For the first 10 or 15 years that we knew her, we were not to call Elaine “Grandma.” At least and especially not in public. She was too busy attending to her coiffure and hosting wild parties for the American film productions in Rome to acknowledge this shift in her life. Holly GoLightly at the age of 55, she did not orchestrate or ask for grandmotherhood, so why should she assume the title?
Elaine is a footnote to this post, so let’s back up a bit.
It’s supposed to work this way:You have a baby, and your whole life changes forever. You prepare carefully, but nothing can quite ready you for motherhood. It shakes you up and places you down in another realm of life entirely. Your role as mother now trumps all the other roles you play. And all your family, friends, and neighbors understand, are happy for you, and supportive. Because we know what a mother is. Right?
But how is it supposed to work when your child has a baby? The shift in your roles is just as momentous, really, but less understood by everyone around you, and also by our ever-changing culture.
Sunday is Grandparents' Day, and we thought we’d take a minute to ponder this change in identity that comes along, for many of us, close on the heels of menopause.
My girlfriends are going through this identity shift now. But I remember listening in when my mother and her friends became grandparents. They advised and consoled one another daily. For them there was anguish in being sidelined, or demoted. They expected to be involved, but they were not. Distance was the word of the day. The mom role, the central role of their adulthood, was somebody else’s job now, and being demoted while still in the room is nothing but awkward. That problem alone can be stunning (stun-gun set on paralysis).
This distant role was completely different than the role many of their grandmothers played. And our grandmothering will be very different from our mothers’. We just don’t quite know how yet. We are writing our new job descriptions on the job. Grandmotherhood will be whatever we make of it, shaped by family dynamics not entirely in our control. It can become the central role of your life, an enriching extra dimension. Or you can pull an Elaine, and pretend it never happened. (Her grandchildren thought she was fabulous, by the way.)
Our new role will need to encompass very well-developed mothering skills, fit bodies, pretty darned agile minds, and a new phenomenon for women our age: A lot of us are still enjoying just being girls. You know, being fit, fashionable, fabulous, garrulous girls. We are not prepared for the invisibility cloak that has long been the costume for the role of Granny.
I’ve had friends in tears, wondering whether they should cut their hair off and get a perm? Should they start wearing stretchy pants? Certainly no grandma should wear a thong anymore, right? And spikey heels are just… gross for grandma. Or are they?
These may not seem like pressing or important questions at the moment of bringing a new life into the world, a new generation into your family, but they represent a complete emotional upheaval. We’re moving into the upper ranks of our families. The end is not near, but you can see it from here. It’s awful at the very moment when everything should be wonderful. It's emotional quicksand. Even the most stable among us can get trapped in it.
So. Got a girlfriend who’s a new grandmother? Our advice is: Pamper her. Make coffee dates, and give her your ear. Listen and attend as she carves out her own philosophy of grandmothering. This might be you some day. And then come back and tell us about what grandmothering means to the girl in you, will you? We would love to hear about your experiences.
To mark the day, we've developed a few special Grandma’s gift sets as a comfort and assurance for a grandmother in your life. We hope you like them--and she does, too.
Happy Grandparents’ Day!
Dr. Barb DePree, M.D., has been a gynecologist and women’s health provider for almost 30 years and a menopause care specialist for the past ten.