The great gift of grandchildren

By Margaret M. Treadwell

“Being a grandparent is the only condition on earth not overrated,” a newly minted grandfather declared. A decade later, he still acknowledges the mystical bond he shares with each grandchild, but muses that the condition isn’t always predictable and covers a wide breadth, as do other relationships. He tries not to take personally perceived slights and neglect now that his grandkids have grown older. What are the views of other grandparents who have gleaned their wisdom through trial and error?

One woman started a Grandmother’s Group where one member, a former head of school, mentors them through rough spots like inter-grandparental jealousies, the different ways not to give advice, how to strategize long distance grandparenting or just say “no” to grandchildren living nearby.

On a recent trip to care for her three grandsons, a friend reported that she experimented with four simple concepts during her time with them:

• Be present

• Never rush your grandchild

• Play

• See what grandchildren can teach you rather than vice versa

She is the eldest child in her family and has found that her oldest grandson has a harder time than the other little ones. “He gives me an opportunity to do things better than I did as a parent. When I’m with him, he teaches me about myself and my first-born son,” she says. She believes everyone suffers from attention deficit, so she gives each grandson one-on-one time doing exactly what they want to do (if it doesn’t cost money). “What’s the matter with ice cream every day after school or golf in the snow?” she chuckles.

When I asked a step-grandmother how her stepdaughters and their children became so fond of her, she explained, “It was mostly their father who involved his daughters in the death of their mother. They heard her say to him, ‘Make sure in choosing a new companion that our daughters have a say.’ What helped most with the grandchildren was their mothers’ decisions to incorporate me into their lives early on; it didn’t matter by the time they were born whether I was a ‘step.’ ” She acknowledges the situation would be more difficult – but not impossible – with a divorce.

A social worker said, “If you’ve loved your children and they’ve grown into healthy, well-adjusted adults, you can’t make many mistakes as a grandparent. It comes from multigenerational models of good parenting. Our children watched me include my parents in their upbringing, and my mother used to say, ‘don’t just talk about it; set a good example!’ I’ve tried to pass that along in my work to less fortunate families.”

How best for grandparents to function when there’s a crisis in the family? One set of grandparents who raised their grandson while his mother struggled with substance abuse told the story of falling in love with the baby at their first meeting and how they had worked to be an oasis of calm. Their key as he has grown up is never to assume primacy in his life or say anything against his parents.

What about the worst possible experience of losing a grandchild? Grandparents invited their pregnant daughter, son-in-law and 3-year-old granddaughter to live in their home upon their return to the Washington area. When the baby was born compromised genetically, mentally and physically, the family set about loving, supporting and simultaneously setting appropriate boundaries with each other as the parents grappled with the question of extraordinary measures to keep him alive. With the help of doctors, they decided that the baby would go home with hospice care, and the family invited the other set of grandparents to come and stay with them during the 10 days before he died so that everyone had a chance to say goodbye.

A close friend spoke about the baby’s death in the context of his entire family during the lovingly planned funeral. When she had finished and beautiful music filled the space, the small granddaughter spontaneously rose, walked to the front and began to dance, slowly at first and then with energy and purpose. How she comforted the congregation with her unconscious message, “Life is for the living and will carry on!” Multigenerational healing continues since her parents had the faith and courage to conceive another baby full of happy health and the family emerges stronger from their suffering.

One of the most fulfilled grandmothers revealed her secret mantra for her grandchildren: “Leave them alone.” Then she confessed to a careful balance between involvement and disengagement, keeping her own creative life thriving rather than letting her children or grandchildren become her sole focus.

Margaret M. (“Peggy”) Treadwell, LCSW -C, has been active in the fields of education and counseling for thirty-five years. Following a long association with Dr. Edwin H. Friedman, during which she served on his faculty, she co-edited and helped posthumously publish his book, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix.

Past Posts