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Redesigning Grandparenting - 'Grandboomers' relish new role

Published on: April 01, 2010

She gave up her navy blue power suit to change diapers, but this marketing vice president isn't a new mother. She is a grandmother, rediscovering some of the elastic sense of time that young children seem to live in.

Wendy Townsend belongs to a diverse generation of grandparents -- many of them baby boomers -- now dubbed by some wags as "grandboomers." She happily chose her grandson, Ryan, who was only 6 weeks old, over her job at Washington Credit Union, where she helped design and execute marketing campaigns.

"I was one of the only people I knew who quit (work)" to take care of a grandchild, Townsend recalls. She didn't quit completely, but stayed on through a retainer with her office, and whenever she had to put that power suit back on, she handed Ryan to "Pop" -- her husband, Robert Baker.

Staying home with Ryan may seem to fly in the face of Wendy's hard-charging history and feminist leanings. But she wouldn't have it any other way. She felt completely focused on work for many years, while she racked up awards and became president of several professional organizations. But now, she feels the balance in her life shifting a different way.

"If I had to do it over, I would not be so driven," she says. Her words hang over the steam from her cup of tea. She grew up in a liberal New York household, attended Boston University and demonstrated against the Vietnam War. Fresh out of college, with a public relations major, she worked for an international charity, the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee.

She fell in love with a Navy man, and they had a backyard garden wedding with tulle hung in the trees and a female minister. He had custody of two children from a previous marriage, so Townsend became a mother overnight. She remembers driving from California to New York for the wedding in a red Camaro with the two children (ages 9 and 5) and a little dog.

When her youngest daughter, Michelle, was born, the whole family was living in the Philippines. When they relocated to Australia, she became a corporate leader -- the director of communication for General Foods, which had more than 1,000 employees.

They moved to Seattle, and Townsend remembers the nice family that took Michelle in after school while she worked as communications director at the Seattle-King County Council of CampFire USA. Townsend brought Michelle to night meetings. "Many of us were mothers," she says of the staff.

A celebrity speaker once told the CampFire audience that leaders who were dedicating so much time to children should be careful not to miss time with their own. The comment sent a tiny arrow into Townsend's heart. "I never missed one of her volleyball games," she remembers, "but I always had papers with me in the bleachers."

For Townsend, membership in an organization always meant taking charge of it. She was to become the president of the Seattle chapter of Women in Communications, Inc., the Puget Sound Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America, and the founder of a public relations group for United Way -- the Cherry Street Connection. She earned a listing in the national publication, "Who's Who of American Women."

But for this accomplished woman, the soundtrack playing now might be the 1965 hit, "Turn! (To everything there is a season)." The season for taking care of grandchildren has come. "I have relationships with those boys that no amount of money would buy," she said of Ryan and his younger brother, Drew.

Grandma Wendy took care of Ryan immediately after daughter Michelle went back to work following a six-week maternity leave. Townsend returned to her job full time after Ryan went to preschool, and when Drew was born, it was Grandpa Bob who became the weekday nanny.

Townsend finally retired completely. The boys are now 8 and 4, and come to Grandma and Pop's house after school from 3 to 6 p.m. When she picks the boys up from school, driving her silver Volkswagen bug, she feels free to follow their whims. She loves taking them to the zoo and talks about how the boys can become fascinated by climbing on play equipment and almost forget the animals.

If her life sounds soul-driven and redesigned to allow for passions like yoga as well as her grandkids, then Townsend displays the independent mindset of the boomers. Known for rebellion and idealism, these independent thinkers may redesign grandparenting, too.

"Pop" Robert Baker says that he was too busy with his Navy career years ago to help much in the day-to-day parenting chores for his children, but his life as a caregiver to his grandsons is giving him a welcome opportunity to see things close up. The boys' favorite place to fall asleep is on Pop's lap in his giant recliner.

Daughter Michelle welcomes this sight of Mom and Dad, who were quite busy during her childhood, finally having time to enjoy the children that just happen to be her sons. Now that she is a divorced single parent, she welcomes the peace of mind she has while her sons are with their grandparents. "My friends are jealous," she says.

Perhaps they are jealous because Townsend and her husband are not necessarily the majority of grandparents. In fact, it may be safer to say there isn't a majority model of how to be a grandparent, but a rainbow of possibilities instead.

Some grandparents are too busy still earning a living, or raising a second set of children from a second marriage, to spend a lot of extra time with grandchildren. One new grandmother wrote in an online chat room that she needed help because she feared being asked to babysit and didn't want that role. Some step-grandparents are not sure exactly how to share a single grandchild with a host of other "grands" and "step-grands." Even the title "grandparent" is getting revisions. The grandparent chat room shows dozens of grandparents writing in to suggest titles other than the traditional ones.

