Sue Ray, a grandmother in Weston, Florida, says her greatest joy in life came the first time she made eye contact with her first grandson. Although becoming a grandparent can be one of life’s most exhilarating and rewarding experiences, grandparents and their adult children still need time to adjust to their new roles and relationships.
“The tricky part of becoming a grandparent is the continuous process of your adult kids asserting their independence,” explains Barbara Graham, editor of “Eye of My Heart: 27 Writers Reveal the Hidden Pleasures and Perils of Being a Grandmother.”
“The relationship between grandparents and their grandkids is one of the most pure relationships in the world because you can just love them and don’t have the same concerns and expectations [as you had when you were raising your own children].”
Graham says the best thing you can do for your kids as a grandparent is to show up when you’re needed and disappear when you’re not. Focus on supporting the new parents in every way they find helpful, rather than imposing your feelings or needs on theirs.
Adjusting to Your New Role
The traditional image of a grandmother in her rocking chair holds true for some grandparents, but many modern grandparents are redefining the role. Although 86 percent of grandparents still bake cookies for their grandkids, 55 percent of them play video games with them.
This isn’t all that surprising considering that 37 percent of grandparents made their transition to grandparent-hood while in their forties. Grandparents today drive their grandkids to soccer practice, chat with them on FaceTime and take an active interest in their lives.
“I loved being a mother but I love being a grandmother even more because it’s more relaxing,” admits Nora Roiter, a grandmother in Miami.
“My grandson lives in another state and thanks to technology I can be connected anytime and have pictures of many of his moments. But nothing replaces being with him in person to hug him, kiss him, play with him, teach him, read with him, sing to him and laugh with him.”
Roiter, who no longer works outside the home, flies to New Jersey to babysit when her daughter or her son-in-law need to travel for work. But not every grandparent can do that. Sixty percent of grandparents still work part-time or full-time, which impacts how much time and energy they have for their grandkids.
“Everybody works these days, so you need to figure out a balancing act just like you did when you were a parent,” says Graham. “You need to decide your own limits and determine how much of your energy goes to your grandkids and how much to conserve for yourself.”
When it comes to childcare, commit only to what you can mentally and physically handle. If you feel guilty for not spending more time helping out with your grandchildren, recognize that it’s okay to have your own life. And, unless you are the children’s primary caregiver, remember that it’s really not your responsibility to raise them.
Knowing Your Boundaries
Many grandparents find being in a secondary role challenging, especially when the children’s parents have a different idea of what the rules are and how they should be raised.
“Going from parent to grandparent is like going from the starting line-up in baseball to being relegated to the bench,” explains Graham. “You discover quickly that you don’t get a vote in their decisions.”
Graham advises that new parents mostly want unconditional love and support from their own parents and don’t always want their opinion. “Even saying something seemingly neutral such as ‘this bath water feels a little warm’ could be easily misconstrued as criticism,” warns Graham.
Allowing the parents to make their own decisions and waiting to be asked for advice—and even then, giving it lightly—can make for an easier relationship. “It’s easy to give advice,” says Ilene Cook, a grandmother in Washington, D.C. “Heck, you’ve done this before, maybe multiple times. I try to pass on parenting tips by modeling rather than saying them out loud.”
“Our grandparenting boundaries are created by the parents and we respect those boundaries and are happy that they are broad,” explains Ray. “We are grandparents, not the parents. We do not judge, complain or critique, we just love!”
Connecting to Your Grandchildren
Mary Ann Evangelist, a grandmother in Nyack, New York, says she grew up with all four grandparents living nearby and saw them almost daily.
Her grandparents imparted to her the value of education and the importance of knowing what was going on in the world by having her read the newspaper to them, making sure she did her homework and attending every school event.
The family cooked and baked together, made gifts together and each of her grandfathers gave her 25 cents a week to save or to share if someone else needed money.
“Our world is different—we don’t live in the same small neighborhoods—and we often connect with our grandchildren by Skype or Facebook,” explains Evangelist.
