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Growing and learning with our grandchildren and children

Catherine Al-Meten

One of my greatest joys is growing along with my Granddaughter. We often think of aging as a series of steps or stages, each one leaving another behind. In fact our process of aging and growing can be one of learning, ripening, and regenerating, becoming more and more who and what we have been growing into all along.

In each stage of Grandparenting, we have the opportunity of opening up new parts of ourselves and of learning more about our own children and growing in our relationships with our own children. If we simply role play our way through life, we miss the opportunities for some of the most valuable and rich learning experiences. When my own parents walked on, I felt as if both of their lives and mine had been unfinished. We had not taken some of the opportunities to be together, to learn with one another, or to heal some of the woundedness of our family. That is fairly typical in many families, and yet I wanted more in my experience with my own daughter.

When my granddaughter was born, I was suddenly in a role I had never considered. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to be a grandparent-it was just that I had never thought about that possibility. My own relationship with my daughter was a key relationship; however I had put no pressure on her to fulfill some arbitrary obligation to ‘provide me with grandchildren’. We were both engaged in full-time careers, and my thought was that I would stay on the career path I was on and that would be it. Considering being a grandparent just wasn’t something I had done, and so when my daughter found her knight in shining armor, and gave birth to my granddaughter, I was overjoyed and totally unprepared for how life would change.

For the first four and half years, I stayed very close to my daughter and new granddaughter. I left my executive position, moved home to the West Coast, and made two life-altering decisions. First, I would work for myself, and I would support my daughter with my granddaughter in any way I could. Initially, this involved spending much of my time living with my daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughter. During the week I would take care of the baby and on the weekends, I would go home to Monterey, where I would write, do my photography, and learn how to get my own businesses going. As the infant grew into a toddler and then a pre-schooler, I learned a lot. I learned that my relationship with my daughter was now at a crucial turning point. That relationship had to do one of two things—it had to grow or it had to become a cliche based on role playing and unrealistic expectations.

You see, somewhere in the back of my mind, I did have certain expectations about what being a grandparent, a mother, and a daughter meant. We all have those preconceived ideas. Most of those ideas are unconscious, but they nevertheless are part of how we approach any new experience. We enter new experiences with an idea that we ‘should’ behave in a certain manner. Perhaps our expectations are shaped by our own family background, perhaps by our observations, or by what we have learned, read, or accepted as fact, without any real understanding of how we would actually behave in that experience. My own experience with grandmothers was practically nil. I had not known my Mother’s mother at all. And my experiences with my Father’s mother were limited. I remember her, but had no fond memories connected with her. My own Mother was a wonderful grandmother to her grandchildren, and that was my one model. However, I was not my mother or my grandmothers. I was going to have to figure this experience out for myself.

And over the eight years since my granddaughter’s birth, I believe we have all grown together. My granddaughter’s presence in our lives, has taken my daughter and I into a whole new level of growth, understanding, and development. We are each helping one another discover and deal with the gifts, joys, struggles, and conflicts inherent in being parents and of being family. What I have discovered is that each stage our development offers gifts and challenges that call us into being better parents, better grandparents, and better people. I have learned to see the world through the eyes and heart of those whom I love most—understanding that differences in the way we see the world, in the ways we choose to live and work, create, and cope are all part of what makes us who we are.

What have I learned? I have learned to be less controlling and more tolerant. I have learned to laugh and play and dance again, with the fullness of newfound joy for life. I have learned to laugh at myself and my own shortcomings, oversights, and flaws. I have stopped trying so hard and begun letting myself enjoy life more—not taking everything so seriously. I have learned to listen to what my daughter says as well as what she doesn't’ say, and to understand how her needs differ from my own. I thought I got this when she was younger, but I find at each stage of life, I have to learn more. I have to look with fresh eyes, as if I were hearing her for the first time. This seems to be easier to see and do with my grandchild, for I have nothing to compare her growth and development to. However, since I’ve worked with and taught so many young people and have some fairly strong ideas and a great deal of knowledge about cognitive, spiritual, and emotional development, growth and behavior, the lens of my own perceptions is definitely colored by my own thinking and biases. And so even when I believe I have no expectations, I discover I actually do. The expectations come up in some fairly unconscious and sometimes rather insensitive observations (often taken as judgment) or untimely advice. I have learned to listen more to my daughter, and to honor her and her choices, and be grateful that she allows me to remain so close to her and my granddaughter.

