Grandmothers are getting older. My mother was 47 when her first grandchild was born and around 54 when her last one was born. I had my first grandchild at 57, and they are still being born (please stop!). Many of us waited longer to have children and many of our children are putting off parenthood even longer. In fact, the average age of first-time grandparents has increased two years just since 2011. Granny will, indeed, be the white-haired old lady with her knitting if this continues. What does this mean? Having just come back from a week visiting my daughter, who is a single mother of a two-year-old and a newborn set of identical twins, I can report from the field. My daughter is about to turn forty. She is exhausted – and Nana (that’s me) is thirty years older and well beyond exhausted – after just a week.
Do this exercise. Think of your grandmother(s) at the time you were six or eight. And then calculate how old those ancient women seemed to you at the time. Of course, the grandmothers people my age had were different in many ways. Most of them kept their teeth in a cup in the bathroom (who can forget the first glimpse of that!), used gossamer hair nets, and never even learned to drive a car. But, for a moment, think about their numerical age. They probably weren’t all that old.
There were always some grandmothers who were older, especially those whose middle-aged sons divorced their wives and started to procreate all over again. But now, there are lots. Our health may be better than our grandma’s was (we exercise and take our vitamins), but still we are definitely…older.
This means a number of things. We are not as energetic. We are further away from our own time of caring for infants; an era of bottle sterilization racks and Dr. Spock has long since been replaced by disposable supplies and a long list of internet sourced dos and don’ts. At my daughter’s house, she and her sitters used an app to keep track of feedings and diaper changes for the newborns. I screwed it up. I struggled with how much to ask of a pampered (adored) 2½ year old. When I asked him to be quiet because I had finally gotten both his brothers to sleep at the same time, he showed me how loud he could scream. I bit my tongue and went to get up the wakened baby. He is a healthy two-year-old after all, and doing what two-year-olds do. And I am an old lady remembering what it is like to do battle with a toddler. Needless to say, in every battle with the little guy, I lost.
For I have forgotten. I live far from my children and grandchildren, so I do not have the everyday experience of heating formula or distracting a toddler. I re-learned a lot in a week. I also fell in love with the eyes of babies who looked up at me with trust as I fed them their sustenance. Would they remember my face years from now? Will I look vaguely familiar the next time I visit? I succumbed to the joy of a little boy who was learning to ask questions and was discovering the thrills of a garden hose. I watched my husband, with whom I have never had children, cuddle, and converse with tiny babies, and show a little boy how to use a screwdriver.
And there is a vast difference between a grandchild in theory, a virtual grandchild, pictures of a grandchild, and one in the flesh, close to your flesh. Zoom just does not cut it. Caring physically for my grandchildren reminded me that my ties to my own children were born of those moments when I held them, wiped their faces, changed their diapers, and told them stories with words they could not understand – but that they seemed to listen to anyway.
Of course, it was all complicated by Covid-19. My daughter lives in a college town, and the students had recently returned. We mostly stayed home. We drove two days to get there and brought our food, so we didn’t have to eat at restaurants, but there seemed no alternative to rest areas for bathrooms. All the states we went through had signs on the rest areas requiring masks to enter; not even half of those who did enter were wearing masks. We are home now and still waiting out our self-quarantine. But it was well worth it.
There are many dilemmas stemming from how far many of us live from our children and grandchildren. And by the time we consider moving close to them because we may “need” them as we begin to “fail,” our children will be preoccupied with orthodontic appointments, soccer games, and gymnastic lessons for their offspring. And there is the problem of stepfamilies. Almost no one in my parents’ generation was divorced or remarried, but in an era of blended families, whose children and grandchildren should you move close to? And how do we get our children to let the little ones call their stepfather Grandpa? These were not issues my parents faced.
Our cohort was sometimes labeled the “sandwich generation” as we had children, elderly parents, and jobs – often all at the same time. But the generation following us is even more likely to be in this predicament. And because of distance and age, they are not getting the help from their elders that some earlier generations got. I sympathize. For them and for us. But mostly I am just tired. And glad I went.