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Less Time for Grandparenting

By Abigail Trafford
Tuesday, February 26, 2008

He has gray hair, a wrinkled Clint Eastwood grin and an artificial knee, and he's wheeling a stroller to the park. Not gramps, but an older dad, a 60-plus father of young children -- the New Nurturer on the block who says he's a better dad the second time around. His r¿sum¿ is fleshed out. He's more secure financially. With waning testosterone levels, he may even be kinder, gentler. Mainly, he has time to focus on children in a way he never could in his younger days.

This is the Hallmark greeting card image of the father who finally knows best what matters most in life. And there are advantages in having some maturity when confronted with a howling 3-year-old.

But there may be a hidden cost: the grandfather-grandchild relationship. Most older dads have children from a previous marriage. Starting a second family late in life interrupts the natural evolution toward grandparenthood. As long as you are raising children at home, how can you get really involved in your grandchildren's lives?

And getting involved with grandchildren is the new challenge for the American family. Grandparents are more numerous and healthier than in previous generations. Thanks to those gains, they can exert a much larger influence on their families: Some provide hands-on care for grandchildren; others help out their adult children financially.

Most 50- to 60-year-olds are discovering the liberated joy of being a grandparent. But if you're worried about your kid needing braces and learning geometry, when do you have time to go fishing with your grandson? A friend in this situation explains to me: As long as he's caught up in seeing his young son into adulthood, there just isn't much emotional room left for his grandchildren.

How sad this is. My three grandchildren are visiting this week, romping through the rooms, going on treasure hunts, playing make-believe. How wondrous it is to have a stake in yet another generation. But for older dads, when their youngest child finally grows up, the grandchildren from an earlier marriage have already grown up, too. Gone is the critical period when the grandchild-grandparent relationship is forged. A double loss: for the grandchildren who could benefit from the wise, doting presence of a grandfather, and for older dads.

Complicated marital histories lead to complications in grandparenthood. In a few instances, the wife of an older dad is the same age as the "first" children, and the children in the second family may be the same age as the grandchildren. Two toddlers in the sandbox: One is the uncle, the other the niece. But chronologically and emotionally, they are more like cousins. And who is likely to benefit most from the old man's softening ways? The dependent child is first in line. The grandchild gets what is left over.

Adam Davey, a developmental psychologist at Temple University, calls this family situation a demographic perfect storm. "A lot of factors have to come together at just the right time for this to happen," he says.

But older dads make headlines, with a celebrity Methuselah-like TV personality, Larry King, whose daughter from an earlier marriage was past 30 when his two youngest sons were born. "Having youngsters is the ultimate joy," declared King at age 73.

But that's what grandparents say about grandchildren!

Many factors affect the grandparent-grandchild bond: geography and frequency of contact, the relationship with the adult child in the middle, the personalities of all involved and past history.

Divorce and remarriage have a lasting impact on family life. Research suggests that the effects are greater when children are young adults at the time of these upheavals. Older dads in a second family tend to spend less time and money on their children. "Marital transitions that occur when children are adults tend to reduce support from parents to children," concludes a recent report by Davey and his colleagues at Temple.

And that reduction in support is likely to extend to grandchildren.

The reverse is also true. The report found that divorce may reduce the likelihood that adult children will support older parents. Because men are more likely to remarry and move away, "the odds are stacked against the paternal grandfather," Davey says. "These decisions that are made within a generation have effects that cascade across generations."

Yet families are resilient; they adapt. Much depends on "what the relationship was before the new kid came along -- and a good relationship with the stepmother," says David Carnoy of New York.

He and his father, Martin Carnoy, a professor of education and economics at Stanford University, wrote "Fathers of a Certain Age: The Joys and Problems of Middle-Aged Fatherhood," (Faber and Faber, 1995) from the viewpoint of both the older dad and the first son.

After a divorce, Martin Carnoy remarried, and when David and his brother were in their late 20s, he and his second wife adopted a daughter. Today the girl is a teenager, and David is married with a 4-year-old and a 2-year-old.

"You've got an incredible panoply of relationships," says Martin Carnoy, who is also looking after his mother as he cares for his wife and daughter, all the while keeping in touch with his adult sons and grandchildren who live 3,000 miles away. "There's enormous competition for time."

"My father would like to spend more time with us," says David Carnoy, executive editor of the technology Web site CNET. But between conflicting school schedules and competing family responsibilities, "it's much harder to coordinate."

Nevertheless, they all make the effort. That's the first rule of grandparenting: making the effort. Older dads aren't exempt.

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