Ian Brown is a feature writer at The Globe and Mail.
Here, on full display one recent December evening at a holiday party in a spacious mid-century condominium in downtown Toronto, is grandparenthood in its complicated modern form.
Here is the object of everyone’s affection, Eames (yes, like the chair), two months old, still tiny but fiercely thriving: the decisive shock of black hair, the grippy hands the size of the end of a thumb. Eames is being passed around from guest to guest. He is calm.
Here is his mother, Courtney, 31, an ER doctor married to another ER doctor (he’s at work), chatting in the living room. Courtney can chat in the living room because her mother, Heather, a 62-year-old retired lawyer (visiting from B.C. for the second time in two months) is pimping Eames out to anyone who wants to hold him.
They include wannabe grandparents (a term used by sociologists of grandparenting) such as Dan, the 60-year-old bachelor who now wishes he’d had kids, and four women in their late 50s and early 60s whose 25-year-olds haven’t yet had their own children; and step-grandfather Kerry, Heather’s second husband. Not present is Heather’s first husband, Eames’s grandfather, and his second wife, Eames’s step-grandmother. All in all, the infant has six grandparents wanting his tiny presence at three separate Christmases.
This is 21st-century Baby-Boomer grandparenting – a new frontier of family life and demographics whose importance is only beginning to be fathomed. Having heedlessly redesigned parenthood beginning in the 1960s by taking the pill and putting off childbirth in favour of careers and education and personal yayas, the Boomers are now finishing the job by overhauling grandparenthood. The stakes are serious. Delayed child-bearing and declining birthrates coupled with greater longevity have created a surfeit of aging, older grandparents: Canada’s 7.5 million gramps and grannies aged 45 and older (up from 5.4 million in 1995) now outnumber the number of children under the age of 14 (5.8 million in 2016).
Will the grand-Boomers become just one more burden on the next generation, alongside climate change and pension debt, as some Cassandras predict? They could easily bring the care system to a crashing halt. On the other hand, they might – and there’s some evidence for this – enrich and renew the importance of being a grandparent, and thus make the world a fairer place. In that case, millennials might actually forgive them. Merry Christmas.
Here, dear reader, with apologies, we have to briefly discuss a few statistics.
Two generations of Canadian women have now deferred child-bearing into their 30s and 40s, and are having fewer children when they do become pregnant. As a result, the average age of Canadian grandparents has jumped from 65 to 68 in a single generation. And the number of grandparents over 85 has nearly tripled since 1995.
This might be bad news. According to the Optimist’s Dream of Everlasting Prosperity, grandparents are supposed to play a strict role: They retire as soon as possible and take care of the grandkids so their own offspring can go to work and earn money and start spinning the generational hamster wheel of prosperity all over again. Not all aging Boomers can do that. Many can’t afford to stop working: Seniors comprise twice as big a slice of the work force today (14 per cent) than they did in 2003. The presence of active grandparents in a child’s life correlates with better school performance and “greater pro-social behaviours,” but that doesn’t happen if Oona and Popoo are at work all day.
Then again, a whack of healthy older Boomer grandparents might be really good news. Life expectancy has increased so much that an average 65-year-old today can expect to live 22.1 more years if she’s a woman, and 19.3 years if he’s a man. Hence the swell of grandparents today – 80 per cent of whom report their health as excellent. This means you can expect to be Grandpa for an average of 19 years, or Grandma for 24. You have fewer grandkids (down to four from five, since the 1990s), and you have them later, but you get to know them (and they you) way better, and for way longer. On balance, according to the University of Western Ontario’s Rachel Margolis, a sociologist who studies grandparenting, “Boomers don’t have less time to be grandparents. They actually have more time.”
In other words, we might actually get to know the carriers of our collective memories, and hear what experience has taught them, rather than making the same mistakes all over again.
Here endeth the statistics.
We were a typical Baby-Boom family. My parents, postwar immigrants from England, left their parents behind. I saw my father’s reserved Edwardian progenitors exactly twice, and have little recollection of them beyond the beautifully lettered scrapbooks of London my grandfather sent me by airmail as he went blind. My only memory of my mother’s mother is of her smoking, and of accompanying her to her henhouse to choose a rooster, which the hired hand then killed, and she roasted, and we ate, together, in her kitchen. A ceremony. We were in Canada when she died a few years later, my mother crying in her bed at the news. I knew my maternal grandfather best, at least for a summer as a teenager, but he was gone by the time I was 20. By then, luckily, my siblings and I had grown close to our English cousins, all of whom knew our grandparents intimately: They lived 20 minutes away. Proximity is everything where grandparents are concerned.