“I still want to be that same kind of Grandma who will make the time to teach Luke to bake the biscotti he calls ‘Grandma’s cookie’ which he happily munches while we FaceTime on a Sunday evening. I hope that someday, remembering his Grandma, he can make them himself to share with someone else because that’s what good, kind, caring people do.”
Finding ways to connect with your grandchildren isn’t always easy, but the opportunities are out there. Look for activities that fit your lifestyle and personality, but don’t be afraid to step out of the box every now and again. Sharing family traditions or exploring new things together are both great options for bonding with your grandkids.
In addition to the complexities of modern life, many grandchildren, like Ray’s, have more than four grandparents. “Our family situation is becoming more of the norm these days,” says Ray.
“My grandchildren have six grandparents. Although I do not share a bloodline with my two grandchildren, I could not love them any more if I did. The little loves do not know the difference because there is none.”
Graham warns there can be competition among grandparents, especially when some grandparents have more money or more time to indulge their grandkids.
“Sometimes grandparents feel like they’re back in junior high competing for attention,” says Graham. “It can be particularly fraught between the paternal and maternal grandparents, especially in the early years when babies are often pretty dependent on their mothers and the mothers then turn to their own mothers for support.”
Geographical factors can also increase the tension if some grandparents live close by and can pick up the child daily, but others have to wait for longer visits, adds Graham.
“The important thing is to understand that with care and attention you can carve out a meaningful relationship with your grandchild no matter where you live,” says Graham. “There’s no limit to the amount of love kids can give and get, so rely on your better nature to guide you and recognize there’s a place for you and for everyone else in your grandchild’s life.”
Graham lived through a stretch of time when her grandchildren saw their other grandparents all the time, which was frustrating. Then she realized that when she saw them it was a special, memorable event in their lives.
Providing Financial Support
Although your adult kids don’t always want your opinion, some are happy to accept your money. Grandparents spend $52 billion every year on their grandkids, $32 billion of which is spent on education-related costs such as private schools, tutoring or saving for college.
“The majority of my clients are 50 to 80 years old and a common theme is that they want to make sure their grandkids get a good education,” says John Gajkowski, a certified financial planner and co-founder of Money Managers Financial Group in Oak Brook, Illinois.
“They see that with the economy the way it is, it’s hard for their adult kids to support their grandkids in the way they did.”
Sixty-two percent of grandparents have provided financial support to their adult children and grandchildren in the last year, with 70 percent of those grandparents offering cash for day-to-day expenses, 40 percent helping with a mortgage or rent payment, 24 percent paying for health care, 23 percent paying for daycare costs and 21 percent paying for educational expenses.
In addition to financial support for big-ticket items, it’s common for grandparents to shower their grandchildren with toys, books and clothing, but Gajkowski suggests splitting your spending between those items and a savings fund.
“Some grandparents get so excited they don’t even realize how much they are spending on their grandkids,” explains Gajkowski. “One client insisted he wasn’t spending much, so I asked him to write it down for a couple of weeks and it turned out he was spending about $200 per week on McDonald’s trips and toys for his grandkids.”
He recommends starting slowly with your spending rather than over-committing to helping them financially to the detriment of your own financial security.
“I lost it when the kids were babies and couldn’t stop shopping,” says Graham. “Now I try to contribute just to the degree I can to things like camps and clothes. I’m more careful to stick to what I can handle and recognize that taking care of myself is also key.”
In addition to being mindful of how your spending might affect your finances, also consider how it might affect your relationship with your own child. Some parents might feel that you’re trying to undermine or compete with them, especially if they can’t afford lavish gifts for their children.
Others might worry that you’ll spoil the children. And still, others might have limited space or simply want to choose their own clothing and toys. Be sure to talk to your kids before you go on a spending spree and respect their wishes, even if you disagree with them.
Although becoming a grandparent is a joyous event, the experience can be even better when you embrace your role as the supportive parent to your newly overwhelmed adult children. Listening to their needs while balancing your own can be the key to a fulfilling new phase of your life.
KEEP READING: 7 Ways to Nurture Your Relationship With Your Grandchild