NEW ROLES FOR THE NINETIES
by Serena Dawn Plunkett
The Grandma's house of our youth was usually a curious mix of sights, smells and impressions that assaulted the senses with such impact that many of them have been permanently imprinted on our lives. A mere whiff of an oatmeal raisin cookie fresh from the oven or seeing a toddler being comforted with gentle words by an older man, can spark a warm, peaceful trip back in time to a place where life was simple and love was truly free. The relationship between grandparent and grandchild is different, somehow special. There is a two-way devotion that is unique from any other - unexplainable, yet almost tangible.
In a perfect world, maybe. In today's world it's not so easy. Gone is the day when Grandma is a soft, gray-haired lady who stayed home and baked cookies, read stories, and always had time for a cuddle. Grandpas who can explain why the sky is blue or how a fly walks upside down without falling are harder to find. Somewhere along the way, Grandma took an outside job to fulfill herself and Grandpa needed to work longer so he and Granny can take off in a Winnebago after retirement. Maybe the kids have moved halfway across the country to follow their own dream. Our technology and our mobility have separated grandchild from grandparent - and grandparents from the pleasure of being an integral part of that child's daily life. Progress? Not necessarily.
Grandparents today face some interesting dilemmas. Distance, time, lifestyle - all these things that were not an issue when extended families stayed within a few miles of each other. Grandparents often took a more active role in the raising and nurturing of their grandchildren. They were there to help the parents, to read, to take walks, to share history and tradition, to discipline (when necessary), and to build relationships. Now, these same relationships take a focused effort, a partnership of parent and grandparent both dedicated to providing those experiences for their children.
Much research has been done regarding the value of a grandparent's influence in a child's life. Many books have been written on grandparenting in the Nineties with all its challenges. But another by product of our changing society, besides the ones mentioned above, is that of blended families. Though the whole issue of step-parenting is not new, it is certainly gaining more and more prevalence in our society. Approximately 60 percent of remarriages involve an adult with physical custody of one or more. Therefore, it only stands to reason that up to 33 percent of persons 65 years and older are step-grandparents. As people move in and out of relationships as easily as changing addresses, more and more children are finding themselves in a step- situation. This sometimes involves step-parents as well as half-siblings, all under the same roof. Each of these entities come complete with an extended family. It can also causes separation from those extended families.
What is the grandparent's role in this new and changing family structure? Along with the stresses of trying to be an active and productive grandparent today, come the complexities of a blended family. How are these relationships different? How do we bridge the gap and fulfill our responsibilities? How can we provide the nurturing, the security, and the timelessness of family in a constantly changing world? How can we be the grandparents of our youth?
Tot to Teen
Who can resist a baby? A baby comes into his waiting family's arms a hodgepodge of various body parts which all resemble mom, dad, or Great-aunt Thelma. This mixture of two genetic families grows a personality under the watchful eyes of doting grandparents and they love it, unconditionally. After all, it is theirs and it is a BABY. No trick to that. But what if it is NOT theirs? Well, it is still a baby.
It seems that the love of babies is pretty universal. They smell good (most of the time), they like to cuddle, and they come with a blank slate just waiting for you to begin writing bits and pieces of yourself on. Somehow, just by the nature of their ³babiness² they are acceptable even to a step-grandparent. Watching them grow, having a part in that process, somehow makes them yours, just as if they were born to you.
In fact, leading researchers in the field of grandparenting, have listed age at which the step-grandchild enters the family as a key factor in determining the strength of the relationship between step-grandparent and step-grandchild. The younger the child enters the family, the stronger and more positive the relationship develops over time.
But many step-grandchildren are introduced into the family at a later age. Everyone is a stranger. You don't know them; they don't know you. You haven't had an opportunity to watch them grow and develop their own place in the world. You haven't had a chance to put your own personal stamp on their slate. You don't even know what they like to eat or what they like to do. Research suggests that older children experience more difficulty adjusting in step-families. These difficulties probably also influence the relationship with the extended step-family. The addition of a step-grandparent for the older child may be not only affected by such dynamics, but also plagued by both a lack of history in the relationship and a life stage at which the child is more involved with peers. How can you be an effective grandparent to this stranger who may even be resistant to you?
Time. Time spent with the child, the natural passage of time. Love and respect take time, even from birth. Make a point of spending quality, one-on-one time with this new member of your family. Talk to him, ask questions, listen, watch, take an avid interest. Go beyond your limits and stretch. Find out who he is and what makes him tick. Give him a chance to know who you are and figure out his place in your life. Since it can not be done by growing up together, it has to be sought after, tended to, cultivated, and carefully nurtured. If you are met with resistance, gently persist. Awkward? Sometimes. Necessary? Always.
Recognize Differences Without Being Different
Okay, now you have a new grandchild to care for along with those bestowed upon you by Nature. This new member is struggling to be a part of your life, just as you are his. And he's watching your every move. This child knows he's different from your other grandchildren; he doesn't need to be reminded. A misstep here could make the difference between making it right or setting the whole process back by months, maybe years.
