When I was a kid -- which, granted, was way back in the 20th century -- my brother and I would often be dropped off at Grandma Esther and Grandpa Sam's house on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. There we'd spend endless hours bouncing on the bed, listening to subversive stories about dumb things my father did when he was a child, and creating spectacular arts-and-crafts projects involving brown paper grocery bags, pipe cleaners, uncooked macaroni, and Elmer's glue. Weather permitting, Esther would change out of her housedress, and we'd get sour pickles and bialys to munch as we ambled into Chinatown for egg rolls and a Coke. By the time we got back to the apartment, I'd had my fill of food, toys my parents had previously declined to buy me, and the thing I wanted more than anything: two adults' undivided attention. No matter how often my parents left us with Esther and Sam so they could do boring grown-up things or simply catch a break from our manic energy, my grandparents would regularly call and ask, "So when can we see Greg and Stephie? You never bring them to visit."
Just 30-odd years later, grandparents like that seem as rare as rotary phones. My friend Jen says her parents adore their grandsons, who are 5 and 2. They help out financially and attend birthday parties with great pomp and ceremony. But as far as relieving the weary parents with a little childcare, it's like making plans with any other busy couple: They need to sync their Treos and get back to her. Jen's parents write plays and perform in their community theater, operate a cooperative recycling program at the town dump, have an in with maitre d's at all the decent restaurants in their area, and are on a notoriously raucous cocktail circuit.
Other mothers I've spoken to say the same thing: that between world travel, figure-drawing classes, golf lessons, and "me" time, today's grandparents don't come with as many built-in advantages as previous incarnations did. Teaching the kiddies to build a log cabin out of tongue depressors doesn't automatically make it to the top of their to-do list.
So what's the matter with grandparents today? Not a thing, say trend watchers. It's just that they have lives. There they are, staying healthy and active longer than our own grandparents did, and they actually want to go do their own thing with their time. The nerve! "The new generation of grandparents is a little bewildered at how vital they are for their age," says Arthur Kornhaber, MD, a psychiatrist and founder of the Foundation for Grandparenting, in Ojai, California. "If they were older and more tired, they might feel more grandparenty. Their attention is diverted because they didn't realize they'd have so many options -- and many grandparents, of course, are still working."
This shouldn't be shocking. After all, why should healthy, accomplished adults drop everything and become doting, baby-talking, nursery-rhyme-spouting grandparents as soon as their daughter skips a period? Because we need help, that's why! Some parents of small children feel bereft, perhaps because they secretly believed that when the blessed event occurred, their own parents would offer the support that they likely had enjoyed. As it turns out, not so much.
Jen says that it's not that her parents mind taking the kids, per se. "It's just that their lives are so fabulous and they're so busy." In some cases, however, it appears that grandparents, feeling that they've put in their time, have lost patience for childish behavior. Connie has two girls, 1 and 4. "My mother will hand Tara back as soon as she starts fussing and has no patience for Ryan acting like a 4-year-old." One time, Connie's mom agreed to watch the kids so Connie and her husband could have their twice-annual movie date. "An hour after we'd left the house, we got a call saying the baby was crying and that we needed to come home. Luckily we hadn't gone into the movie yet."
Is it possible that the grandparental involvement we look back on so fondly was foisted upon seniors because of society's expectations and they really would rather have been in Vegas? Robert Atchley, PhD, coauthor of Social Forces & Aging: An Introduction to Social Gerontology, thinks so and points out that there is no single way to be a grandparent -- and there never has been. "What you're really talking about is cultural images of what grandparents 'ought' to do," says Dr. Atchley.
Amanda, a mom of two kids under 3, says she's glad her parents are of the new breed. As soon as their suburban nest was empty of Amanda and her brother, her parents moved to downtown Chicago and now eat out five nights a week with a wide circle of friends. For her 60th birthday, Amanda's mom got a tattoo of a sun. "They even developed this thing they call 'lobbying,' where they go from hotel lobby to hotel lobby getting drunk. They party like teenagers," she says. On the other side of the spectrum are Amanda's in-laws, who also live in the Midwest. "They don't have anything in their lives except the grandchildren. We visit them once a year for two weeks, and they plan their whole year around it. I feel like the pressure is on. My mother-in-law even said, 'The grandchildren are the sunshine in our lives. When you leave, you take the sunshine with you.' So I'm glad that when my parents aren't around, I know they're happy and having fun."
Clearly, no one's begrudging her own mom and dad a bit of grandparents-gone-wild time. But hey, a little babysitting every so often would be nice. So is there anything you can do if your kids' grandparents are too busy beating drums in sweat lodges or pursuing second careers to be more helpful? You could buy them a copy of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Grandparenting as an impromptu "just thinking of you" gift. Or you can be straight with them about what you need. "It's important for you to make an effort to tell the grandparents that they are wanted and needed in a grandparenting role, not just for babysitting," says Dr. Kornhaber. "Parents have to sit down and say, 'We're a three-generational team here, and you're part of the team.' It could be that your parents don't want to interfere or they think they're cramping your style if they come around too often." And maybe our parents wished that they could have told our hovering grandparents to get a life!
You could do what Connie and Amanda have done: try to appreciate the upside of ultra-busy grandparents. "In a lot of ways the new breed is great. There's no guilt, no breathing down anyone's neck. You take the good with the bad, I suppose," Connie told me. In the end, it seems, the grandkids don't suffer either way. "They have so much love coming from both sets of grandparents," says Amanda. "I just let each of them love my kids in their own way."
Copyright © 2008. Used with permission from the April 2008 issue of Parents magazine.