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Teaching An Old Grandparent New Manners

Barbara Graham is the editor of Eye of My Heart: 27 Writers Reveal the Hidden Pleasures and Perils of Being A Grandmother, and a regular columnist for Courtesy of Barbara Graham hide caption

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Courtesy of Barbara Graham

Barbara Graham is the editor of Eye of My Heart: 27 Writers Reveal the Hidden Pleasures and Perils of Being A Grandmother, and a regular columnist for

Courtesy of Barbara Graham

It's not so easy being a grandparent, especially for bossy people used to being in charge. Because thrilling as it is when a new baby comes along and you feel like a teenager with your first crush, you soon discover that you have absolutely no say — in anything. I learned this when my granddaughter Isabelle was born three years ago. My son and daughter-in-law were living nearby, so I got to hold her right away. I shopped and cooked for the new parents, sang to the baby until I grew hoarse, and generally considered myself an essential member of the team.

Until the day my son announced that his work as a photographer was taking them to Europe. The news hit me like a body blow. Maybe I wasn't quite as essential to the team as I thought.

I had to get it through my head that I was now the grandparent, not the parent. Isabelle was their child, not mine. I didn't get a vote about where they lived or anything else. Their choices were — and are — about them, not about me.

Hello? As self-evident as this may seem to anyone who is not a founding member of the ME generation, I must admit that to moi it came as something of a shock.

I'm not the only one either. This year my work has taken me all over the country talking to other grandparents, many who are also grappling with how they fit into the new family order. First, though, they have to get over the trauma of being old enough to be called Nana or something. The whole name issue is big. Let me just say that there are way more Kikis and Mimis among this bunch than there are Bubbes.

As we approach the 30th anniversary of Grandparent's Day on September 13th, a national day of celebration that almost no one has heard of — it strikes me that for Boomers, who will make up the majority of grandparents by 2010 and who have spent the last forty years reconfiguring marriage, family and career — 'grandparent' may be the first role we can't redesign to fit our specifications.

Why did I, who never considered raising my son anywhere near my parents, think things would be so different between his generation and mine? Was it because we share Dylan and the Dalai Lama, watch Weeds and In Treatment together and talk about our feelings?

Alas, there seem to be certain intractable truths that apply. Not only do grandparents not get a vote — even the ones who groove to Green Day — we don't get much of a voice either. Like me, today's new grandparents may have once spoken truth to power, but when it comes to speaking our minds to our adult children, well, we've morphed into the Silent Generation.

Now it must be said that I adore my son and my daughter-in-law and I believe they're doing a fabulous job of raising my granddaughters. But every now and then I wouldn't mind saying what I actually think, like, Could you please keep me a little more in the loop?

When I returned home recently after spending two wonderful but exhausting weeks taking care of Isabelle while her sister was being born, I expected to hear from my son right away. At first I chalked up his silence to overwhelm. Then the other grandparents were visiting. Later I began to panic that I'd somehow violated good grandparent etiquette — because I often don't have a clue what that is — and this was payback time.

Then the phone rang. My son sounded as if mere hours had passed since we'd spoken. Duh. The shift from total togetherness to near nothingness may have felt like rejection to me, but he and his wife had simply been caught up in the hectic swirl of life with a toddler and a newborn. The phone call was his way of keeping me in the loop.

Since Isabelle was born, I keep learning — and forgetting — that though we may work hard and be jammed in every other area of our lives, for many of us being a grandparent is more like being a relief pitcher than a member of the starting lineup. You sit on the bench until your adult children need your help, at which point you step up — then, later, you head back to the bench while the game goes on.

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