from my father-in-law, who passed away last year. I love how one life ends and a new life begins. The circle of life always teaches us lessons.

Many of my friends are already grandmothers and have told me that that there’s nothing like it and that it’s a magical experience. Now I understand their words. There’s something about your kid having a kid—aside from making you acknowledge the passage of time—that makes you feel an enormous shift in perspective and priorities.

I live on the West Coast, and my new grandson lives on the East Coast. Statistics indicate that more than 45 percent of grandparents live more than 200 miles from their grandchildren, so moving forward, this might present challenges in our relationship. When my daughter called to tell me I was a grandmother, I yelled with excitement, and an indescribable rush of joy ran through me. When I told her that I’d visit soon, she told me she was tired and that I should wait before coming. It took all the willpower I had to wait 24 hours before traveling across the country. How could I not see my first grandchild in person? I flew to the East Coast for some hugs and kisses, which is really all I needed to sustain me for a little while. Plus, I wanted the baby to hear my voice and smell the grandmother who I hoped would influence his life in the wonderful way my grandmother influenced mine.

Jaxson was only hours old, but our eyes linked in a familiar way. It was as if we’d known each other before. Although he weighed eight pounds, two ounces—four pounds more than my daughter had—he looked so much like his mother. It wasn’t easy returning home, but it gave me the opportunity to engage in some deep reflection.

As I reflected, I noticed a new shift in my perspective. I’ve been a writer for as long as I can remember—having written in journals since the age of ten. When my kids were infants, I took some time off writing, but viewed their naps as times when I could scribble a quick essay or craft a new poem. When they grew up and left home, I returned to writing books, articles, and poems, which helped fill the void of my empty nest.

When my grandson came into the world on June 3, I was in the midst of my seventh book, Writing for Bliss: A Seven-Step Plan for Telling Your Story and Transforming Your Life. It was a huge focus for me, but after returning home, my work became less important. I put everything aside and began needlepointing a Raggedy Andy pillow for little Jaxson. This was a hobby I thought I’d put to rest more than 40 years ago, but suddenly, I had a strong desire to be an active part of my grandson’s life in the same way my grandparents were a part of my life, and my own parents were a part of their grandchildren’s lives.

However, I do realize that things are different now. Not only do many grandparents like myself live far from their grandchildren, but grandparents are no longer always retired. Many of us baby boomers continue to feel young and vibrant and remain in the workforce. The real challenge, as I see it now, is how I can create a lifelong bond with my grandson while living more than 3,000 miles away. What things should I keep in mind during this new and final phase of my life? Here’s what I’ve come up with:

1. No situation is ideal.

I see that there are actually advantages to living in close proximity, as well as living far away, from grandchildren. While living nearby can provide regular access to them, grandparents are often called upon for regular babysitting. Right now, this sounds like a huge and welcome honor, but my friends who are already grandparents tell me that sometimes they feel as if they’re being taken for granted. Also, if grandparents are still working, this could turn into a situation involving a lot of juggling—that is, the desire to be with one’s grandchildren versus one’s need to work. When living far away, there could be the feeling of missing the joy of watching the little ones grow up. but on the other hand, I’ve heard that one advantage of living far away is that the kids are on their best behavior when they do see their grandparents.

2. All relationships need nourishment.

Whether living near or far, grandparents need to nurture the relationship with their grandchildren. It’s important to be interested in the children’s lives and spend time with them when possible. Of course, modern applications such as FaceTime and Skype have made this much easier. You can talk to the grandkids “in person,” read or tell them stories, and basically allow them to get to know you in a more intimate way than is possible via telephone.

And If you’re lucky enough to live near your grandchildren, you’ll most likely be a part of their daily routine. Kids love routine, but sometimes parents get tired of reading the same book or singing the same song over and over again. As a grandparent, you can be the one to do that. Also, you can be the one to prepare special meals if your children don’t have the time to do so.

3. Avail yourself of teaching opportunities.

The relationship between grandchildren and grandparents is usually a special one, and often memories with grandparents live far after a grandparent has passed away. I gleaned a lot of wisdom from my grandparents, as my children did from theirs. Hearing about how my grandparents survived World Wars and the loss of their loved ones offered me insight into their lives and a perspective on my own. My grandmother taught me to type and needlepoint—two skills that I brought with me into adulthood. Sharing hobbies and interests with your grandchildren not only strengthens your bond, but gives them something to remember you by.

4. Remember, we are no longer just defined by our families.

While having grandchildren is important and life-changing, this generation of grandmothers is not solely defined by that role. We have professions, passions, and interests outside the family unit. All this makes the grandparenting experience much richer and probably much more interesting for our grandkids than was the case in previous eras.

As Lesley Stahl says in her book Becoming Grandma, “Becoming a grandmother turns the page. Line by line you are rewritten. You are tilted off your old center, spun onto new turf. There’s a faint scent of déjà vu from when you raised your own children, but this place feels freer. Here you rediscover fun and laughing, and reach a depth of pure loving you have never felt before.”

More from Diana Raab Ph.D.
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