Couples, Couples Therapy, Grandparents, marriage

Adventures in Grandparenting: One of the Best Reasons to Avoid “Gray Divorce”

22159793 - grandparents having great fun with their grandchildI still had my eyes closed in a state of sleep one morning last month, when I felt a shift in the force field centimeters from my nose. My eyes flipped open to an image of my new granddaughter, beaming, in a sunny yellow dress. As I blinked, trying to make sense out of my surroundings, I slowly realized that my husband had pulled her photo up on his phone and stuck it in front of my face to wake me up. I wasn’t quite conscious when I heard him say, “Look, Grandma! We have a precious new granddaughter, and we get to see her in a few weeks. She wanted to wish you good morning!” Her parents were bringing her to visit and we were both beyond ecstatic.

I had been looking forward to watching my husband as a grandfather for months, and he did not disappoint. A few months before my grandchild was born, we had a Chilean family over at our house for dinner. Their 4 year-old son spoke no English. A few minutes after they arrived, my daughter elbowed me and said, “Mom, look…dad is going to be the cutest grandpa.” I saw him down on his hands and knees, helping the little boy with a toy car he brought over, speaking his language, “Listo? Tírelo….. Mira que rápido que va.“

I understood the general meaning of what he was saying as, “Ready…Look how fast it went,” or goes, or something like that. What was unmistakable, though, was the sheer joy exhibited on the little boy’s face as he laughed and clapped his hands. My husband’s expression was reflective, showing that he was having as much or more fun as his small Chilean playmate.

What makes grandparenting so awesome?

Given a general increase in health and longevity, the potential for grandparenting influences is greater than ever. Many people report the grandparenting role as one of the most rewarding. I agree with the oft-repeated definition of “The fun part of parenting without all the hard stuff.”

Grandparents are storytellers, mentors, nurturers, caretakers, family historians and sometimes surrogate parents (in which case they do take on a lot of the “hard stuff”). They commonly reinforce the transmission of family values. Sometimes they offer more stability than parents. The rewards are reciprocal. Many grandparents report a sense of fulfillment by influencing grandchildren.

Grandparenting can be rejuvenating. Some people report that involvement with their grandchildren keeps them young. I can verify that as soon as I held my new granddaughter, I experienced many of the same feelings I had when I held my oldest son as a baby. Suddenly, I saw the world a different way. I wanted to experience everything anew with my child. That’s exactly the feeling I had with my granddaughter. Rejuvenating is an accurate descriptor.

What is “gray divorce” and how does it affect grandparenting?

One rather unfortunate effect of longevity seems to be a phenomenon called “gray divorce,” referring to the increasing numbers of couples divorcing in midlife or later. People divorce after several decades of marriage for many of the same reasons couples divorce earlier. With couples living longer, some are deciding they don’t want to continue to endure a difficult marriage, particularly if all the children are grown, and they have primarily stayed together for the children.

Sadly, even though any negative effects of grandparent divorce can be mitigated, it’s still a stressor that reverberates through an intergenerational family system. Grandparents who divorce sometimes perceive the grandparenting role as less important…especially males. Depending on the post-divorce relationships, sometimes grandchildren suffer if, for example, one grandparent refuses to show up at a family event the ex-spouse is attending. Sometimes watching grandparents divorce can reduce grandchildren’s confidence in their own abilities to endure a long-term marriage.

I remember when a teenager came in for a session right after her parents announced they were getting a divorce. She burst into tears and the first thing she said was, “I’m never going to be able to take my children to their grandparents’ house together, because they will be in separate households. Forever.” I was quite surprised at how futuristically she was envisioning her losses, but I could easily see why she was upset over the anticipated rupture in household structure. She was right. It was going to shift, and she had to reorganize her hopes and dreams for the future.

Is there hope for distressed “gray” marriages?

I recognize that sometimes divorce is inevitable. Personally, I would rather divorce than stay in a terrible marriage. However, I occasionally see couples who have given up hope when there is still hope left to shift negative patterns and heal previous betrayals, depending on the marital history and current context.

