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The True Gift and Grit of Working Grandmothers

Grandmothers have always worked … but not always outside the home.

It was 2007. At a luncheon hosted by a major magazine, a panel of four women discussed their careers and what inspired them. The oldest was 53 years old, a business owner with two children at home. The youngest was 20 years old, working in a family business. The other two were in their 40s and worked for large corporations. One of them had children.

I felt restless and disengaged. They weren’t speaking to me. They couldn’t possibly relate to my experience and my challenges. I’d been there, done that. I have two daughters and four grandchildren. I’m a working mother and a working grandmother. (You never stop being a mother—no matter how old your kids are.)

I don’t know about you, but my grandmother wore corsets, orthopedic shoes, and print dresses. Sometimes her thick stockings rolled down around her ankles. Her black and grey flecked hair was always pulled back in a bun, and she wore no makeup, only wire-rimmed glasses.

My grandmother was one of the hardest working women I knew. She ran a rooming house at the Jersey shore, and she was always cooking, cleaning, and carrying groceries up and down the many steps. She had five children—very close together in age.

My grandmother was born in 1885. She ran the house and everything else. She was fiercely independent, maybe even stubborn. She wouldn’t let anyone help her carry things, even when she needed the help. I often wonder what she would have been like if she had been born 50 or 100 years later.  

I’m not like my grandmother, or am I? I think I am. I work hard and love my work. But in my generation, there are multitudes of us who work outside the home. We don’t look or act like our grandmothers. We have different interests and different challenges. We are working grandmothers.

It dawned on me that no one was speaking to my demographic. What I found on the web didn’t pertain to what I was talking about. Since then Madonna Harrington Meyer wrote Grandmothers at Work in 2014, and many articles have been written about working grandmothers. But back in 2007, I couldn’t find anything about the joys, challenges, and needs of a 21st century working grandmother.

So, I decided that I needed to write something. I interviewed eight working grandmothers between the ages of 46 and 68. I wanted to uncover themes or trends common to all of us. My purpose in writing this article is to share what I heard. It is by no means meant to be comprehensive.

Here’s what these fabulous working grandmothers said when I asked:

What do you love about being a grandmother?

Playing: “I love being playful with my grandchildren; it’s just about being present. When raising children, we have so many responsibilities and worries. Now, it’s about being loving, kind, and having fun. What I love the most is having fun with them and never having to worry—will they have good manners, be a good citizen, learn to read? (I want all of this for them, but it’s not my job anymore.)”

Loving: “I just have to love them and cherish all the love that comes back. I love doing the fun things and not worrying about day-to-day things. My grandchildren are open and willing bundles of love. They remind me of who I really am at my core. I can be the best when I am playing with them. I don’t take myself or anything too seriously.  I have an overwhelming feeling of selflessness—willingness to give up anything in the world, including my life, for the well-being of the child.”

Knowing them: “I love to sit down and take the time to get to know each one of them for just who they are. This is different than when I was raising my own children. I saw them as an extension of myself. I learned a lot about myself by raising my children. Our lives were intertwined. We were on a journey together. It’s different now. We’re still on a journey together, but I’m no longer the travel agent. I get to be with them and enjoy the trip! I love watching them grow and develop and hearing the truths they utter. “

Knowing who I am: “I don’t care as much about myself as I used to. When raising my children, I was raising myself. I had a lot to learn and still tried to maintain a strong personal identity. As a grandmother, I no longer have to face this. I know who I am.”

What would you love to do more of with your grandchildren?

Spontaneous things: “I would love to stop by and say ‘Let’s go bowling’ or something like that. My grandchildren are 45 minutes away, but sometimes it feels like a plane ride. It’s hard to be spontaneous.”

Special moments: “Have special things they only do with me—go to Grammy’s house and get to go to that cupboard, because it always has something in it. Get to have Brown Cows, watch TV, and have ice cream. Get to do something they never do at home.”

One-on-one time: “If it’s more than one at a time, everything is diluted. It’s fun and lively, but it doesn’t have the same quality.”

Travel: “I want to spend more time traveling with my grandchildren without their parents. Kids also need time alone away from their family. When traveling, there is a depth of remembrance, the experience of getting to a destination, showing them the world from another perspective, seeing people who live differently than they do, learning how people are different, yet the same—they learn a universal lesson that they can’t get from a book, an explanation, or TV. It’s the opportunity for them to be in a different environment and still feel safe.”

What responsibilities do you feel toward your grandchildren?

Loving them: “My job is to give real, unconditional love. They can come to me no matter what. A line of communication is always available to them. I want to be an ear and be there whenever I am needed. I even take days off. I took a vacation day because what my grandchild needed was important.”

Teaching: “I taught my granddaughter to read and every sport she knows. We are helping to raise her. I get her report cards and go to parent-teacher conferences. I make sure she is going in a good direction. I pay for her extracurricular activities. I get to be more like a mom, and not just a grandma and send her home.”

Passing on values: “I want them to understand that they have to know who they are and listen to their inner voice, because then they will always know the right answer and the right thing to do. I have a responsibility to teach them about their background, their ancestors, and their history, so that they can get a better sense of self. I want to expose them to things that their parents may not teach them about—the beautiful aspects of life.”

Not parenting their parents: “We can tell our kids anything, but not how to raise their children. When parents give you strict instructions about what they want, you need to do it, even if you disagree. You need to shut up. One of my friends tells me her tongue is bloody from biting it so much.”

What challenges do you have in blending career and grand-mothering?

Doing it all: “I want to play full out and be available, but this is just not realistic. I can’t drop everything and run. If I try to do too much with working and being with my grandchildren, I get tired out, and I can’t give them all of myself.”

None : “I work for myself, so I don’t have that many challenges. My grandchildren are a priority. I don’t break a date with them for work. My clients know who I am.”

I’ve worked it out: “I’m a grandmother, worked 40 hours a week, and got my degree. I balance it pretty well. I always need to be busy. I’ve had wonderful bosses who said ‘go.’”

Basically, time: “I would like to be there more for them. My daughter needs relief time. I wish I could do more. My children perceive that I have so much going on in my life, they don’t want to ask. I want them to ask.”

Our grandchildren will know us a lot longer than we knew our grandmothers. We are no longer white-haired ladies who wear corsets and sit in chairs. We don’t bake cookies. We want to be with our grandchildren and have fun, but we want to live our own lives and be available when we can.

Of all the themes in my interviews, the overwhelming thread was love and fun. That is what grandmothers are about, and these emotions span generations. That part hasn’t changed. Who we’ve become and the opportunities available to us have changed and will continue to change. Love and fun are a constant, and we need to hold onto both. That is why we are grandparents. That is why we are alive.

If you’re still lucky enough to have your grandmother in your life, make sure she knows how much you care. And this Women’s History Month, ask her about her story. It’s your history too.

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