A few years ago, I was asked to write a story about grandparenting and was supplied with a list of names of suitable grandparents whose input I was to solicit. The story was about the difference between loving indulgence and spoiling your grandchildren. How much did these grandparents value time spent with their grandchildren, and how did they spend that time?
One, an investment adviser, had taken his entire family to Israel in honour of his granddaughter’s bat mitzvah. “It was an incredible trip, worth every penny we spent,” he said. Now that she was grown, he and his wife would frequently take her out for dinner to chat about her career and accomplishments.
Another described the special trips he and his wife had taken with each of their grandkids for their respective bar and bat mitzvahs – to Alaska, London and on a cruise. “They were wonderful experiences that the three of us could share just among ourselves,” he recalled.
Their responses had a lasting impact on me, as they set an extraordinarily high bar for grandparent-grandchildren interactions. They compelled me to reflect on the kind of grandparents I’d known and the kind I want to be someday when my own kids are grown.
It strikes me that there’s a definite balance between the boundaries of grandparenting versus daily child care, and it’s one that divides grandparents into two distinct camps. There are those who gladly assume child-care responsibilities, stepping in to look after their grandkids when their children are working or having fun. As child-care providers, they prepare meals, shuffle their grandkids to friends and activities, and double-up as parents when the kids’ mothers or fathers aren’t able or willing to fill the role.
Then there are others who fiercely protect the recreational space in their own lives and are willing to spend time with their grandkids, but only on their own terms. That might mean a sleepover when it’s convenient, an excursion to the toy store to select a gift on birthdays, and an occasional shared meal. But it doesn’t include any of the drudgery of daily child care – no dealing with tantrums, no discipline, no trying to reason with an overtired toddler that he or she needs to eat/bathe/rest. “Been there, done that with my own kids,” is their mantra. “Not willing to do all that again.”
My parents used to grumble about my grandma when I was a child. “She spends no money on the kids,” I overheard my dad complain. “I wish she would spoil them more.”
It was true: there weren’t many material gifts coming our way from our Gran, but when it came to time and interest in her grandchildren, she put in the hours. She’d listen as I played the piano, offer support as I studied for exams and welcome me for sleepovers when my parents and I weren’t seeing eye to eye.
Hers was my little sanctuary-away-from-home at times, and those memories are so strong that on a recent visit back to the city where she’d taken her last breath 19 years ago, I knocked on the door of her old home and asked to enter, just to be in that space one more time. Just in case I could still feel something of her within its walls.
I know I want to be close with my grandkids one day, but the question I ponder is, how close? Will I be the grandma that performs night-nurse duty when the grandkids are infants so my own daughters can get their beauty sleep? Will I be the one accepting Friday night invitations and arriving with flowers and an empty stomach, or will I host the whole family? Will I babysit gladly on a Saturday night, or will I decline in favour of a night out myself? It’s hard to anticipate how forthcoming I’ll be when the time comes.
This much I know: I’ll not want my kids to take advantage of my time. There will be a tipping point between their child-care needs and my willingness to help raise their kids. I just hope that balance is a fair and respected one, and that my future sons- and daughters-in-law won’t get out the knives each time I leave the room.