When Life Becomes “Grand”
Aging: The Universal Experience
We all know that the aging process impacts us physically and mentally. Many of us adopt new habits in response to these changes, such as eating healthier or exercising more. We might change occupations as we age, or think about preparing for retirement.These are important considerations as we get older.
As we age, our relationships with family members, and roles within our families, also change. For nearly 70 million Americans over the age of 30 (a 24 percent increase from 2001!), this means becoming a grandparent.
Maybe you have been a grandparent for a while, or expecting you will be at some point soon. While being a grandparent has its rewards, it can also be challenging. Even if you were lucky enough to grow up with grandparents, being a grandparent yourself might feel like uncharted territory.
Becoming a Grandparent Means Shifting Roles
All families have unique cultures, role expectations, and traditions. Depending on family expectations, you may find yourself coping with new responsibilities or treatment.
For example, you might be looked to as a steadfast mentor, armed with years of life experience that you should be ready to share at any given time. Or you may see less of your children as they dedicate more time to their growing brood. You might also be expected to move into a supportive role, providing childcare or financial support for your children or grandchildren.
You and your family may be aligned in your expectations of what it means for you to be a grandparent. When that’s not the case, there is potential for conflict. Even in the best of circumstances, adjusting to a new role comes with challenges that requires you to adapt.
To clarify both your and your family’s needs and expectations, and to smooth the transition into the role of grandparent, we recommend the following steps.
How to Ease the Transition
Talk Through Expectations
It’s important for you, your children, and your partner to be clear and honest about your desires and boundaries. More likely than not, you will have differing expectations when it comes to important aspects of your relationship with your grandchildren. Discussing them can prevent resentment and help you find effective compromises and solutions (If you’re a new parent looking to open one of these conversations with your own parents, we recommend checking out this article).
Here are a few questions you and your family may want to address:
- How often would you like to see your children and/or grandchildren?
- What responsibilities are you willing to take on? What do you not want to do?
- Would you like to contribute financially to your grandchildren’s upbringing? If so, which aspects (education, wellness, travel, etc)?
- Are there certain days or times when you are or aren’t available to help out?
- Is there anything else you’re concerned about or think is important?
If you were your child’s primary caregiver when they were young, they probably got used to you resolving many of their issues and being there for near-constant support. Unconsciously, they may carry these expectations into their own experiences of parenthood—and extend them to include your grandchildren. With the stress of new children, they may begin relying on you as though they are still helpless children and you are still their caregiver, as well as a carer for their children.
While you may want to support your children, you both will have changed a lot over the years. They’re now adults, capable of caring for themselves independently. Your energy and physical capacity may be different from when you were raising your children.
Take a minute to assess your wellbeing. Maybe you need some time to connect with old friends, focus on your physical health, or even enjoy a relaxing out-of-town weekend. These needs matter, and it’s not selfish to attend to them.
Communicate these needs with your children, and revisit the subject of boundaries. Let them know what you can help with, when you can do it, etc—and then state your limits. Your children may act disappointed or upset, but it’s important to remind them that your needs are important. As the adage goes, “you can’t pour from an empty cup.”
No one adapts to role changes overnight. Consider the transition when you became a parent; did a week on the job make you an expert? Probably not—it was a role that was cultivated and learned over time.
Just like parenting, grandparenting is a role built on experience, both good and bad. Each family is unique and it can take a while to figure out what your role will look like for yours. Recognize this as a learning opportunity for everyone involved.
Maintain Your Sense of Self
Having a strong sense of self can make navigating new roles a bit easier. Grandparent or not, you are still uniquely you.
What aspects of your identity or personality do you want to bring into your role as a grandparent? If you’re a literature buff, you may want to read with your grandchild or attend literary events with them (when they’re old enough). If your ethnic background is hugely important to you, you may take on a teaching role, sharing traditions and oral history with your grandchildren.
Importantly, continue to make time for yourself and activities that you enjoy or bring you fulfillment.
By clarifying your expectations, knowing when to speak up about your needs, and maintaining the parts of your identity that matter most to you, you can transition into this new role with gusto. It’s something both your children and your grandchildren will appreciate.
If you feel it would be helpful to get support during a big transition in your life, such as becoming a grandparent, please contact us at Viva to inquire about our services.. For more resources regarding life changes, check out the Resilient Brain Project (in particular, we have numerous tools for new parents that you can share with your loved ones).
Erin Ross, MS OTR/L is an occupational therapist and an aspiring science writer in DC. She believes in evidence-based practice, clear communication in healthcare, and diligent inclusion of the Oxford comma.