Otherwise, my relationship to my grandparents consisted of a series of short, shouted conversations at the end of a staticky telephone line on Sunday evenings, when long-distance rates were cheapest.
Boomer grandparents have changed all that. Technology – cheap transcontinental air travel, but especially Skype and FaceTime – has brought families closer. “Today, you can be a grandparent and participate in the lives of your grandchildren via Skype,” says Nora Spinks, chief executive officer of Ottawa’s Vanier Institute of the Family. “You can have dinner twice a week through your tablet. You can live in relatively close proximity even if you live on the other side of the world.” And “because of longevity, you can now have a relationship with your grandparents well into your 20s, your 30s, even your 40s. So your access to elders may be much greater than it has ever been.”
Because Boomers live longer than any grandparents before them, they think of themselves as younger grandparents.
And if Boomers don’t want to be thought of as old, they certainly don’t want to be called by an old name. The internet is teeming with lists of new names for Nanas. The traditional Yiddish monikers Bubbie and Zayde have been updated to Zed and the likes of Bubbie-Jo. First names – Tom! – are popular, as are any name an infant can actually pronounce (Nona, Neena, PawPaw, Gogo, Napa, Dad-Dat). The Swedes like MorMor. Cherokee children name their grandmothers according to whether the child is the offspring of her daughter (Elisi) or her son (Enisi). Bibi means grandmother in Swahili, but it’s equally popular in English. Divorce and remarriage – two other pastimes at which Boomers excelled – complicate naming even further. Heather, Eames’s maternal grandmother, goes by Young Grandmother because she had one of those herself. The lad’s other grandmothers chose what they wanted to be called.
This isn’t to suggest Boomer grandparenting is always co-operative. At lunch the other day, sitting at a table of grandparents, I heard a grandmother from the oldest tranche of Boomers forthrightly declare victory over her co-grandmother for the affections of their grandchildren. “I have won the war,” she said. “I have all the PA days. I pick them up from school on Thursdays. I took the eldest to Hungary on holiday, and I took the middle two to Rome.” Her husband went along, "but he did not come with us to gladiator camp.”
Susan, a 63-year-old Toronto nurse, flies across the country to Vancouver at least twice a year to help her 36-year-old daughter raise her two young children. A no-nonsense realist, she has been pleasantly surprised by the whole adventure of grandmothering, given that “I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a grandparent at first.” She certainly didn’t want to be called Grammy Sue. What would she have liked instead? “Oh, I don’t know: the Queen? It took me aback. I didn’t think I was old enough. But as my daughter says, ‘It’s not about you, Mum.’ Okayeee.”
Her approach to grandmotherhood is agreeably slavish, in keeping with the new Boomer-preferred non-authoritarian model. “I do what I’m asked to do: daycare, birthdays, gardening guru, home repair. My daughter typically has an itinerary, including massaging my wallet.” Grandmothering is work, but it’s contained. “The nice thing about grandparenting is it’s short term. It’s nice that you can sort of give the kids back.” (Research suggests this is a common attitude among Boomer grandparents.) “You get the best part of their lives – their childhoods. For me, the best part is remembering back – stuff your kids did, but that you’ve forgotten. Most of what the kids do now is on Instagram. So it’s captured.” She is a more human form of memory.
The most obvious thrill of grandparenting, of course, is that it’s so much easier than parenting. “You get a sense of distance,” Mike, a 70-year-old grandfather of four kids under 7, told me the other day. “When you’re a parent – and we’ve all been there – you have really no idea what you’re doing. Totally sleep deprived, stressed and pressured. Exhausted. You have none of that as grandparents. Maybe the difference is that when you’re a parent, you’re both accountable and responsible. And when you’re a grandparent, you’re totally interested, but are not accountable.” At their best, grandparents are an antidote to the mind-shrinking drudgery of parenthood in general and motherhood in particular. That drudgery is one reason fertility rates have been dropping for 300 years.