Some of my most rewarding marriage cases are with couples who have been married more than 40 years and feeling entirely hopeless that there’s anything I can offer them for improvement. “Why would anything be different now after 44 years of marriage?” I’ve been cynically questioned.

More often than not, I can point to specific markers of disconnection from their reported history and explain at least theoretically why the marriage can still be healed.  I’ve noticed that many betrayals and injuries in marriage don’t heal automatically, and couples get stuck, confused about how to move forward and rebuild. Many of these couples were surprised that through therapy, they actually did heal past injuries and negative patterns and develop new ways of connecting.

I’ve had several couples experience a state of grieving after improvement, feeling sorrow over having lost so many years of connection, but they also treasure the time they have left. It’s fun to see them excited about each other, and realizing they may have developed more closeness than some of their aging peers in mediocre marriages.

I have only been a Grandma for a few months, but entering grandparenthood with my husband has so far been one of the dearest, most connecting times in our marriage. We are both so jointly entranced by this little person that we can’t be anything but happy when we are taking turns holding and playing with her. We keep looking at each other and saying, “This is our granddaughter. Isn’t she perfect? We had a part in creating this.”

I can’t help but think, “This is why we worked so hard to stay married…because now we get to have this.” She represents our expanding legacy. A grandchild brings unparalleled purpose and meaning to life, and it’s even more fun that my cute grandpa-husband and I are doing it together.

References:

Amato, P. R., & Cheadle, J. (2005). The long reach of divorce: Divorce and child wellbeing across three generations. Journal of Marriage and Family, 67, 191-206.

Brown, S.L., & Lin, I.-F., (2012). The gray divorce revolution: rising divorce among middle-aged and older adults, 1990–2010. Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 67(6), 731–741.

Canham, S. L., Mahmood, A., Stott, S., Sixsmith, J., & O’Rourke, N.  (2014) ’Til Divorce Do Us Part: Marriage Dissolution in Later Life, Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, 55:8, 591-612.

Greenwood, J. L. (2012). Parent–child relationships in the context of a mid- to late life parental divorce. Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, 53, 1–17.

King, V. (2002). Parental divorce and interpersonal trust in adult offspring. Journal of Marriage and Family, 64, 924-938.

King, V. (2003). The legacy of a grandparent’s divorce: Consequences for ties between grandparents and grandchildren. Journal of Marriage and Family, 65, 170-183.

Photo credit: Copyright: <a href=’https://www.123rf.com/profile_AnaBGD’>AnaBGD / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Family, Grandparents, Marriage and Family Therapy

Grandparenting Power

Courtesy of Holly Robinson at http://hrobphotos.blogspot.com/
Courtesy of Holly Robinson at http://hrobphotos.blogspot.com/

When my dad passed away a few years ago, one of the saddest things about it for me as the youngest of six children was that my younger children wouldn’t experience his amazing personality.  I was already sad that my mom was gone and my kids wouldn’t be on the receiving end of her endless generosity.

Grandparents can have important protective impacts on children

Research demonstrates consistently that grandparents are potentially significantly influential in the cognitive, social and emotional development of children.  Positive grandparenting interactions are protective for children and can even moderate some negative childhood experiences.

Considering grandparenting can be a way to refocus on others in later life

I have had many opportunities to meet with people in therapy who are faced with various life transitions.  Sometimes, there has been a rupture in the family structure with loss of family members  due to death or divorce or children leaving home.  Sometimes, there are job changes based on unemployment or retirement.  Sometimes, normal aging processes and health challenges require transitions into new routines with limitations.  In these situations, it is common to experience stress, often accompanied by fear of the unknown and discomfort with the unfamiliar.  People often experience a type of existential angst about their identities, purpose and meaning.

