I can’t take issue with Lesley Stahl’s thesis in her Mother’s Day riff on grand parenting in last Sunday's New York Times.
She writes: “Having grandchildren is the great reward for enduring the indignities of aging. Holding your baby’s baby is life-affirming. It’s joyous.”
Stahl’s year-old book. Becoming Grandma: The Joys and Science of the New Grandparenting is equally positive about the intergenerational benefits of grandparent/grandchild relationships. I subscribe to most of those good feelings; what’s not to like about meting out unconditional love with no responsibilities for a child’s development?
And yet I cringed reading her piece on Mother’s Day, for so much of it was about the time, energy and, most of all, money she was spending. It seemed to me that, in addition to yielding joy to Lesley, her grand-parenting was serving to undermine, if not negate her own daughter’s functional capacity as a mother. I would not have wanted to read, or have my peers infer that my mother subsidized my nanny and my pre-school because my husband and I could not afford to raise my child/our children the way we want to and/or she expected us to.
I believe that the job of parenting is to move your children successfully from total dependence to healthy independence, to prepare them to make all those decisions (e.g., where to live, what careers to pursue, whether or not to have children and how many, how to educate them, what values to embody, how to engage their community, what friends to develop, etc.) that, taken together, comprise a responsible lifestyle, or the life they choose to lead as adults. To support them, yes, in myriad substantive and emotional ways, but, still, to let them go, too. To be Family, to be helpful, an extra pair of hands, one more person to love their children (who cannot — ever — have too many folks loving them), but not to bankroll them indefinitely, much less to use their children to work out residual guilt about your own parenting.
Perhaps I’m tasting sour grapes. I have four adult children. I would never buy their homes or contract to pay their nannies; I don’t think it’s appropriate. But I couldn’t, either. One might be financially feasible if I made different choices, I suppose, but not four. So maybe I’m just feeling jealous. Or guilty because I don’t spend 24 or 40 hours a week with the grandchildren or keeping house for my son and daughters. Or complicit because my husband and I have imposed upon our kids our belief in the importance of a college education by setting up 529 plans, after consulting with them, for each of the grandchildren.
I’d prefer to think, however, that all the joy and love grandchildren unleash in us would fuel not so much largesse in their individual lives as a commitment, instead, to support all parents with an economy that works for families; with critical family leave policies; with universally accessible, high-quality child care subsidized by businesses and, as-needed, government; with universally accessible, high-quality healthcare; with environmental protections for the world they will inherit; and by bearing witness in our lives to the values that uphold our civilization in everything we do and say. At our age, we grandparents are much more importantly the keepers of wisdom than the controllers of the purse strings.