Boomers, in other words, are grandparents with ideas about what it means to be a grandparent. An interesting question is whether those ideas can be harnessed to their political clout. The Vanier Institute is about to report the results of its first national Listening Tour, an anecdotal survey of family life across the country. The depth of feeling uncovered on the subject of grandparents surprised even Nora Spinks. “What children get from their grandparents is a sense of history and a sense of belonging, not only to a group, but to the past and to the future,” she says. “We like to say families have a 200-year present. The big thing elders transfer to grandchildren is values – a respect for the truth, compassion, heritage, language, traditions. Grandma’s famous meatballs that she got from her grandmother. Stories.” The stories help a child answer an important question in a technologically disjointed world: Where do I belong?
“Family,” Ms. Spinks adds, “is the most adaptable institution we have. It’s continually readjusting to change. What we don’t have is mechanisms in our colleges and our workplaces that acknowledge the role people like grandparents play.”
A foster parent, for instance, receives funds for looking after a child; grandparents don’t. Why not, given that child care is an continuing and expensive issue in the lives of hard-pressed working parents and grandparents? “Because our institutions haven’t caught up yet to what is actually happening,” is Ms. Spinks’s answer. In Britain, grandparental leave is now being tested in the workplace, as is phased retirement, a concept she predicts Canadians will soon embrace. “So you can be an active grandparent and keep your foot in the workplace.” Susan, the nurse in Vancouver, would welcome it. “Should I be taking more time now from my job, when I’m physically capable, to spend more time with my grandkids? When is a good time to make room for that?”
Meanwhile, Baby-Boomer grandparents are in the process of transferring an estimated $750-billion in assets to their descendants. Which generation deserves it most? The parents wrestling with a changing postindustrial economy, or their children who’ll have to deal with climate change? "Nowadays, you live to decide who you leave that money to,” Ms. Spinks observes. She predicts plenty of blood on the floor, but she hopes at least some of the money helps young fathers spend more time with their children. Second partner leave became a legislated fact of life in Canada this year; the as yet unpublished uptake numbers, which Ms. Spinks has seen, are “astonishing. It’s the new dads who are stepping up and playing the postpartum role.” Fathers who care for their newborns are more likely to care for the sick and the elderly. If Boomer grandparenting supports that trend, it will be a step toward a more compassionate society.
Grandparents in children’s books are usually anti-authoritarian, a grandchild’s (possibly eccentric: the grandmother in Roald Dahl’s The Witches smokes cigars) ally against central headquarters and the random authority of parents. Grandparents are secret agents and backstops in the adventure of facing the world. Their age – their closeness to death – makes them a rarified commodity, and brave. The parent is omnipotent, but the grandparent is the chrysalis of the parent, his or her forgotten source and husk. Your parent tells you what to do and where to go. Your grandparents tell you where your parents started.
That is some of what a grandparent can be to a child. And what is a grandchild to its grandparent? The sweetest possible reminder that your life will end, sooner rather than later.
“The moment you look at your grandchild,” a grandmother I know told me the other day, “you have a deep sense of satisfaction that your biological mission is now accomplished. Much more so than having your own child. Until you look at your grandchild, you still think you’re 35.” Grandchildren sweeten the bite of mortality.
She never wanted to become the popular ideal of a grandma, “this assumption that you’re going to clear the decks and become a kind of squishy apple doll who does nothing but bake cookies.” Instead, she likes being a grandmother because over and over and over again, she gets to watch her children’s children become what they are going to become, without the distracting low-grade anxiety and punchy terror and crushing responsibility and guilty pride and nervous trilling joy and desperate hope and overbearing megalomania that come with being a parent operating under the terrified conviction that there is only a single moment and a single chance, this chance now, not to be missed and never to be repeated, to gather all the provender a life requires.
The grandparents’ gift is to know things aren’t that urgent, and that you can’t control most of it anyway.
“It’s like raising a plant,” she said. “You provide water and light and try to make sure someone doesn’t sit on it. But it’s a living thing, not a tabula rasa for you to create. So much of it is just genetics. And luck. Good luck, or bad. I think the grandparents know that it’ll all work out. Or else it won’t. But it won’t be because of something you did.” I suspect she could have talked about it forever. Alas, she will not be around to do that. Best to listen while you can when you see her over the holidays.
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