How to Be a Modern Grandma

The babushka ideal is out, but the uninvolved, working grandparent model isn't exactly a replacement. Therapists and psychologists weigh in on finding balance.

The miracle occurred a month ago: Ella was born, making Iris Tausig, 56, a grandmother.

"I felt as if she were born to me," says Tausig. "And that's why I'm terribly frustrated that she's not with me, but with her parents. I'm constantly thinking, why isn't this child born to me not with me in my home?

"At the moment, my daughter, Elinor, is on maternity leave. Zviki, the father, also works from home. So all day the two of them are in an idyll, and the baby just sleeps. Basically, they don't need me at all, it's very frustrating. What fun it would be if the man went out to hunt and I could stay with my daughter and the baby in the cave."

A moment later, Tausig, who works as a marketing manager at the Hebrew University's school of business administration, becomes serious.

"It's not really like I can be with her all the time, because I do work long hours, and every day I spend at least two hours on the road, going from Herzliya to Jerusalem and back," she says, "but the feeling, the longing to see her, to hold her, is tremendous, physical. No one told me this is what happens when you have a granddaughter."

Tausig's demand for a larger share of the newborn is not self-obvious. Fewer women today, especially those in their fifties, are interested in being the babushka. But they don't need to don a head scarf and an apron and stand beside the stove, or to rock a crying baby against a large bosom, to fill a grandparent's role. Women like Tausig, who certainly seems like the model new grandmother, with her polished look and busy life, should be at the height of their career, travel abroad, spend time with their spouse (old or new), take enrichment classes and fully exploit the empty nest. They certainly are not meant to think about cooking for the grandchildren. Some of them are even afraid to become grandparents, which they interpret as a sign of pending old age. What do they have to do with a multi-generational family and raising grandchildren?

Much like the current generation of parents, this generation of grandparents is also confused by the challenge of an era of lessened authority and dependence on new technology.

"The pressures of modern life and the many changes the family is undergoing, including divorce, single-parent families and same-sex parents, all affect grandparents as well, and their relationship with their children and grandchildren," says Dr. Elisheva Zohar-Reich, a couples and family therapist and a grandmother of two.

"During the period of the establishment of the state, many people did not have grandparents, and parents existed for their children. It was a state of immigrants, families from Europe were damaged by the Holocaust, and the adults in Middle Eastern families lost the status of the wise elder because of absorption difficulties.

"Eventually, grandparenthood gained strength, but over the last 30 years, due to the modern lifestyle, grandparents are taking on new, challenging roles. Life expectancies have increased, today's grandmothers work, and all of this is changing the nature of the relationship with the children and grandchildren.

"On the other hand, the high divorce rate increased the status of grandmothers, and suddenly the grandmother must accept more responsibility, and this is confusing."

Recently, for the first time, a court gave visitation rights to a grandmother and grandfather, recognizing their role in raising the grandchildren and the children's right to grandparents.

Trouble adapting

Zohar-Reich says there are grandmothers and grandfathers who have a hard time adapting to the modern lifestyle.

"They have trouble accepting the fact that there are homes without Friday night meals," she says. "It's hard for them to acknowledge that the grandchildren are subject to social pressures, that the class norm is more important than what the parents say. They criticize their children because they think they are educating the grandchildren poorly."

The Wizo Hotline (at *6968), intended for the parents of preschoolers, receives many calls from grandparents who feel they have been pushed aside.

"Their sense is that the young generation, due to the exposure to media and information, knows it all and that they want to raise their children by themselves," says Hasida Denai, who is responsible for Wizo's early childhood department and oversees the hotline. She personally takes some of the calls. "You hear on the line conflicts," she relates, "lots of complaints that the daughter or daughter-in-law does not understand what the children need."

