Grandparents Day, always the first Sunday following Labor Day, was especially poignant for our family this year. My mother is in the late stages of Alzheimer’s, and our visits to the nursing home are increasingly difficult as she struggles to remember her children and grandchildren.
Her anguish recently came to mind while my daughters and I were, of all things, ziplining through a forest. On many landings a simple warning sign reads: “Always stay attached.” The sign features a figure falling through the air, his harness belt waving aimlessly like a severed umbilical cord.
Metaphorically, the phrase “always stay attached” struck me as the ultimate mantra of a helicopter parent. Ironically, however, ziplining requires each traveler to ride the lines alone, the ultimate free-range parenting experience. Even though I was up there with my daughters, I was unable to “stay attached” to them. They needed to stay attached to each line, while I could only watch from a distance as they stepped off each platform. It was like watching their first steps again, only this time they walked on air through the trees.
Such a paradoxical combination of attachment/detachment parenting made me think of how most grandparents manage to stay close to their grandchildren but also give them plenty of space. Because they’ve already been through the parenting gauntlet, they seem able to enjoy the children more, worry less, be more detached, and take the long view of child development. Perhaps the road twice traveled makes all the difference.
If grandparenting were a song, it would be the acoustic version of an overwrought predecessor, stripped down to the basic joys of kinship. Strangely, less energy can often lead to more power. That’s what makes a grandparent-grandchild relationship so gratifying to watch (and listen to).
Julie Lythcott-Haims makes a similar point in her recent book, How to Raise an Adult, in which she quotes an admissions officer at a highly selective college. To an essay question asking about the “best gift” the applicants have received, a frequent answer was “‘time spent with grandparents.’” The students wrote “‘he took me fishing,’ ‘she taught me to bake bread from the old country,’ or ‘she showed me a locket that has been in the family for three generations.’ Simple family time spent with someone who loved them unconditionally is clearly a well-valued gift.”
Grandparents protect and slow down time for today’s kids who are often overscheduled, under pressure and stressed out. They are parents “once removed,” which provides an aerial view of what’s most important in life. Today’s parents would do well to emulate this quality of their children’s grandparents: Always stay attached, of course, but whenever possible, also stay detached, to a degree. In other words, sometimes it’s OK to “become your parents.”
Sadly, the memory loss of my mother’s Alzheimer’s is overcoming her attachment to my daughters. But my youngest recently showed me one of her journal entries. It captures the way her precious, protected times with a grandparent will always soar over the forces of detachment: “Grandma, I hope one day you will remember my name. I will remember your name forever.”