Where Have All the Grandparents Gone?

Seniors learn to care for babies today


At your daughter’s birth, you envisioned all kinds of parties and special events, surrounded by your parents and your in-laws.

You fantasized about cute nicknames and frequent outings that would create wonderful memories. You imagined a strong support system and a close, loving bond. All would be wonderful.

The reality? None of the grandparents are much involved at all.

Sandy Lee, a mother of two in Columbus, Ohio, has experienced this firsthand.

“I saw it with my siblings and their kids,” she said. “Mom showed no interest. No birthday or Christmas cards, no chats on the phone, barely any exchange with the kids when they visited. I hoped that when my children came along, it might change because she was older and realized what she had missed. But she has no desire to spend any time with them.”

In 2012, the U.S. Census Bureau counted 65 million grandparents. Of these, at least 10 percent lived with a grandchild, and 2.7 million were actually raising their grandkids.

That same year, a study from the University of Chicago showed that 61 percent of grandparents spent 50 hours a year or more providing care for grandkids — whether that was “babysitting or going out,” explained sociologist Linda Waite, who co-authored the study. Yet hers won’t send a card. What is going on?

Many mothers find this is the new norm. Women with youngsters seek guidance from their mothers or mother-in-laws — but many members of the older generation of “glam-mas” are busy living their own lives, according to Susan Shapiro Barash, a gender studies teacher at Marymount Manhattan College.

“They were devoted to children to the exclusion of their own freedom,” said Barash. “And they’re not looking to repeat the mothering process with their grandchildren.”

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Ouch. But you don’t want a free sitter. You want a relationship.

There are other reasons grandparents bail.

They may be nervous about handling young children, or not completely sure what’s expected in this modern age, noted psychologist and author Susan Newman.

“They may not feel comfortable driving your precious cargo to a practice or a lesson,” she explained.

Age is a factor. If they are under 60 and healthy, the idea of being called "Grandma" might be — frankly — freaking them out. AARP reports that the average age of first-time grandparents is now 47. If they're much much older, they may be slowing down physically and mentally and simply can't enjoy noisy, busy youngsters.

Is your child at the bottom of a long list of grandchildren? Grandparents may be tired, spread too thin, financially strapped, or simply "over" the excitement of another grandkid.

If they still work, their weekends might be for relaxing or travel, not spending time with young kids. And there's always the hard truth to acknowledge: They just weren't good parents, or weren't very good with kids. And having a grandchild doesn't change that.

But don't sit and stew. There may be ways to improve the situation.

Have a conversation. Ask how they feel about the grandkids, and what they would like out of the relationship. Are they concerned you will place demands on their time? Do they feel overwhelmed with expectations they can't quite meet?

"There are some parents who probably don’t have a realistic expectation of how invested their parents should be in the grandchildren," said Manhattan psychiatrist Dr. Gail Saltz. "But because this generation’s children are the center of their universe, it’s hard not to take the grandparents’ ‘why should I be bothered?’ attitude personally."

Ask what would interest them.Do they want to call once a week but avoid all soccer games? Would they prefer weekly ice cream dates out of the house so there's no mess or clean-up? Anne K. Fishel, Ph.D., director of the Family and Couples Therapy Program at Massachusetts General Hospital, suggests you ask, "So how can we make grandparenting more fun for you?"

Don't expect them to foot the bill. Grandparents don't owe your child anything financially. They may be saving for retirement or be on a limited income. So if money is an issue, offer to pay for outings. They don't have to be expensive — the important thing is the time spent together.

Be creative. If they don't initiate plans, says Dr. Susan Newman, Ph.D, a psychologist and author, try to lure them with fun events. Plan family barbeques, picnics at the park, or trips to the zoo or museum. Let them know the day would be better if they were there.

Be honest. A study published in the Journal of Family Psychology found that children ages 9 to 18 who had strong bonds with their grandparents had fewer behavior problems and better social skills than those who didn't. Explain your hopes for the relationship, how much it means to you, and the benefit to their grandchildren.

And if talking falls on deaf ears — then do the next best thing. Enlist older neighbors, friends, or other relatives to fill the gap. Other adults who miss their own grandchild encounters may love to adopt your child as their own, which could be a complete win for your child.