The first thing you have to do to be a good grandparent is to give up any illusion of control that you might have had as a parent, Jane Isay says. (Whether that illusion had any basis in fact of course is another subject entirely, for another day.)
Ms. Isay will be at the JCC University at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly to discuss the real risks and overwhelming joys of being a grandparent on Thursday, February 21. (See below.)
She’s written a book, “Unconditional Love: A Guide to Navigating the Joys and Challenges of Being a Grandparent Today.” “The book starts with the moment when you learn you are going to be a grandparent,” she said. “The complications begin even before the baby is born. There are readjustments of relationships across and down the generations.
“It is inevitable that it will happen, so the question is how we can prepare to face these changes and accept them lovingly, so that we can keep our connections strong and flexible for the next 25 years.”
Ms. Isay is the mother of two sons and the grandmother of four grandchildren. Her advice comes from her own experience, as well as from the many focus groups she arranged and the many conversations she has had. She knows what she’s talking about.
The biggest change in the family dynamic is the transition of power, as the new grandparents move from the center of the family constellation, over closer to its edge. “We, as grandparents, have to get used to it,” Ms. Isay said. “We have to take our egos out of it. We can’t say ‘Look how well I raised you! Why aren’t you doing it my way?’ First of all, when we say that, we are wrong. And second, saying that doesn’t get us anywhere anyway.
“I suggest to soon-to-be-new grandparents that you research modern childrearing practices as you would research a trip to Morocco.
“We are tourists in the land of childrearing.”
Some relationships can be harder to navigate than others, Ms. Isay said. The one that most frequently — certainly not even close to always, but most frequently — can be difficult is between a mother-in-law and her daughter-in-law. “If a mother-in-law gets into a feud with a daughter-in-law, there is the potential of losing the family altogether,” she said. “I have all kinds of suggestions about how to make friends with your daughter-in-law.
“And how could it possibly make sense to ask your son to choose between you and the love of his life?” Can any parent possibly make that ridiculous sounding mistake? “You’d be amazed,” Ms. Isay said darkly.
“It’s very easy to get your grandchildren to love you. You just have to sit in the room with them. But you have to be allowed in the room.”
How to do that? Pay attention to your grandchildren’s parents. “Grandparents have to be able to interpret the signals from their grown children. We even have to learn when to say no to them.”
When do you say no? She had a story of her own to tell. “One of my sons has a house in Rhinebeck, and I was on my way downtown from a bat mitzvah,” she said. “I took the train down. They said, ‘Come on, stay over,’ but I really had to get to work the next morning, and I really wanted to sleep in my own bed. So I went home.
“And the next morning I got a text from Josh, saying, ‘We were talking about you at breakfast, mom. We were saying how much we admire your work ethic.”
And that brought her to another point. “We are role models for our grandchildren,” she said.
Grandparenting also is wonderful for grandfathers in particular. “Many grandpas of the baby boom generation, and even a little younger, are not their fathers,” she said. “When their children were young, they always were working, and when they got home they were tired. They were the disciplinarians. Now, with their grandchildren, they can be zaydies. They have a second chance.
“They can be silly. They can play. They can frolic. I have seen men in their 60s hiding behind the couches, and coming out from behind and saying ‘Raaaahhhhrr.’ It is a second childhood and a second chance for these men.
“Playing with children is good for your health, and they are benefitting from it in ways that we have not anticipated. And we all get the unconditional love that flows in both directions.”
At her age, Ms. Isay said, “nobody in the street sees me. The cashier calls me sweetie. They look through me. But when you are in the room with your grandchildren, you are seen.” Grandparents, similarly, see their grandchildren. “Being seen for who you are is the greatest gift a child can get from anybody,” Ms. Isay said. “And they grow in our love. It is like Miracle Grow for children.
“We also have the opportunity to nurture what I call the moral imagination. That is not manners; it is a view of the world that includes empathy, compassion, perspective, and agency. The beauty of it is that happens as a side effect of being with them.”
If you are lucky, the relationship between a grandparent and a grandchild can last for decades. Ms. Isay talks about the time of day called the gloaming; the extraordinarily lovely liminal time when light begins to overcome the darkness at dawn, and the similarly lovely but sadder dusk, when the light is overcome.
“If you are lucky enough to be alive when your grandchildren are adults, then you are the sunset and they are the sunrise. That relationship between a young adult and a grandchild is uniquely magnificent, because the no-fault friendship becomes a relationship between equals, who have spent decades loving each other.”
Ms. Isay knows about the power of stories, and of strong personalities, and of the power of generations, because she is the daughter of two huge personalities, and because one of her sons, David, has enriched the world by creating the storytelling phenomenon called StoryCorps.
Her mother was Ruth Nadler Franzblau, the longtime New York Post columnist; she was born in Vienna, was brought to New York as a baby, and was orphaned at 17 by the influenza epidemic of 1917. She was the oldest of five sisters, and became their mother. She married Abraham Franzblau, a young man she’d met “at the uptown Talmud Torah,” their daughter said. He was a Jewish educator who earned a doctorate in education, went to medical school and became a psychiatrist, started the program in counseling at Hebrew Union College, and then created HUC’s School of Sacred Music. Her parents raised her mother’s little sisters, and then much later they had their own children; the family was tight-knit, full of high achievers (one of her first cousins is the head of organ transplants at the Cleveland Clinic, she said proudly), contentious in the way that tight-knit families necessarily are.
David Isay started StoryCorps because he recorded his own grandmother’s extraordinary story, and then the tapes vanished. He decided that stories should not be allowed to vanish, and created the initiative that encourages people to tell their own.
So Jane Isay knows a great deal about being a link in a generational chain, being a grandchild, a child, a parent, and a grandparent. It’s that knowledge that she plans to discuss at the JCC U.
Who: Jane Isay
What: Will talk about her book “Unconditional Love: A Guide to Navigating the Joys and Challenges of Being a Grandparent Today”
Where: For the JCC U at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, 411 E. Clinton Avenue, Tenafly
When: On Thursday, February 21, after lunch.
Who: Film historian Max Alvarez
What: will talk about “Hollywood on the Campaign Trail” — how the movies have shown presidential elections
When: For the day’s first talk, beginning at 10:30 a.m.
How much: JCC members, $35; non-members; $42.
Information or to register: Call (201) 408-1454 or go to www.jccotp.org/adult-JCC-university