With a Special Day for almost everyone and everything, how can we leave Grandparents behind! Yes, 13 September is marked as Grandparents Day. As with all Days it is the marketing hype that takes over. We are reminded that it is the time to show our love for our grandparents with cards and gifts. Having just recently come to know about this day, it got me thinking about grandparents.
I never really knew three out of my four grandparents. My mother’s father died much before I was born. My father’s father is a very hazy memory. My paternal grandmother is an image of a little old lady in white sitting in a large chair in the family home. The only one that I remember clearly is my mother’s mother—equally tiny, fastidious, and scolding; one whose sharp tongue we children were wary of. Not exactly grandparents like the ones we read about in storybooks–roly-poly grannies who cuddled, and baked cookies and cakes, and indulgent grandfathers who told awesome stories.
As years went by, we, the grandchildren grew up and, moving ahead, had our own children. Suddenly our own parents became grandparents. I wonder what memories our children have of their grandparents–Hazy, clear, happy, unhappy, or more complex. More years whizzed by, and now, our children have grown and married, and have children of their own. And believe it or not, we find ourselves being bestowed with the exalted title of Grandmother and Grandfather! How did that happen?
As one writer humorously put it: Except for the fact of our birth, grandparenthood is probably the only state of adult being that is thrust upon us without our permission or concurrence. We choose a husband, we decide on a child, we become a doctor, lawyer or Indian chief. Only on the grandparent level we are suddenly and arbitrarily informed of what has been done to us after there is no undoing it.
I must admit that I have not yet been officially conferred the title, although I am delighted to be an honorary Nani. But as my contemporaries take on this new role, I have been observing, and thinking about, changes in the role and function of grandparents. As a bystander I may have a different perspective on things, and I beg to be excused if I am way off the mark.
Most of my generation grew up to be career women. While we did not live in joint families, we did seek the comfort and succour of our parents or in-laws’ home when it was time for our babies to be born. Yes we did read our Benjamin Spock and had some notion of child rearing, but we more or less went with the wisdom and experience of our mother or mother-in-law, especially in matters of infant care. Today’s generation of young career parents have much more access to information, much wider exposure to a range of theories on child rearing, and definitely clearer ideas on the subject. At the same time our own generation is not quite the ‘waiting at home for the daughter’s confinement’ one. We are, ourselves, reaching almost the peak of our own careers, but gladly taking the time out for getting into our new roles, just as our daughters take time out from their rising careers to take on motherhood.
Interestingly this has created new challenges for all three generations—children, parents and grandparents. And along with How to be a Good Parent guidebooks, there were also numerous advisories on How to be (or not) a Good Grandparent! There are reminders to grandparents to NOT do just what their parents did, and hints on how to tiptoe gently around the protocols established by the parents!
The battle between the generations will go on as long as there are different generations. As will the special role that grandparents play in a family. The fact is that we all need each other. And children especially do need grandparents to care for them and comfort them, to provide role models and role alternatives for them, and to create a living link between the past and the present.
Margaret Mead, one of the most eminent cultural anthropologists of the twentieth century describes this important connection in a passage she wrote in 1966, and which rings just as true even today.
In a changing society, grandparents themselves change. Far from representing what is stubbornly old-fashioned, they are men and women who in the contemporary world have the greatest experience in incorporating new ways and ideas. Very often their daughter is mired down in a thousand details of baby care and housekeeping and their sons are struggling to establish themselves in the world but grandparents have the leisure to follow up what is most modern and new. And unlike their own parents who grew old early under physical stress, today’s grandparents generally have years of vigorous living ahead.
More often than we realise, grandparents who move away from the homes where they brought up their own children are not settling into ‘retirement’ but are instead into new activities. Some of them have—and more could have a very important role in their grandchildren’s lives. Because as adults they have lived through so much change—the first talkies and television, the first computers and satellites—they may well be the best people to teach children about change.
With a lifetime of experience of how far we have come and how fast, grandparents can give children a special sense of sureness about facing the unknown in the future. Having experienced so much that is new, they can keep a sense of wonder in their voices as they tell their grandchildren how something happened, what it was like the first time, and open their grandchildren’s eyes to the wonder of what is happening now and may happen soon. And as men and women who are making new beginnings, developing new interests they can demonstrate to children that growing up is only a stage in a lifetime of growth. As in the past they represent continuity. But now, in a changing society this continuity includes the future and the acceptance of the unknown. Margaret Mead: Some Personal Views June 1966