When we think of family, we often think of the stereotypical nuclear variety that 1950s sitcoms told us were the be-all and end-all. But today’s American family includes everything from single mothers to stepparents to two moms or two dads. And so, it should be no surprise that grandparents are taking a greater role in the shifting landscape of the Jewish American family.
On Nov. 12, The Gordon Center hosted published author, and grandmother of four, Jane Isay to talk about her book “Unconditional Love: A Guide to Navigating the Joys and Challenges of Being a Grandparent Today.”
“Parents have the job of raising and civilizing the children,” Isay said in an interview with the JT. “Grandparents only have the job of loving the grandchildren.”
To better understand the emerging shape of the modern family, the JT talked with Isay about the role she thinks grandparents have, can have, and should have in family life.
This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.
What has changed about grandparenting over the last several decades?
In this era, grandparents are much more engaged in the lives of their children and grandchildren than they were previously since before World War II. And that is due to changes in the economy, grandparents living longer, and both parents working…
The Greatest Generation had lived through World War I, the Depression, and World War II, and, in that era, grown children left home pretty much for good. They moved out of the house when they went to college, and America became the most mobile country in the world. The Baby Boom generation has been more engaged in family life, especially since the economic downturn of 2008, and people expect to be closer. They didn’t expect to be so close in previous generations.
I believe family is the lifeboat of the human species, and it’s worth negotiating the conflicts to keep your family.
How do you see grandparents bringing peace to chaotic homes?
Grandparents can help the exhausted and besieged parents of the grandchildren by listening, and by doing small things that their children ask them to do. They can also be neutral when teenage grandchildren are in conflict with their parents.
Is there a balance between staying neutral in disagreements, while also encouraging grandchildren to find their own path?
The neutrality is meant that the parents can complain about their children, and the children can complain about their parents, and we don’t take sides…the second part…is that grandparents can encourage the grandkids to follow their dreams, which is empowering, even when the parents might worry that those dreams are unrealistic.
With family members today living hundreds or thousands of miles from each other, how hard is it for grandparents to truly stay connected?
The statistics show that an increasingly large number of grandparents are moving closer to their children and grandchildren. But, for families that have to be thousands of miles apart, modern technology has come to our aid. I know a New York family with an eight-month-old baby who used FaceTime at breakfast to interact with the baby’s grandparents in Australia. The baby’s first words were “See papa.”
There is no substitute for interpersonal interaction, but children will walk across any bridge to have a relationship with their grandparents. And grandparents will do everything they can to keep that relationship going between visits.
What effect has the current economy, and its time constraints, had on family dynamics?
Immigrant families generally stick together across the generations, because they do not have the flexibility to let their conflicts push them apart. It’s really hard to have your grown family move in with the grandparents because they have no place to live, but human beings have taken care of each other since the dawn of civilization. I believe that the exception to the rule of family life has taken place in America between the end of World War II and our 21st century economic crisis.
You’ve also talked about grandchildren helping grandparents to feel “relevant.” Can you explain?
When you’re old, you’re invisible, and nobody really wants your advice, or your stories. But the grandchildren do.
Old people may be invisible on the streets of their towns, but grandparents are not invisible to their grandchildren.
What, most of all, do you hope readers take away from your book, and what effect do you hope it has on people’s families?
The big takeaway is: Just hanging out with your grandchildren works like Miracle Grow. I hope people will take away from “Unconditional Love” a notion of how much joy there is across the generations, and how we can resolve our small conflicts and treasure the love.