Equal, equal, equal. There can be no difference made ever. Not in gifts, attention, behavior, nothing. Of course, you have to take into consideration personal taste and personality. All kids are different, unique individuals. Don't give him a basketball for Christmas if you know he prefers to read just because your other grandchild is getting a basketball. Conversely, don't give him a book if your "real" grandchild is getting a bicycle. When talking to the kids, don't focus all your attention, all your praise, or all your glowing grandparent stuff, on one and not the other. Every effort has to be made not to make to stepchild feel like a lesser person than the natural grandchild. In all ways, at all times, equal. There can never, never, ever be a difference, Not ever. Favoritism has no place here- not ever.
I'm Okay, You're Okay, but She's...
A real problem with learning to love this new person can come if you don't also love this new person's parent. Researchers have hypothesized that the acceptance of a remarriage will have a strong affect on the relationship with a step-grandchild. If you do not approve of your child's divorce or you can't accept the new spouse in your child's life, there's a good possibility that you will have trouble getting close to the child. Feelings can't be legislated, adulterated, or forced. But they can be changed.
First, you must mentally separate the child from the parent. Learn to know the child, learn to love the child for who she is. Don't look for evidence of the less favored parent and label the child. Guilt by fact of birth alone was done away with years ago. We don't need it in our homes today.
Second, you might try getting closer to the son- or daughter-in-law, too. You might find everybody, especially the grandchild, benefits. The need for acceptance isn't limited to children. Adults, as well as children, feel the censure of not being particularly liked or welcome.
Those "Other" People
A natural grandchild usually comes after two families have gotten to know one another, maybe briefly, but at least on common ground - their children have decided to make a life together. But a step-grandchild comes with an entire set of "other" grandparents that you will probably never meet. You won't know what they teach this child, what they say about your child, of how they treat your child's spouse - except by what you are told. It would be so easy to hold this unseen family responsible for every bad thing that comes down the road. A word of warning: this extended family is a part of your new grandchild and he will keenly feel any hint of criticism. If you truly want to build a relationship worthy of being called grandparent, resist all temptation to voice an opinion on his "other" family, especially the absent parent.
Our Forefathers Set Forth...
On the subject of extended family, one way to make an older step-grandchild feel a part of her new family, is to share history and tradition. Part of what makes each family a unique microcosm is its shared history and traditions. Little Sue is going to feel separate and set a part if she doesn't understand how Christmas is celebrated in her new family, or why new Aunt Betsy talks funny. We often take for granted these most cherished things within our own families, because they've always been here; that the way its always been. But for the newcomer, it could all be very strange and uncomfortable. Share yourself, your feelings, your impressions, your history, and you have given your step-grandchild the gift of acceptance and confidence. Those gifts are free.
To Have and to Hold this Day Forward
Sometimes, despite everyone's best efforts, marriages fail. All your hard work, time, and energy are for naught as this step-grandchild which you have so painstakingly tried to nurture moves on to another life. Maybe a custody arrangement has changed and he's moving to his other parent's home and will only be part of your family on rare occasions. Or maybe the marriage has come apart and this child will be leaving your family forever. Family make-up can change at any time.
Is this a reason to hold back part of your heart in reserve? So you won't get hurt? So you won't miss them so much when they are gone? Of course not. A child needs the love and acceptance of a grandparent, even if its happens that it's only temporary. Maybe those children need it even more due to the turmoil in their lives. Because of the special nature of that relationship, even a little is better than none at.
It's complex; it's confusing; it's a far cry from perfect. But until our world finds a way to return to simpler days, this society with all its problems, is all we have to operate in. Step-grand parenting is an issue that is with us to stay. It doesn't have to be hard. All it takes is a caring soul, a deep desire to be all a grandparent should be, and a natural love for children, no matter what. That's what it all boils down to - love. Step-grand parenting can be the most rewarding job you'll ever have. You can be a force in a young person's muddled life that makes a difference for a lifetime. Grandma's don't have to bake cookies to be remembered fondly and Grandpa's don't need to have all the answers to be respected and loved. All it takes is a deep committed, active and unconditional love.
The Aring Institute offers the following guidelines for stepgrandparents:
Try to educate yourself about step-families.
Know each stepchild as an individual.
Give everybody time.
Be sensitive to your stepchild's change of status.
Try to have a special place for you stepgrandchild's things at your home.
Although you may never love your stepgrandchild, you can at least respect him or her.
Since grandparenting styles and family customs cause conflict, be flexible about your differences. Use humor and avoid quid pro quo (the old tit-for-tat routine).
Seek out a professional or a good friend with a clear head if you need to talk things out.
Do not be overly self-sacrificing ; make sure you are yourself, too.
About the author: Serena Dawn Plunkett is finishing her master's degree in family mediation at University of Missouri-Columbia in Columbia, Missouri. After graduation she will move to Phoenix, Arizona where she hopes to use her mediation skills to work with older adults, possibly in the area of adult custody where guardianship is an issue. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org