I am about to become a grandparent and am naturally delighted but also a little in awe and uncertain of what will be needed and expected. There are few books written on this subject so I have been scouring the Internet for material. Most of what I have found is written from an anecdotal perspective and does not feature references to theory or research. What I did find in the learned literature very largely related to particularly challenged social contexts such as those of extreme socio-economic challenge, for example, refugee situations. There is also a small amount of family law material, which, as would be expected, tends to emphasise family divisions and problems to do with contact between children and their grandparents and reveals the very limited legal rights pertaining to this.
And yet it is fair to say that grand parenting is one of those given social ‘goods’ that most people view in an almost romantic, usually deeply affectionate way. As Margaret Mead, social anthropologist wrote in ‘Blackberry Winter’(1972)
“Every one needs to have access to both grandparents and grandchildren in order to become a full human being.”
These are strong words and are based upon her extensive and respected ethnographic research with many diverse and far-flung cultures and people. I know what she means at a gut level but they make me wonder, again, why relatively little seems to have been written about the characteristics of good grandparents and grand parenting. Perhaps what iconic philosopher and writer, Jean-Paul Satre (1905 – 1980) wrote in his seminal book ‘Words’, clarifies things:
“…my grandfather could enjoy me without owning me: I was his ‘wonder’ because he wanted to end his days as a wonderstruck old man; he decided to regard me as an unusual boon from fate, as a free gift which could always be revoked: what could he have demanded of me? My very presence satisfied him.”
The idea of relationship for relationship’s sake, free of reciprocal stated benefit, is a wonderful one and so is the idea of being, almost by default, such a special person in a young person’s life. The grand daughter of Charles Darwin writes:
“In fact, he (Charles Darwin) was obviously in the same category as God and Father Christmas. Only, with our grandfather, we also felt, modestly, that we ought to disclaim any virtue of our own in having produced him.”
Gwen Raverat, wood engraver and artist, ‘Period Piece, 1885 – 1957
Maybe such reverence and benevolence is not afforded to every grandparent but most have a special value placed upon them, which may, I think, be to do with the awareness that time with them is finite so every moment, ideally, is to be treasured.
I’ve worked with many young people who struggled, especially as teenagers, in the relationship with their parents and often the grandparent, if available, could do a great deal to mend the rifts. However, this all depends upon whether they themselves had managed to deal with the guilt and blame they often felt to their own children and had come to terms with the fact that no parent does a completely perfect job. This ‘natural’ sympathy or affinity between young and old seems to be universal:
“Every generation revolts against its fathers and makes friends with its grandfathers.”
Lewis Mumford, an American historian, sociologist, philosopher of technology, and literary critic and writer.
‘The Brown Decades’ 1931
The fact is that the bond between children and their grandparents is a regarded as a special one and the expectations in relation to this, though rarely articulated in a specific way, are enormous. I hope to write again on this subject with the benefit of experience and in the meantime am scouring sites like ‘Gransnet’ and talking to as many grandparents of today as possible.