After 20-plus years of parenting, many (if not most) parents look forward to the day when they can stop the daily worry, carpooling, trekking off to soccer games, baseball and basketball practice, orthodontist appointments, etc. They look forward to days when they can live an adult-centered life rather than a child-centered one. These parents look forward to becoming grandparents when they can enjoy their grandchildren, attend their events, and even have the occasional sleep-over. It has been said that the best part of being a grandparent is that they have all the joys of parenthood without all of the responsibilities; they can play with grandchildren and then give them back to their parents, leaving the job of discipline, character-building, and the day-to-day stress of parenthood with the drop-off.
But this is not true for many grandparents. I was recently talking with one such grandparent who finds himself in a major dilemma. His daughter is a single parent and an alcoholic. She has a ten year old son living with her full-time since the deadbeat dad is long gone. The boy frequently spends weekends with his grandparents and when it is time to return home, he cries begging to remain with the grandparents. The grandparents frequently have witnessed the mother going into rages or being in a drunken stupor. They know what their grandchild experiences at home. Now here comes the dilemma: on the one hand they would like to intervene. They know that the boy would be infinitely better off living with them rather than his mother. And they know that if were to offer the mother to have the boy live with them, she would more than likely agree. On the other hand, these loving grandparents think about their own life. They are in their 70s, have their own medical issues, and wish to have a peaceful retirement being with one another. They feel torn between their own personal needs and desires and their love for their grandchild for whom they know life is painful and difficult. They know they could make a difference in his life, but they also are concerned for their own well-being. What should they do? What would you do?
These grandparents are not the only ones struggling with this issue. More and more parent/grandparents find themselves in the position of having to make a decision about whether to step in and help their grown children with the difficult job of parenting. In lower income families it is common for parents to be an integral part of their children’s family playing major caretaking roles in the lives of their grandchildren. These parents never stop being parents, first to their own children and then to their grandchildren. In some cultures it is the norm. Parenting becomes a lifelong commitment.
Middle class American parents, however, have developed the belief that at some point in their lives their children will go off and have a life of their own, raise their families, and the parents will have years of quiet enjoyment in their golden years sans parenting responsibilities. Hence, when they are confronted with the new reality of having to step into caretaking roles in their senior years, it comes as quite a shock and creates considerable stress. They struggle with issues of whether they are willing to make the sacrifice or whether they are being selfish if they choose not to step in.
As divorce increases and as economic difficulties continue for many families, more and more retirees are being asked by their children to help out with the care-taking responsibilities for their grandchildren. The circumstances may vary from the example given previously, but the issues are the same. What is a grandparent’s responsibility? They have earned the right to a life without daily parenting responsibilities, the right to travel, to come and go as they please, to focus on their own happiness. Yet they watch as their children and grandchildren struggle. If they help out a bit, they feel that they should help out more. If they don’t help out, they feel guilty and spend hours talking about what will happen to their grandchildren. If they participate more, they may feel resentful that their own plans for retirement have to be sacrificed.
I do not purport to have answers. I can only try to highlight the issues. The dilemmas are real. There is no “right” answer. Perhaps if all parents adopted the attitude that parenting is a lifelong commitment recognizing that it is entirely possible that as parents they may also have to parent their grandchildren, they would not have the expectation of their “golden years” being spent cruising the world. They would not experience a dilemma. They would not experience the role as caretaker as requiring a sacrifice. It would just be part of their job description as parents. If this were the norm, then they would experience not having to fulfill this function as a pleasant bonus rather than an expectation.
[Dr. Dreyfus is a nationally recognized clinical psychologist, relationship counselor, sex therapist, and life coach in the Santa Monica - Los Angeles area treating low sexual desire, premature ejaculation, sexual addictions, drug and alcohol abuse as well marriage and relationship communication and intimacy issues. The profits from his latest book, LIVING LIFE FROM THE INSIDE OUT along with his other five books, are being donated to Chrysalis: Changing Lives Through Jobs and Make A Wish Foundation. All of his books are available on Amazon.com. Please become a fan on my Facebook Fan Page by indicating "like" on the page by clicking here. You can also find more tools to help you experience a more fulfilling life by clicking here to visit my website.]