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Being A Parentless Parent: The Effect on You, Your Children and Your Marriage

For the first time in U.S. history, millions of children (and their parents) are actually vulnerable to having less time with their grandparents than more. A revolution is happening in the way generations are connected in America.
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Both of my parents have passed away, and little has shaped the way I raise my children or affected the relationship I have with my husband and in-laws more than the fact that my mom and dad aren't here to be grandparents to my children. I am a parentless parent.

Because women are having babies later and later, the number of parentless parents in America is skyrocketing. While life expectancy is also on the rise, it isn't growing fast enough to guarantee the children born to these parents will have more time with their grandparents. What this means is that all of our assumptions about grandparents being around longer than ever before -- because they're living longer, after all -- are simply inaccurate.

For the first time in U.S. history, millions of children (and their parents) are actually vulnerable to having less time with their grandparents than more. Between 1970 and 2007, the average age for a woman to give birth rose 3.6 years. During the same period, life expectancy for a 65-year-old increased 3.4 years. While that doesn't seem earth-shattering on its own, consider another trend: While women overall are having fewer babies, mothers between 40 and 54 are having more. For example, 180,000 children were born to mothers 35 and older in 1972. Nearly 40 years later, that number soared to 603,113 -- a 235 percent increase. This jump is so significant it can't be explained away by increasing population size. Unquestionably, a revolution is happening in the way generations are connected in America.

This has massive consequences for every member of the family. Parents are raising kids without the support of their own mothers and fathers, and kids don't have grandparents, with all the social, behavioral and cognitive benefits associated with these grandparent/grandchild relationships.

For the last three years, I've conducted one-on-one interviews, led numerous focus groups, and launched the Parentless Parents Survey, the first of its kind, which gathered responses from across the United States and a dozen countries, in order to study this growing population. Most shocking to me during this time is that I couldn't find any research like it. Dozens of government institutions, committees and commissions are tasked with researching the changing landscape of the American family; yet while the American population is shifting in such a dramatic and measurable ways, no other investigation has been done on what these changes mean to parents and their children.

Here are some of my findings:

The "I" Factor

The "I" Factor is the term I use to describe the specific losses experienced by parentless parents. "I" is short for irreplaceable. There's just so much information about your own childhood that's gone forever. If your daughter weren't crawling "on time," it would be reassuring to know if you also began crawling late. Without your parents, there are simply fewer answers to these developmental questions.

Caring for babies and young children is often physically more demanding for parentless parents because their moms and dads can't babysit. Most people, at first, will dismiss this. They'll argue their parents aren't available either -- they live far away, or are otherwise incapable of providing support. But parentless parents experience a quantifiable vacuum.

Studies show grandparents take care of more children than nursery schools and day-care centers combined, and the newest government data shows this reliance on grandparents is increasing. This lack of support may be why in response to every question in the Parentless Parents Survey regarding pregnancy, childbirth, and emotions about children entering school and celebrating important milestones, respondents of every age report having felt more isolated than supported. Indeed, 57 percent say they didn't have enough parenting support when their children were young.

Our parents also can't pass on family traditions, or share stories about living relatives or ancestors. If we had even one parent, there would at least be the possibility that some of that information could be passed along directly.

We also have fewer people to brag to about our kids. This may sound irrelevant, but it compounds an already heightened sense of isolation many of us feel. When my son, Jake, got to be a starting pitcher in Little League, who, after my husband, do you think I wanted to call? I wasn't about to sit on the bleachers and crow to my friends. And I hesitated to call my brother; sometimes sharing good news about our kids just feels like sibling rivalry all over again.

The Grandparent Gap

Researchers have long studied the influence grandparents have on grandchildren, and it's been determined that kids are shaped by grandparents in irrefutable and calculable ways. Children who spend time with their grandparents often have higher self-esteem, tend to have fewer behavioral problems and do better in social circles. The cumulative lack of these influences, and many others, is "The Grandparent Gap."

Grandparents often pass on their love of art, books and music. They teach skills related to their jobs and interests. They provide unconditional love and acceptance. And, especially important as children age, grandmothers and grandfathers often provide a safe and trusted refuge away from parents. For the teenage children of parentless parents, having fewer places to turn is a particular challenge, as many begin facing mounting peer pressure related to sex, alcohol and drugs.

A doctor I interviewed took an educated guess on how the grandparent gap affects the children of parentless parents. "Imagine your child is a sculpture and your entire family -- including your parents -- is the shaper of that sculpture. You and your wife can provide 120,000 little pushes of the fingers to mold it and shape it, but your children are always going to miss some of the pushes that would have made the sculpture complete. You can still see the face, you can still see what it is, but some of those influences won't ever impact the final product."

Impact on Marriage

My husband and I met at summer camp and have now spent more than half our lives together. In every sense, Mark is still the love of my life and we are still best friends. That said, nothing has challenged our marriage more than the fact that his parents are alive, and mine are gone.

We're fortunate that Mark's parents can come to nearly every birthday party, music recital and basketball game our children have. And while I can certainly tell stories about my parents and show our kids pictures, my children's sense of family is entirely off-balance. It's not surprising, then, that the relationships we have with our in-laws are delicate and conflicted. While nearly half of all respondents who took the Parentless Parents Survey report being jealous of the time their in-laws spend with their children, 68 percent say they're grateful their children have them as grandparents. Despite welcoming their presence, 29 percent resent their in-laws' disproportionate influence over their children.

Because loss informs the way we raise our children, we often develop different parenting styles from our spouses, and this can also be a source of conflict. One mom told me that because her in-laws are alive, she and her husband often approach parenting from very different perspectives. "That's been a huge issue for us," she told me. "He's not trained to think of the worst case scenario. Whereas, when I see a situation, my mind goes immediately to what could happen." This mom of two says her husband has called her "paranoid" and "neurotic." Another mom reflected that she often pushes her children to be far more independent than her husband would prefer. "I actually parent with the idea that I could be gone tomorrow," she said.

Fear of Dying Young

Nearly 58 percent of respondents to the Parentless Parents Survey fear they'll die young and leave their children without a mother or father. This anxiety is fueled by having lived through the deaths of their own parents and by imagining how their death would impact their own children. This gnawing sense of mortality influences the way we parent our children and the decisions we make for ourselves along the way.

My mother's death, in particular, has colored my vision of the future. Because she died of ovarian cancer, there was no doubt in my mind that I would die of ovarian cancer too. I eventually had genetic testing and was told I was BRCA1 positive, assuring me that my fatalistic expectations were grounded in scientific truth. Ultimately, I decided to remove my ovaries and have a hysterectomy -- an operation that thrust me into menopause and night sweats at 37. (You can read my near-daily diary about my surgery and the events leading up to it here.) The decision, though, wasn't just about me. It was a Mommy decision, and clearly a choice I never would have made if I weren't a parentless parent.

Today, one in five women in the United States has her first child after 35. These moms are warned routinely about the dangers of having children later in life: increased rates of miscarriage and C-section, higher number of birth defects, elevated number of premature babies and other serious outcomes. Given current trends, we may want to add the "I" Factor and "The Grandparent Gap" to the list of these well-documented hazards.


Allison Gilbert is the author of "Parentless Parents: How the Loss of Our Mothers and Fathers Impacts the Way We Raise Our Own Children," now available everywhere books are sold. She is also the founder of Parentless Parents, a new and growing nationwide network of parents who have experienced the loss of their own mothers and fathers. Watch the book trailer on YouTube.

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