By the year 2030, one in five adults will be over the age of 65. Grandparents range in age from their 30s to 110. Average life expectancy has increased, and we are living longer, healthier lives than any generations before. We become grandparents when our first grandchild is born, and we stay grandparents, if we are so lucky, for the rest of our lives.
What does grandparenting look like? Families are so diverse that it is difficult to pinpoint any one lifestyle for grandparents. Historically, the role of grandparents has changed over the last couple of centuries. The role of grandfathers during the 18th and 19th Centuries was a key factor in economic and social influence. Laws pertaining to landownership and hereditary claims gave grandfathers considerable power and influence within families. The industrialization of the 19th Century shifted both economic and social power from the wiser and more experienced older males to the younger and more technically savvy men who could adapt to new technology. This shift in how the older generations were viewed, diminished the role of grandfathers.
Technological advances and the increase in longevity, resulted in an increase in the number of trigenerational homes. While people were living longer, they were often chronically ill. In the late 1800s older adults were not valued as able bodied workers and their role in the family grew increasingly less important than the roles of younger family members. In 1900, over 60% of older adults lived in homes with their children. By 1962, that number had dropped to 25%, and by 1975 it had dropped to 14%. Where in the past the role of grandparents was one of modeling authority and proper behavior, manners, and values, grandparenting has diminished in importance and has become more of a auxiliary role in most families. Grandparenting roles are subsidiary to that of parents.
The role of grandparenting is defined and varies according to the expectations, needs, and demands of individual families.. A growing number of grandparents have taken on the role of parenting for their grandchildren and a number are living with and/or taking on full time caregiving roles for working parents.Over 4.9 million children under the age of 18, live in households headed by a grandparent. In many cases, parents have become the gatekeepers between grandparents and their grandchildren, and they set the tone and define the boundaries for the grandparents’ involvement with their grandchildren. There is a greater expectation on the part of young parents to carry on the tradition started in the 1950s to develop an independent nuclear family free from much connection with grandparents, and certainly free from living with or depending on parental support. With the economic recession and subsequent strains put on most members of society (middle and lower economic classes in particular), the family structure is once again moving toward more supportive roles and three or four generations living together for economic reasons.
As Post-World War II generations have begun reaching retirement age, more are choosing or by necessity are going into second careers, traveling, or getting involved in activities including travel/pilgrimages, spiritual exploration, volunteer and/or service work, or are pursuing other interests. Because we are such a mobile society, families often live long distances from one another, and grandparenting becomes part of a regular routine. When I fly from Portland or Eugene, Oregon to San Francisco to be with my daughter and granddaughter, I am often in the company of about half a plane of grandparents on their way for their regular trips to be with their grandchildren. One recent trip found me sitting next to a man on his way to Japan for his regular stay with his daughter’s family, while others on the same flight routinely flew to the Bay area each month to visit their grandchildren. In our family, we still have family members who are great-grandparents living healthy, productive, and active lives with regular visits to their children, grandchildren, and great grand children. One of my friends who has 6 adult children in their 30s and 40s, lives with one of her daughters and their 7 children and regularly visits her other grandchildren, all of whom live from California to Minnesota, to Wisconsin to Kansas. Another friend lives in the same community as both her children and her grandchildren and can visit her grandchildren on a daily basis. Another friend travels to Southern California as often as she can to stay with her granddaughter. Her daughter and granddaughter also come to her home in Portland to visit regularly. Still when we are away from our children and grandchildren, we suffer. My cousin lives in the same town as her two daughters and three grandchildren, and is now taking care of her year old grandson on a daily basis. I lived with my daughter and her family until my granddaughter was 4 1/2, and have been a commuter grandmother for the last two years. It’s very difficult to be so far away from a child I spent nearly every day with for those 4 1/2 years. I go to stay with them about every other month, but the long distance is hard for me; I miss the daily contact and connection.
We all make the choices we feel are best for us, and often when our priorities are connected to our children and grandchildren, we struggle to find the right balance. We are all part of a family, and finding balance is not just about one person; balance in family is about everyone finding a place, finding meaning, providing support, finding connection, and maintaining contact. For this grandmother, maintaining a good, close, and loving relationship with my daughter and my granddaughter supercedes every other priority.
Our relationships with our grandchildren hinge on our relationships with our children. For me, my child is the most important relationship I will ever have. My role as mother is crucial to who I am. There is a Welsh proverb that states, “Perfect love sometimes does not come until the first grandchild is born.” I believe this is true for me, as it was with that child’s birth, that my role of Mother deepened and birthed a whole new person within my soul.
“The history of our grandparents is remembered not with rose petals but in the laughter and tears of their children and their children's children. It is into us that the lives of grandparents have gone. It is in us that their history becomes a future. “ ~Charles and Ann Morse