With my granddaughter, I am learning in the most personal way possible, how my family line is and has influenced us to be the people we are, to hold and honor the beliefs we have, and to discover, treasure, and honor our individual gifts. With my granddaughter, I have maintained an open channel of communication, and now find myself answering questions about some of the most intimate, sensitive, and profound topics. When asked about God, I am challenged to speak from the heart of my own experiences and truth, and to guide and open her to continue seeking answers to her questions, to learn to discern how to decide what is to become the basis of her ethical center. I have listened as she has learned to communicate her ideas, perceptions, and to raise questions that she will eventually seek answers to herself. When she asks me at a bus stop to tell her more about Jesus, I know I have two choices. Put off the conversation until we’re home or begin telling the story where we are. When I suggest we put the talk off until later, her response is, “I want you to tell me about Jesus now.” So I did. It was a moment when she made the connection that the ‘baby Jesus’, the “guy on the cross’, and a real man who lived and died, were one in the same. She had made a discovery, and being a theologian, I was fully equipped to share what I knew and believed with her. I too knew that that one moment was a crucial moment for both of us. I was in the position my Mother had been decades earlier when she shared her knowledge and spiritual insights with me. Whatever choices my granddaughter makes, she will have the great gift of having her questions honored and answered. She will also know that she is the one who has to decide what it is she comes to base her own life upon. That too is part of the conversations we have. We are each here on the planet, for this lifetime, to learn what we need to learn to find meaning and purpose for our lives. As grandparents and parents, we have the opportunity to help guide this process. I can’t tell you how many students I have had in my classes, come to learn about religion and spirituality when their children began asking these questions. It is such a grace to be able to share in this part of the lives of those we love.

At each stage of our life, we have the choice to simply fall into patterns based on stereotypes, expectations, or unconscious behavior and thinking, or to wake up to the opportunities to learn, grow, improve our ways of thinking, behaving, and responding. We can stand firm in our role or we can become see that each time we are with our grown children and grandchildren, we have new opportunities to share our understanding of life, to learn how differently they see and experience the world, grow and develop into a more loving, creative, adventurous, and open minded kind of person. We can begin seeing and understanding our children and grandchildren with deeper appreciation, and recognize that we have special gifts to offer them in the way of sharing memories and stories (even the ones they sometimes tire of hearing about), for we are sharing our view of our own family history. We can share the skills we have learned, and can tackle those areas where we have faltered. We can practice our sketching, or piano playing more, or learn something new along with our grandchildren.

One of the greatest gifts of being a grandmother has been learning how to treat myself better. I have become more aware of how I talk to myself about what I can and cannot do. Perfectionism is something that blocks me, and I tackle it as often as I can by giving myself permission to do something over and over, even if it doesn’t look as good as I think it should. I challenge myself to change the way I talk about my being able to not do something. That negativity that I fail to address in myself, becomes a weapon that I do not want to use with my granddaughter. We took an Origami classes earlier in the summer. I wasn’t very good at it, and became aware of how I limited myself when I got frustrated at not being able to do something perfectly. I began treating myself better so that I show her how to keep trying to do something difficult. When things come easily, it can be a curse as well as a blessing. Grandparenting and sharing life with our adult children gives us the opportunity to turn curses into blessings. We can grow, learn, improve, and become more conscious. We can wake up to the joys of living from a place of authenticity and get out of the habit of role playing.

When my daughter and I share time together, and when she can talk to me about her struggles and triumphs, I feel such gratitude that we are doing what we can to keep communication open, keep judgment free, and provide ongoing support and love for one another. With my granddaughter, I treasure the time, the questions, and the ways that we find to enjoy simply being together and learning more about life. When we sit on the floor of an old mission, sketching the artwork, windows, arch ways, and beauty that surrounds us, I feel at one with the entire Universe. Caught in a moment in time, creating and capturing special moments and building a strong foundation and a blanket of security, love, and lasting memory. I am able to do this only when I drop my expectations, stop worrying about the future and the past, and simply drop to my knees in the present moment to be with this lovely child, wherever we are. To listen to one another’s breath, laughter, and to hold one another in quiet moments and times of need. To rest and to play, to enjoy meals and to read and recite favorite lines together. To sing and to dance. To be present in whatever moment we are in. I treasure this with my daughter and with my granddaughter, as I do with anyone whom I love. The gifts we receive when we are willing to be present, are priceless, and define who we really are.

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