A friend’s email expressed a great sense of loss over her daughter having given birth to a baby on the other end of the country, which meant she had been unable to be with her daughter or meet her new granddaughter. This time of the pandemic has had an impact on many grandparents and children who feel keenly the interruption of generational relationships.
An old joke says that the reason grandparents and grandchildren get along so well is that they have an enemy in common. Grandparents love to give, children love to receive, and parents may seem to both of them like the enemy of gratification. Of course, this joke reflects the kind of ongoing relationships no longer possible for so many families right now.
Working with parents over many years, I recognize a universality of complaints about grandparents. As a grandmother myself, I have also heard from other grandparents the other side of those feelings. A friend said, “The grandchildren are wonderful; it’s their parents who are the problem.”
What I have heard from mothers is the feeling of being undermined and criticized by grandma. But a grandmother said, “Our children think they’re being judged all the time while actually, they are judging us all the time.” Apparently, both mothers and grandmothers each feel judged and criticized by the other. And maybe they are. But this generational conflict runs deeper than the conventional wisdom that grandparents like being indulgent, while parents have the real responsibility of daily life.
This truism speaks to the more profound changes that are taking place. Having a child becomes musical chairs in which everyone moves up a place. The child is now the PARENT. Instead of being the child of your parent you are now the parent of your child. Our own feelings of dependency are challenged by having someone who is dependent on us. The feeling of being responsible for another life becomes central.
The idea that one is no longer the CHILD is difficult both for new parents and for their parents. Grandparents may feel that their experienced words of wisdom should be heeded. But when they expect the parents to listen to their advice, they are making them children again – which is kind of unnerving when you are trying so hard to be a parent. New parents are working hard to win their parent credentials, while grandparents may be trying to hold on to their own.
In many ways this is a continuation of the developmental process in which children move toward greater independence and struggle to establish their own identity. The impulse to protect one’s children often becomes trying to keep them from making what seem to parents to be painful mistakes.
Grandparents want their children to learn from their (the grandparents’) experience – just as they wanted them to when they were growing up. Parents often are trying to correct the things they think were wrong in their own upbringing. Grandparents get this, and they often take it as a criticism of them.
Parents are learning how to be parents – just as their parents had to learn. And grandparents have to learn how to be grandparents. That learning is the hardest part. What grandparents can’t stand is feeling that the parents are learning at the expense of their grandchildren. What is hardest for parents is what they experience as a lack of respect for their role as parents.
The current enforced separation of the generations brings with it a great sense of loss and the experience of mastering new identities. New technologies invite new ways for generations to cross the miles to reach each other.