Grandparenting can shape legacies

I like to introduce the idea of creating legacies through grandparenting, which is a frequently overlooked role in modern American life.  I often ask, “Have you thought about what kind of grandparent you want to be?  Do you realize how many potentially positive memories you can create for your grandchildren that can have a generational impact?”  It’s one of the few ways to really create an enduring legacy.

Grandparents can form safe attachment and happy memories

I only knew one of my four grandparents, but my little Swedish maternal grandmother was at the forefront of my life in shaping my identity and self-concept.  I spent a lot of time with her when I was young while my mother was recovering from back surgery.  Grandma had been widowed, and I kept her company while she kept me out of my mom’s hair.  Her nurturing was key in my experiencing the world as a safe and happy place.

Her memory jumps out at me in unexpected ways.  The other day, I walked into a market and was ecstatic to see a display of seasonal persimmons for sale.  I literally felt a wave of positive emotion connected to my maternal grandmother, who had introduced me to the unique fruit almost five decades earlier.  I bought a bag of them and took them home. As I bit into one, I was transported to her green-carpeted family room floor, where I would lie, listening to Swedish learning records she would play for me every time I visited.  I found that if I listened to the records and could then recite back to her many of the words I remembered, she would comment on how brilliant I was and brag to her friends about my intellectual skills.  I didn’t care that her exaggerations were inaccurate;  it gave me the feeling that someone believed in me and fueled my motivation to learn.

She and I had established a ritual upon entering her home in which she would ask me if I wanted something to eat.  She wasn’t the type of grandma to bake cakes and cookies, but she always had produce that my mother didn’t keep at our house.  This included more practical simple dishes, like sautéed spinach with lemon on the side, which was my standard snack food at her home.  She had a predilection toward unusual fruits and vegetables, and it seemed like every time I visited, she would introduce something new to my developing palate.

On one visit, she showed me how to eat an artichoke.  On another, she made me sautéed parsnips, and to this day the nutty flavor and texture of parsnips is associated with a warm hug and smile from my grandmother.  She introduced me to the small tangy kumquats that grew on a tree in her backyard, and eating them became a sort of Fear Factor challenge.  I have developed a near-obsession with acquiring boiled peanuts, since she kept cans of them procured from relatives in my grandfather’s native Florida.  I am often bringing home unique fruits and vegetables to my children, and when I was explaining persimmons to my daughter and how my grandmother taught me how to eat them, she said, “Oh, that’s why you like all those weird fruits and vegetables.”  Well.

Grandma was persistently cheery and smiled a lot, and if I needed correction, she always used a gentle approach to redirect my actions.   I don’t ever remember her raising her voice at me.  In her spare time, she had a practice of driving all of her widowed friends who no longer drove vehicles to their doctor appointments. She told me fascinating stories about when she was a child, like dancing around the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve in the Swedish tradition, or about sledding in Salt Lake City, Utah (her Swedish parents emigrated from Sweden to Utah in the late 1800’s).  For a southern California girl, the thought of having snow in my yard was surreal and I never tired of her descriptions.

She explained the story of how she got two middle names, since when she was born, she was going to be named “Pearl Adaline,” (pronounced “Adalina,” but retaining the Swedish spelling).  She explained that she only weighed 2 ½ pounds at birth, and her father gave her a baby blessing and added the name, “Eva,” up front, since it meant “life.”  She would say her entire name with Swedish emphasis on the first syllables, so it came out in a melodious, “Eeva Puurrl Aaada-leena,” and to this day when I’m telling my kids that story, I find myself adopting a temporary sing-songy Swedish lilt.

She regularly made me her travel companion as she visited and introduced me to an endless stream of distant relatives.  In short, she was literally one of the friendliest and most service-oriented people I knew, and she made me feel like I was valuable in the world.

When she died at age 90, and I helped dress her for her funeral, I was heavily impacted by the realization that none of her earthly possessions had followed her beyond mortality, but that the relationship she cultivated with me would potentially influence generations of people.

Simply stated, intentional grandparenting is one of life’s grandest gifts.  I look forward to being a grandma.  It matters.