Family values . . . family values . . . family values . . . a chronic hum of apple-pie morality mixed with alarm that the American family is on the edge of apocalypse. But when political leaders bring up "family values," they usually ignore two important family members -- grandparents -- and discount their growing value in families.
The American family ain't what it used to be, and that's demographic progress. The Vital Grandparent has emerged in unprecedented numbers: Healthy, independent, experienced, these older men and women are not a burden, but an asset. The traditional three-generation family has morphed into four generations: young children, active parents, active grandparents and frail, older relatives. Many children today can expect four grandparents to see them into adulthood.
In this hierarchy, two strong middle generations are available to take care of the dependent generations at opposite ends of the life span. Instead of the sandwich generation, it's a club sandwich family.
The family isn't breaking down, it's building up. The Baby Boom is about to become the Baby Grand Boom.
But what is the role of the Vital Grandparent? There's no good road map to peaceful coexistence among the generations, let alone agreement on how to be a good grandmother.
The media, meanwhile, have become obsessed with the perils of parenting. Motherhood Meltdown has become a social diagnosis. For the chardonnay crowd, it's the dilemma of making partner at the law firm, making arrangements for ballet classes, making gourmet dinner parties and making time for super dad to attend the school play. But this stereotype of the elite trivializes the real stress in this early-adult period of life.
For many families, a stay-at-home mom (or dad) is not an option. Working at a job is a necessity while raising young children. The dilemma is to make ends meet while making sure the children are safe and doing well in school. Managing child-rearing and working creates a chronic stress condition.
Who can come to the rescue? Increasingly, it's the grandparent.
Joan Fox, 69, remembers the day she got the job. She was retiring as director of public information at an arts and humanities institution in New York. She was talking to her daughter, a forensic psychologist in Philadelphia. Her daughter and son-in-law, a statistician, were about to adopt a baby from Guatemala. "What are you going to do about child care," Fox asked.
"That's going to be a problem," replied her daughter.
"I'm applying for the job," Fox said.
In September 2002, she moved to a small community outside Philadelphia where her daughter and son-in-law live. They put an addition on the house for her and recently adopted a second child -- a baby girl from South Korea.
For Fox, taking care of her two grandchildren is her "what next." Her day begins at 7 and ends 12 hours later. "I needed to have in my life a reason to get up in the morning. I don't play golf. I hate to shop. What would I be doing?" she explains. "Some days are mind-numbing," she concedes. But she has "this wonderful sense of being needed."
There are rules in this job. Key is to have a good relationship with the children you once told to go brush their teeth. And to remember that the parents set the child-raising style. "It's their call," Fox says. "I can see for some people that might be a problem."
At the same time, the job has advantages. When the day ends, Fox turns the children over to the parents. She takes vacations. She's joined a church, a book club, a walking group. She does freelance editing. She has a life outside her job.
Just how many grandparents are helping to raise children is not known. The Census Bureau only started asking detailed questions about grand-parenting in 2000. Officially, 2.4 million grandparents have primary responsibility for their grandchildren. The sensationalized stereotype of the poor single grandmother raising grandchildren in the inner city is less common than you might expect: In two-thirds of grandparent-headed households, a parent is present.
Traditionally, grandparents have stepped in when a parent dies or is too sick to care for the children. But increasingly, grandparents are stepping in as a solution to the normal stresses of raising a family when both parents work.
Some, like Joan Fox, become the prime caretaker. Millions more are significantly involved with baby-sitting, carpooling, tutoring, buying clothes, taking the children on vacations. Web sites for grandparents have exploded. "Grandparents Raising Grandkids: A series," reads one site. "The Grandparent Solution" boasts another. Grandparents today play a major role in raising the children of their children. That's a positive gain that gets overlooked in all the public hand-wringing about family values.
Are you in transition? Have you found your what-next? Are your primary relationships changing? Respond by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. To send U.S. mail, see the address on Page F2; mark the envelope "My Time."