Sharing the Opportunities and Challenges of Grandparenting
by Susan G. Davis
Grandparenthood at last!! Most of us look forward to this new role in our lives with anticipation and delight. We can’t wait until there is a new baby in the family. But like any other new role in our lives, along with the blessings and pleasure, there also are adjustments and a renegotiation of relationships, in this case, with the parents of the new baby. The balance of power has shifted and we are no longer in charge. It is up to the new parents to decide how they want to raise their baby. Sometimes they consult us, sometimes they don’t. We almost always have opinions, since after all, we have years of experience. Do our children want to hear our opinions? Not always and sometimes, never. With these new rules, how do we stay connected and involved and remain fully participating grandparents?
It is in this context that our grandparenting group at Congregation Kol Ami in White Plains, New York was born. Husband and wife Kol Ami congregants, who were at the time grandparents of toddler twins, had some grandparenting questions. They were looking for a place where they could discuss issues with other grandparents and approached me about beginning a discussion group. I was leading a parenting group at Kol Ami and when I heard their request, agreed immediately. I, too, was a fairly new grandmother and felt there was much in my new role to discuss.
A grandparenting myth—namely how easy it is to be a grandparent: you can drop in, play with the kids, and when they get cranky, leave them to their parents and go home—was immediately dispelled in the first group meeting. It became clear to all of us in the room that the grandparents’ investment in their relationships with their grandchildren meant much more than play and run. They really wanted to make a difference in the lives of their grandchildren and to support their own children in their parenting role. They were willing to travel large and small distances on a regular basis to help out the parents and to spend as much time as possible with the children. They wanted to enrich the lives of their grandchildren and felt enriched themselves by these relationships.
The grandparents in our group recognize that being involved in the lives of their grandchildren often means navigating the sometimes sensitive relationships with the parents of the children. When a grandparent disagrees with a daughter-in-law about child rearing, feels excluded from activities with a grandchild, wonders about setting limits, or worries about whether a grandchild is getting enough help for a special need, the group offers a safe place to discuss these sensitive issues, support to the grandparent, and solid helpful solutions to foster family connections. A few of the grandparents in the group struggle with the question of how to impart their Jewish heritage to grandchildren when one parent is not Jewish and when the children are being raised with a different religion. For some in the group whose Jewish identity is deeply felt, the lack of a Jewish upbringing for their grandchildren can be experienced as a loss. In the group, there is much sharing of feelings around this issue and mutual support. One grandparent even created a haggadah especially for young children and shared it with group members who wanted to use it on Passover.
Because the grandparents in the group trust each other and share their feelings openly, they have, according to one member, “bonded as a cohesive group and look forward to the meetings.” From each other they have learned communication strategies that have fostered more gratifying connections with their families. They feel comforted because the situations they thought were unique to them are actually shared by other group members. They feel less alone. Members remind each other of their importance to their grandchildren and how much impact they actually do have in their lives. And as one grandparent put it, “We know how lucky we are to be grandparents and that the small problems we encounter do not overshadow the joy and exhilaration of grandparenting.”
Susan G. Davis, LCSW is a social work psychotherapist and longtime member of Congregation Kol Ami in White Plains, NY. She has been running parenting groups for more than 30 years, including at Kol Ami for eight years.