One of the responsibilities I enjoy most today is being a working grandmother who adores spending time with her grandchildren. Learning how to create and manage the time available to working grandmothers, however, is a talent that requires constant honing.
While many of us are familiar with the challenges that working moms face in juggling career responsibilities alongside time spent with kids, the topic of work-life balance for grandmothers tends to receive less airtime. This is likely due to the image we have as a society of grandmothers as retired or otherwise non-working women who have ample time to devote to coddling and baking cookies. But the reality of grandparents today is far more diverse. According to research compiled by AARP for its annual Grandparenting Study, since 2001, the number of U.S. grandparents has grown by 24 percent. By the age of 65, in fact, 96 percent of Americans are grandparents, and four in 10 of these individuals are actively in the workforce.
This means that grandparents, like any other caregiver demographic in the workforce, have unique challenges in balancing their childrearing contributions alongside career commitments. And these challenges extend outside of the realm of sheer time management, too. An author I particularly enjoy, Anna Quindlen, examines this well in her book “Nanaville.” In it, Quindlen recognizes the status of being a grandparent as a unique gift while reviewing the nuanced challenges it can entail, including navigating parent-grandparent dynamics. Ultimately, she produces some excellent tips that I’ve adopted and modified for my own life.
Below, here are some of my favorite strategies for making grandparenting work as a working (or at-home!) grandmother.
1. Schedule grandchild visits in advance as much as possible.
Can you organize an annual or semi-annual trip where the entire family goes away? My California grandchildren and I have organized trips to Boston, Paris and Scottsdale. My stepson has introduced us to “escape rooms” to visit while in these cities. I’ve also introduced “pre-work” to study the history of each city before we visit it.
I find it particularly ideal to schedule these visits on a per-semester basis. One semester, I regularly picked up my grandchildren two days a week after school. This summer, I will stay overnight once a week with my grandchildren to enable my daughter to have more time at work. Parents tend to appreciate knowing that you will be “on duty” with the grandkids every other Thursday so they can enjoy date nights, too!
Knowing that you have scheduled a number of “appointments” with your grandchildren enables a grandmother to feel less frustrated about finding the opportunity to see them. It also allows her to organize her own life in accordance with this priority, and builds a chance to plan exciting and meaningful moments.
2. Tell stories, create stories, and record stories.
I was recently educated by a school psychologist who explained to me that children who are grounded in family stories about their parents, grandparents and immediate family members tend to be more stable and happier than children who do not have this benefit. Young people relish stories from their grandparents about their parents. They love stories around their birth or adoption, and they enjoy stories about family members overcoming all odds to succeed, too. They may also enjoy keeping a journal to record stories of their own. Encourage this!
3. Create a space that is permanent in your house for each child.
I have found that my grandchildren truly appreciated having their own space in my house. My grandson hung a sign outside of his room (my son’s old bedroom) which says “Zachary’s Museum.” My granddaughter, meanwhile, has her own closet, which she goes to as soon as she arrives at my house. If space is limited, a drawer, a closet, or even a shelf that is earmarked for the grandchild gives them an individual sense of ownership when they visit.
4. Sleepovers are a wonderful way to become close to your grandchildren.
To this end, I have learned to have clothing ready for my grandchildren (pajamas, sweaters, jackets, shoes, socks and underwear). My grandchildren expect a routine set of activities, and they’ve come to trust these as a way of centering themselves in a new environment.
5. Being quiet and loving is the modus operandi of the grandmother.
Grandmothers learn not to challenge. The grandchild relationship is the point and the whole point. While a grandparent can mentor, contribute knowledge, and deliver uninterrupted love, it is not the grandparent’s role to change, improve or even comment on changes in a grandchild’s life. Being a grandmother requires having spent a lot of time in a library where you are trained to be quiet.
6. Have “themes” of interest.
Grandparents can create a zone of special interest for their grandchildren. A mutual topic of interest for you and your grandchildren to explore together is an exceptional way to create new, non-stop conversation, as well as an easy reintroduction when you haven’t seen your grandchildren in some time. Here are some common topics that have worked for me with my grandchildren:
Studying France and the French culture together
Studying the stock market together
Learning about U.S. Presidents
Exploring the world of tropical fish
Having an imaginary school; we play where grandma is the student.
Developing menus together
Researching global geography
Helping with pets
Building a LEGO museum
7. Repeat concepts from one visit to the next that reinforce positive behavior in a hopefully subtle way.
Some examples of this include:
Sing a tune to remind and inspire the idea that napkins go on laps at mealtime
Pretend you are driverless cars taking the dinner dishes to the sink
Scold a pillow named “Harry” for bad behavior.
8. Plan your grandchild visits and execute them in 20-minute segments.
In my experience, the attention span of a grandchild under 10 years of age and a gnat are about the same: at best, 20 minutes.
A wonderful concept is to plan 20-minute segments and share that agenda with your grandchildren at the outset of each visit. I see relief on my grandchildren’s faces knowing that anything we are going to do we won’t be doing for very long.
9. Keep a memory book.
A regret of mine is not having kept a diary as every one of my fine five grandchildren has evolved. Each one has shared with me moments that are spectacular. Some personal examples include writing about Gabrielle’s views on beauty shared with me during an evening bubble bath; Zachary’s leadership in directing several family members to raise both hands when he rang a chime, as is done in his school; Clyde determining not to quit on a six mile walk with me when he was seven years old; seeing Hunter’s joy when I showed up on time at the NY Marriott Hotel to take him for a grandmother/grandson vacation; and seeing Clay transform from skepticism to enthusiasm over Columbia University as a place to attend college after we toured it together.
10. Share your grandchildren with your friends.
It’s wonderful for grandchildren to learn about the ecosystems of their grandparents. For both parties, it’s nice for them to meet your neighbors and friends, know about your tailor and druggist, and have their own world expanded by you.
Most importantly? As you juggle the responsibilities and time commitments of being a working grandmother, never forget how fortunate you are. Nothing is more gratifying.