How Young Can Your Grandma Be?
A few weeks ago when my husband referred to Grandma, I knew he was talking about my mother. At other times when he has said, “Go to Grandma,” it has taken some time to figure out who he’s talking about.
In the traditional life cycle of a marriage, we marry, move into our first shared space, and then have children. Then those children grow up, move out and stay moved out! Middle-aged, empty nest parents would finish up their work years and then retire.
What percentage of American relationships fit this profile today? Mine never has. When my husband and I married and moved into our first home, the union included his two children from a previous marriage. So we were never a childless couple. That is, until a few years ago when they both moved out. We had been married for almost ten years at that point, and it was a strange experience to be child free for the first time. It didn’t take us long to get the hang of stepping out of the parent role and we enjoyed being able to travel on a whim and go out on “school nights”. But a few months ago we ended the empty-nest life style we had settled into. We decided to allow my step-daughter, a college freshman, and her one year old son to move in with us.
That means that like Sarah Palin, I’m a young grandma (though unlike Sarah Palin I am not both a young grandma and an older mother of an infant). How is it possible that I’m a grandmother? A step-grandmother. By any name, it sounds as old and rather unlike me and what I think of when I hear the word grandmother. When my husband and I go out with the baby, people assume that we’re his parents. That’s because we are young enough to be his parents. It seems that if I lived in Hollywood and were his mother, I would be a spring-chicken. Do you know what Halle Berry, Brooke Shields and Susan Sarandon have in common? They all had babies in their 40s. In general, maternal age is advancing. So at what is referred to by the medical establishment as advanced maternal age—over age 35—I would be in good company if I have a baby now. And yet, I’m a grandma with a grandchild and his mother living in our home.
This lifestyle change facilitates my step-daughter’s college education by allowing us to offer hands-on assistance with her son. This move has also ended the DINK lifestyle we were cultivating and put us back into the business of active parenting; it’s quite different from offering telephone support and seeing the kids and their babies—each step-child now has one baby—on occasional visits. And since we are assisting Suzette (the fake name I’m giving my step-daughter) with childcare while she works and goes to school, our ability to galavant has been severely curtailed. My husband and I provide the stable environment in which children thrive, along with the emotional and financial support that a new mother and young woman such as Suzette requires. Mindful of the emotional, financial and other costs associated with paid childcare, we have encouraged Suzette to avoid it if she can. Her work and schooling both take place in the evening, allowing her to be with her son during the day. When she’s at work and school we mind the baby.
How does this put us at odds with our friends? Fortunately, our friends have children in a wide age-range—from about 6 to mid 20s. None of the friends in our social network are empty nesters as yet, so in our DINK days we were the ones out of step with them. Often we were the ones who could attend events that they could not because we did not have to go over homework or attend soccer practice or games. And because several of our friends still have relatively young children and are very family-oriented, their gatherings can easily include a toddler.
This turn of events puts me at a rather “mixed” age. My chronological age and social age don’t match. I’m told that, like many members of my family, I don’t even look my chronological age. Add to that the fact that women my age are having children and it’s clear why people assume that I’m the mother of the toddler; it’s not a stretch to believe that my husband and I are his parents. Grandparent is one of the most positive roles associated with aging, and although I am young for that role, I now have two grandchildren. It’s why most people upon learning that I’m a grandmother ask, “What does he call you? You’re too young to be called Grandma!” He has no name for me as he doesn’t speak yet. But once he does, what name would be hip enough? Certainly, not Grandma!
How do experiences like mine challenge what you have learned about the “life-course”?