But even as the role is being rewritten, the sheer joy of grandchildren seems to cross all the lines and inspire the whole crowd.

Going with the flow

Patti Taksa became a grandmother at the ripe young age of 45. Her only son was born in 1969, after Patti's marriage at age 18 to her high school sweetheart in Florida. Their marriage ended about a decade later, and Taksa eventually met and married her second husband, Jack.

While she may sound very young, the U.S. Census puts the average age of becoming a grandparent at 48. Her son, Scott, married and had a daughter, Wylder. Grandma Patti and Wylder spend almost every Sunday together, either at Taksa's home in Magnolia or near Wylder's home in Kirkland. Scott is now divorced, and Taska feels a special kinship with him as he faces the challenges of single parenthood, which she experienced, too.

"I have some guilt," she says, "as I look back on my life as a parent." She spent years working more than full-time, but Scott has told her he doesn't feel he was shorted. Taksa is a graduate student at Antioch University now, besides working full time as an office manager. In her recent studies, she's examined the social movement concerned with women's rights in the 1970s that swept her up.

While it made success in the business world more possible for women, it didn't give them any more hours in day to combine roles as mother and worker. Later generations may be balancing better, Taksa says. She believes her son has arranged his life carefully around the time he can spend with his daughter.

One day a week doesn't feel like enough time to spend with Wylder, who is now 9. Taksa tries to listen carefully to Wylder's cues and tailor activities to her granddaughter's interests. She feels that a grandparent has the luxury and freedom to see a grandchild in a different way than a parent sees the same child. There are fewer expectations of what a grandchild will become, and more room to just be amazed at the unfolding character, she said.

Seeing differently

So much of the anxiety and awkwardness that tagged along with parenting is shed when it comes to grandparenting. "No one can tell you how much fun it is," one grandmother said, and others echo the same sentiment.

Perspective colors all the times that grandparents spend with grandchildren. They may not care whether shoes are tied or if clothes get dirty, or even whether the kids are eating too much sugar.

This longer view is so secure that Taksa, for one, is prepared to be patient and forgiving even if her granddaughter sees her as loony. "For now, she may see some of my ideas as just crazy Grandma," Taksa said about her own search for the meaning of life and how she shares her growing study of spiritualism (she a serious student of shamanism) with her granddaughter. "But years from now, maybe it will resonate with her. She'll remember some of what we did together."

Townsend views the time she shares with her grandsons as fleeting. They will grow to an age where they don't want to wander in idle curiosity down a path at Green Lake and name ducks. Eventually, Grandma and Pop will become less fun and peers more important.

"I know there will come a time when they'll say they have other stuff to do," Townsend says. "This is so precious right now."

She was asked to update her listing in "Who's Who," and for the first time the update leaves room for information about children and grandchildren. She looks forward to a time when her grandsons' achievements may be listed there next to hers. "I want to be a major contributor in the boys' lives," she said.

Sally James is a Seattle freelance writer and mother of three teenagers.

Classes help grandparents bridge generation gap

Janelle Durham of Great Starts, a Seattle-based childbirth education organization that offers grandparenting classes, says that new grandparents are eager to learn how birthing and parenting infants has changed. "Most of them remember their own experience and they want to know how it will be different," Durham says.

She pinpointed three major areas where the generations differ, noting that any one of these could cause friction in a baby's first year:

  • Car seats: From the very first day of an infant's life, he or she may need to ride in a car. Many grandparents remember a time when no special seat was used, and adults didn't wear seat belts. Understanding how modern car seats work is crucial for grandparents who have to use them.
  • Feeding: Nursing babies is much more common now than 30 years ago. In the Puget Sound area, an estimated 91 percent of new mothers are nursing immediately after birth, according to Great Starts. Many grandmothers never breastfed their own children, or followed strict feeding schedules designed to limit the baby's eating. In today's climate, pediatricians encourage breastfeeding and usually recommend "on demand" feeding.
  • Discipline: An earlier generation was told not to pick up the baby right away when he or she cried, but today's parents are more often advised that being prompt will keep the baby from fretting longer. There are dozens of variations on this overall theme as the children grow. What is spoiling and what is not?

"We all know at some gut level that much has not changed about taking care of babies, but some things have changed," Durham says. She points to one specific example: It is now recommended that babies sleep on their backs, and this is the complete opposite of advice given 10 years ago. This sort of change can be disorienting for a grandparent, who confidently lays a sleeping baby down on her stomach, and then gets scolded by parents returning from a date.



Originally published in the April, 2005 print edition of ParentMap

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