Growing up, Ed White spent relatively little time with his father, who worked in a power plant, climbing from engineer to vice president. His dad put in long hours, leaving early in the morning and coming home late. After dinner, he would read the newspaper, then do more work.
“We interacted, but it was brief -- usually instructional or disciplinary,” said White, who is now 52 and lives in Pennsylvania. “I wanted those stereotypical father-and-son moments of throwing the ball together in the yard, and I didn’t get them.”
But from the moment White's first baby was born -- a boy, who is now in college -- his father was different. "He turned into the gentle, grandfatherly person that I hoped he would be, and took to my son like I had hoped [he and I] had bonded," said White. His father spent hours with the baby and, as his grandson grew, delighted in taking him fishing. Though he passed away in 2000, White’s father had the chance to watch both his grandson and granddaughter (born two years later) grow, an experience that filled him with what White described as nothing short of unadulterated “wonder and joy.”
For many men and women who were not especially kind or involved parents, grandparenting is about one thing: redemption. “I hear people say all the time that being a grandparent is the ultimate do-over,” said Lori Bitter, a contributor to GRAND, an online publication for grandparents.
But when grandmothers and grandfathers try and grab that second chance, it's rarely simple, and often stirs confusion about where, exactly, this new person came from. When the dad who was never around is suddenly a constant presence in the lives of his grandchildren, or the disciplinarian mother morphs into a warm, jolly grandmother, how do their own children handle the change?
In many ways, grandparenting and parenting are fundamentally different experiences -- with the latter tending to be far more draining and demanding. Most grandparents no longer bear the same financial pressures they did as parents (although a growing number of grandparents in the United States serve as the primary guardian for their grandchildren), nor are they responsible for overseeing a dependent’s safety and well-being day-to-day.
“Grandparenting is time limited,” added Christine Lawlor, a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist in private practice in Connecticut. “There’s very little stress or strain.” Men and women who may not have been model parents, because they were overtaxed and exhausted by the incredibly hard work of raising a child, are able to relax and, in turn, be more thoughtful about their behavior. In other words, they mellow.
Research also suggests that contentment tends to grow with age. Men and women report that they are happiest when they are 65 and older. Experts speak of a “U-bend”: Happiness increases until around 30, then drops in midlife (at which point, people say they experience the most worry), then swings upward again. Experts theorize that the later-in-life change has to do with the wisdom that comes with age, and the tendency of older men and women to take a different view of worldly aspirations and achievements. “As you get older, personal relationships become more valuable,” Lawlor explained.
White, for example, believes he understands why his father was not the involved dad he longed for. He thought his role was to provide for his family financially, and to be the disciplinarian -- nothing more, and nothing less. Before he died, White talked to his father about how he regretted not having the chance as a child to toss a ball with him, or even spend time together picking up sticks in the yard. “He made no apology for the decision or choice ... but did feel some sense of sadness for missing out on being able to share those activities with me.”
Indeed, when distant or preoccupied parents become doting grandparents it can help heal relationships with their own children -- providing a sort of catharsis. “When I became a grandmother, I realized the many joys that I missed out on, and that my children missed out on,” said Christine Crosby, GRAND magazine’s editorial director. “So absolutely, I am hell-bent to make it up for my grandchildren, and in the same way, I’m making it up to my daughters.”
Chrissy, a 33-year-old mother of two toddler-age boys (who asked that only her first name be used in this story), said her father was simply “not into” parenting. Prone to fits of anger, he had very little patience with his six children, but as a grandfather, he is a different man. He showers Chrissy’s sons with presents, and dreams of taking them to Disney World. “He just has this level of adoration,” she said. “He literally would do anything for them … He is always trying to take care of them in a way that he didn’t try and take care of us.”
Chrissy’s father regularly tells his daughter that he knows he was not a good father, apologizing in odd moments. “It is strange when it happens,” Chrissy said. He might try, and fail, to help her fix an appliance, then suddenly say, “‘You know, I’m doing my best. I know I wasn’t the best dad, but I’m trying,'” Chrissy said. “It comes out in random times like that.” Her father’s contrition, coupled with his attentiveness as a grandparent, help her see him in a positive light, she said.
Apology is important, agreed Dr. Arthur Kornhaber, a psychiatrist who runs a grandparent-grandchild camp as part of his work with the Foundation for Grandparenting, which he founded in the 1970s. And Kornhaber puts the onus entirely on grandparents. Anyone craving a “corrective experience” with their grandchildren and their own daughters and sons should clear the air before a new baby is born, he said, by asking, “‘How can I help you? What are you worried about? Will you let me know if I’m doing something wrong?’ It’s open, selfless communication, which is pretty hard to do.”
But for some, the transformation from parent to grandparent does little to repair fractured relationships. Rachel, a 42-year-old mother of girls ages 15, 13 and 10 who also asked that only her first name be used, said that her own mother tried her best to be a good parent, but she was “explosively angry.” Yet Rachel’s daughters adore their grandmother. They seek out her company, and are eager to spend time with her, going out to dinner or even volunteering at her church. She, in turn, is “all love, love, love,” said Rachel, and has only become angry with them once, maybe twice -- occasions that stand out in her memory, because they have been so rare. Rachel believes the shift is largely because her mother is less stressed now than she was as a mother, and she relishes the strong bond between her daughters and their grandmother.
The difficulties in their own relationship, however, remain. “While she is a wonderful, wonderful grandmother, she has not suddenly become a better mother to me,” Rachel said.
There have also been periods -- some stretching for months -- when the two have not spoken, but Rachel’s daughters rarely go more than a week or two without seeing their grandma. She has accepted that she will never have a perfect relationship with her own mom, and chooses to be appreciative of what she does have: a loving stepfather, and three wonderful daughters who adore their grandma, just as she loved hers.
“That’s what I wanted them to have, that closeness,” said Rachel. “It’s not about me.”