What Kind of Future Awaits, If We’re Not Going to Be Grandparents?
Is Grandparenting All It’s Cracked Up to Be, Anyway?
One of the barometers used by the UK media throughout the Covid-19 pandemic has been the recurring question, “when will grandparents finally get to hug their grandchildren?”
That question, along with the plight of residents in care homes, is all we’ve tended to hear about older people in recent months.
If you’re over seventy, it seems as though you’re either impossibly frail and awaiting certain death, or you live only for days on which you get to give your grandchildren a great big cuddle.
AL Kennedy wrote something in her brilliant novel The Blue Book (a tale about a travelling psychic) about people believing that the dead only exist for the living.
The recent media coverage made me think about that, and wonder: do we believe that older people only exist for their grandchildren?
There are certainly a lot of grandparents around. “Some three-quarters of adults will become grandparents…” wrote Professor Peter K. Smith, in an article for the British Psychological Society.
But are all grandparents exactly the same? And what kind of future looms if, like me, you won’t be having grandchildren at all?
Is Grandparenting All It’s Cracked Up to Be, Anyway?
“Granny spoils us, oh what fun, have some sweets and a sticky bun! Don’t tell Mum you were up till ten, I want to come and babysit again!”
We’re always being told — often by grandparents themselves — that being a Granny or a Grandad is much better than being a Mum or a Dad.
You can stuff the kids with sugar, buy them a drum kit, let them stay up until the early hours… then leave their parents to deal with the repercussions.
Which is utterly wonderful, if it’s what everybody wants.
Remembering my own grandparents, one set was very involved with my sisters and me, doing a huge amount of childcare for my beleaguered Dad as he went out to work (my Mum left our family when I was five, and my sisters three and one).
They always had toys, treats, and cartoons to hand, and I’ve got fond memories of playing ‘hairdressers’ with my Grandad, sitting on his lap to secure random, wispy tufts of his grey hair into sparkly pink clips.
Our other set of grandparents were more distant, preferring to lead their own lives over taking care of us. We didn’t see them all that often, and they never babysat.
Eventually, they moved out of the country to enjoy their retirement in the sun, with the occasional family visit to look forward to.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the result was that my sisters and I felt much closer to the grandparents who had played a constant part in bringing us up.
But should you automatically feel obliged to step in with an ever-flowing well of childcare, just because you’re a grandparent?
What about all those dreams you put on hold to become a parent?
And what if you just don’t want to?
In her brutally honest article for Woman’s World, the writer Jody Ellis had this to say:
“While I cherish the memories of parenting small children, I don’t pine for any re-dos of those years. I’ve found a blissful freedom in this next phase of life, knowing my children are grown and doing well. Grandchildren really aren’t even on my radar.”
I often think about my put-upon Nan in particular; a plain-speaking, battle-hardened London Blitz survivor who, if she’d been born in another time, could have gone shoulder-to-shoulder with all the forces of the world, and come out on top.
And I wonder if she honestly thought we’d been worth the sacrifice.
Those Familiar Tales of Sacrifice
There were a few bitter moments between us as I grew up, and Nan realised I would never have any grandchildren of my own — because I didn’t want the kids who’d have them.
“You should be at home, with a husband and children to look after,” she’d scoff, her mind closed and her arms folded, whenever I told her about a new job, or a night out, or that I’d started learning Russian to read War and Peace in the original language (something I now know was a futile ambition, at least for someone with my fleeting attention span).
Yet in a lot of ways, it was her, and her staunch dedication to her family, that had urged me to carve out an individual path in life.
For one thing, I could.
Nan never said as much, but I could sense her lingering frustration over the fact that there had been nothing else waiting for her when she was young. That there was only one choice for her back then, and she could do nothing but take it, and make the best of it.
And she did. When she died, her funeral heaved with the family members she’d spent so much time caring for. We paid her posthumous compliments, and we told gentle stories that made us all smile, but all the time I wondered: how else would Nan have liked to be remembered, other than as an unwavering matriarch?
Recently, my ‘distant’ Grandad celebrated his 90th birthday. It was a large, formal family occasion at a seaside hotel, during which a slideshow of his life was played as we ate undercooked carrots and soggy Yorkshire puds.
And I realised that the sacrifice he had made for his independent life, was that the adult grandchildren sitting around the table next to him were virtual strangers.
I’ve got no idea what he thought, as the slides of him winning another golfing tournament, having fun at the races, and raising sloshy glasses of wine at parties, flashed by. I felt sad that I didn’t know him well enough to ask, but happy that he appeared to be living his life in exactly the way he wanted.
In a way, he made it OK for me to do the same.
Non-Grandparenting: A Whole New World of Weird?
I recently wrote a book in celebration of the child-free life, interviewing women who, like me, had actively chosen not to become mothers.
But some of its reviews mentioned that choosing not to be grandmothers was a different kind of challenge.
“Just wait until you’re older, and everyone just assumes you’re a gran… it’s a whole new world of weird when you tell them you’re not!” went one comment.
“They can’t say the usual get-out comments like ‘don’t worry, there’s still time’, and you know the polite ones are just feeling sorry for you.”
It could be, of course, that you longed for a grandchild, but your own children decided not to provide any. One of my best friends is an only child, perennially and happily single, and grimly resigned about the fact that his traditional parents will “forever be disappointed in me”.
Meanwhile, the happily child-free author Jane Fallon has written about feelings of regret, not over opting out of parenthood, but out of grandparenthood, “…it has only just occurred to me that I’ll never have grandchildren. This is a disastrous oversight on my part.”
Maybe I’ll feel the same as I get older, and strangers start feeling sorry for me for not having any grandchildren to hug (though they could be feeling this already; at forty-three I’m already more than ancient enough to have a grandchild or two. One of my old school classmates has five).
Maybe I’ll feel sorry for myself, as I watch my friends bask in smatterings of love and care from their cherished extended family, forgetting that it takes a colossal amount of time and effort to forge a genuinely loving bond with a grandchild,
and that was time and effort I wasn’t prepared to spend.
But I’ll be honest: I doubt it.
According to the palliative nurse Bronnie Ware, the number one regret of the dying is this: “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”
I’m looking forward to freely embracing getting older, and all the spark, colour, drama, eccentricities, upsets (and wrinkles!) age is about to present me with, in whatever way I choose.
I’m looking forward to meeting and learning from fun and interesting younger people I’ve got no biological attachments to, or responsibilities for.
And instead of arguing with well-meaning grandchildren over what’s best for my future, I want to choose my own route into care if it’s needed, like the childless author Diana Athill (“I never particularly wanted children, but it came out in liking lame ducks”),
who chose a home for the “active elderly” to live out her later years in, learning brand-new hobbies and making countless new friends along the way.
That, I hope, is the kind of future that awaits non-grandparents.
I don’t know if I’m tempting fate by saying this, but personally, I can’t wait.