The U.S. news media’s response to Chelsea Clinton’s pregnancy announcement this week was innocuous at best and, at worst, breathtakingly stupid.
“President or Grandmother?” the interviewer Charlie Rose wondered aloud, failing to note that no man in the history of time had ever been presented with such a dilemma. NBC’s David Gregory asked whether Hillary’s “new role” would deter her from running for president at all, to which the feminist blog Jezebel sassed back, “I don’t know, David. Did the birth of your three children make you worse at your job?”
So yes, it’s blatantly idiotic (and sexist) to speculate on Hillary’s presidential bid in light of the happy news, and yet … my heart did go out to Chelsea just a little bit. Because like most children of high-functioning baby boomers (Hillary and Bill are the gold standard in this regard), she can pretty much forget about the benefits that some grandparents offer, things like casseroles, hand-knitted booties and free childcare. Many boomers, on the other hand, are reinventing grandparenting, just like they reinvented everything else in their path, and guess what? It involves a lot less schlepping for family and a lot more doing whatever the heck they want. They are the “me” generation after all, and as in all other stages of their lives, they are rocking it.
Take my mother. She spent years begging for a grandchild. And I don’t just mean the occasional “tick-tock” reminder, I mean regular phone sessions pleading with me to get pregnant “for the sake of continuity,” so I didn’t end up “leaving it too late.” When I finally managed to produce a son, via Caesarian section, she was an enormous help – for exactly one week. That’s when her husband flew over and they spent the rest of the visit going to art museums and the theatre. On their last night, when I passed James over, she gave his bottom a sniff and handed him back. “I think you can take it from here,” she said crisply.
And that was that. My mother has not changed a single diaper since. When I take James to her house to visit, I arrange for babysitting during the day so I can do paid work and she can go to yoga and write her novel. She says that once James is a bit older and “more interesting,” she might take him for a day or two, but until then the child-minder down the street will do.
I didn’t make it easier by moving across the Atlantic for a job. And the funny thing is, compared to many of my friend’s boomer parents, my Mum is actually a doting grandmother. She adores her grandson – she “likes” every single picture of him on Facebook and goes gooey when he kisses her screen face on Skype. She’s just not interested in doing the boring stuff. She did it as a mother and now she wants to relax. And in a way, who can blame her?
Some boomer grandparents are so caught up in their glorious golden years they’ve barely registered the latest generation at all. One girlfriend of mine complains bitterly that her husband’s parents, who live a hour’s drive away, have only visited her two-year-old daughter three times since she was born. There’s no rift in the family – they’re just too busy travelling the world, hiking and heli-skiing.
None of my friends leave their children with their boomer grandparents for longer than a night or two, and few even do that. Most boomer Grandmas and Granddads are just too busy – socially, recreationally and professionally – to focus on their grandkids the way their own parents might have. And for my generation of over-anxious “child-centred” helicopter parents, it’s hard not to take this as a personal insult. Haven’t these baby boomers noticed their grandchildren are utterly fascinating and entrancing? Aren’t they dying to hop along to Gymboree and help them to practise their mini cellos?
The problem for contemporary parents, of course, is that while parenthood and middle age have become much worse, old age has never been better. People in their 30s and 40s had to pay off student loans and suffer through an economic crisis in the prime of their earning years. We struggled to buy our first houses in a raging real estate market and now face rising prices for everything from heating bills to groceries to childcare. Cost of living has not kept pace with income levels and we are feeling the pinch. On top of all this, we work longer hours and spend more time with our children than any generation before us. We need a break! But there’s no point in looking to Granny and Gramps, because, unlike us, they’re having a grand old time.
Old age and retirement used to be a tedious void into which grandchildren brought meaning. Now it’s a high point of freedom, health and – until the pension crisis hits – financial stability. Baby boomers are not welcoming their grandkids upon their knee as they sit watching Coronation Street sipping tea because they’re not sitting down at all. They’re running marathons and writing novels and travelling the world.
And running for President. Back in 1992, during her husband’s first campaign, Hillary Clinton famously told Ted Koppel that instead of “staying home and baking cookies,” she decided to fulfill her professional dream of public life. Now, as a grandmother, she will do the same. It’s inspirational to watch today’s grandparents pursuing their dreams, but it’s also exhausting for us, their children. Note to today’s grandkids: You might get a female president, but don’t expect cookies.