On Being a Grandfather
A friend called the other day to talk about being a grandfather. He’s new-ish to the role. When he looked for a book on the topic, he didn’t find much. “Most of the books that exist are directed to grandmothers.” So he’s writing one for grandfathers.
I am fortunate to have grandchildren, six of them. I know some folks who long to be grandparents who haven’t had that opportunity. I am blessed. I get that.
But what does it mean to be a grandfather? I think of it a little bit in the terminology of sports. I’m not a starter. I come “off the bench,” as needed, when required. I’m out in the bullpen awaiting the call in the late innings.
All that sounds a little passive, but the first and basic truth of being a grandparent is this — “You’re not the parent.”
For some that may be frustrating. When we would leave our kids for an overnight or weekend with my in-laws, my mother-in-law would inevitably say (only slightly kidding), “If I had them just a few more days I could get them straightened out.” I find this more limited role to be freeing. The lion’s share of responsibility doesn’t fall on me or us.
As a grandparent, you have some distance on the enterprise, on the grandchild, her or himself. As a parent you’re close, sometimes too close. Your identity gets mixed up with that of your kids. Your issues can easily shadow the relationship.
Grandparents are blessed by a distance that, paradoxically, permits a certain intimacy. A somewhat cynical perspective is the old saw that goes, “Grandparents and grandchildren have a common enemy: the parents.” I don’t think you need to go that far to say that this relationship is less fraught and in some ways more rewarding than that of the parent and child.
My friend and I got into the perennial topic of “nature vs. nurture.” Is a child’s nature pretty much given or is it a product of the nurture they receive (or don’t receive)? My interviewer/ friend re-called the observation of grandmother he had known years before. She said, “There’s nature and there’s nurture; and then there’s the child.”
Bingo! As a grandparent I’ve been struck by how each of our six is, well, who they are. Each one is wondrously different and distinct from any another, whether siblings or cousins. Each a particular human being, neither seen before, nor to appear again.
The blessings of being a grandparent is that the distance enables you to see each one more nearly as they are, to wonder at this unique being, without feeling a need to press upon them certain expectations or needs of one’s own.
My hunch is that kids need adults like this in their lives. People who love them, are in their corner, but aren’t feeling a huge weight of responsibility for them. And if that bit of distance allows a unique freedom and intimacy between grandparent and grandchild, I suspect it goes the other way as well. Grandparents get to be, if they aren’t already, a little eccentric, maybe a bit weird, visitors from a somewhat different time and culture.
One of my happiest grandfather memories comes from when one of the grandsons was 4 and spending the night. I am an early riser and before long he joined me in the kitchen. He said, “What are we going to do today, Grandpa?” with the clear implication that whatever I was planning to do, he was too. It doesn’t, as they say, get any better than that.