She tells of the grandmother of a three-and-a-half-year-old boy who complains that the boy is still not out of diapers. Other complaints relate to a boy who is late in speaking, and the parents are too patient in the grandmother's opinion, or a daughter-in-law who does not immediately run to a doctor when the child has a fever. In response to one of these complaints, Denai told a tear-choked grandmother: "You have to know how to come and play with the boy, to love him and to give him attention. Education is in the hands of the father and mother."

According to Denai, some grandparents are not adapting to the change in their traditional roles and have a hard time reestablishing their place.

"I got married at 19, and my mother was involved in everything and sometimes intervened and that was difficult. Today, as a grandmother of four, with a fifth on the way, I know my place very well," she says.

Once, a grandparent's job was to love and to pamper. What could be more simple and more enjoyable than that? But much like parenthood, grandparenthood has also been influenced by the trend of professionalization. There are several grandparenting books available, not to mention countless seminars and lectures.

Most of these books address the new grandparent with clumsy humor such as, "Savta Yoda'at Hakol" (grandma knows everything, Modan publishing) or "Lihiyot Saba, Lihiyot Savta, Madrich Le'Saba-ut Modernit" (to be a grandfather, to be a grandmother, a guide to modern grandparenting, Maariv Publishing); a few take a more professional approach, such as "Saba-ut Akhshav" (grandparenting now, Kinneret-Zmora-Bitan Publishing) by psychologists Edna Katznelson and Amiram Raviv.

All the books have several recurring issues, which are indicative of the new arena where parents and grandparents clash. It seems that in all cases, the grandparents are asked to give in, refrain (for example, stay outside of the delivery room), be there for the children, provide help and primarily keep quiet.

"I'm not willing to accept this silence," says psychoanalyst Nitza Yarom. "I hear this debate about grandparenthood on the street, in the changing room at the swimming pool. I read in guidebooks that it's better to keep quiet if you want to take care of the grandchildren. And I rebel against this.

"The question is what kind of dialogue you want create in your family. And having a dialogue is not simple. It does not mean that you must obey, and it does not mean that it must end in a fight. For me, intervening is one extreme and silence is the other extreme, and both are based on the assumption that it's impossible to have a dialogue between two people of equal value who may have differences of opinion."

Even though the place of grandparents has been pushed aside, it seems that their way to reach their grandchildren's parents is by helping. Not babysitting, but by sharing the burden of caring for the children. Yarom, who has no children, says her partner's children chose her as their children's grandmother. Even though she and her partner work, they try to visit their grandchildren in Haifa every Sunday, and to visit those in Modi'in every Wednesday.

"We basically talk, about everything. And of course, we go to shows and hang out and also play board games, the ones that I can still figure out how to play, of course".

"In my childhood I longed for a grandfather and grandmother," says Yarom. "Children need a grandfather and grandmother. There is something tiring and claustrophobic about a nuclear family. The dependence on parents and their exclusive role is frightening."

For three years, Zohar-Reich has been watching her grandchildren one day a week. Until recently, she would pick up the oldest child from daycare and take him to her home, and not long ago, when the younger one was born, she started spending time with both of them at her home, until their bedtime.

"It's like visitation rights," she laughs. "Being part of raising the grandchildren gave me a new perspective on understanding this generation from infancy, and it helps me as a family therapist. These children are born with a high level of emotional intelligence. They are exposed to stimulation, and are technologically literate. As a rule they are highly developed and very opinionated, and come with all sorts of demands. It poses some complicated challenges for the grandparents.

"Anyone who had problems in his relationship with his children and has a hard time entering the role of grandparent loses out twice: He does not have grandchildren who can bring him a lot of joy, and the problematic relationship with the children also persists. So you see grievances, jealousy, offenses and insults. Grandparents come to consult with me when they still have not resolved basic problems with their children. The children pay them back and restrict them, and don't give them free rein with the grandchildren. Grandparenthood is a source of anger and frustration, but anyone who offers active help, benefits."

To be involved and not to intervene is the oft-echoed motto for successful grandparenthood. With all her expertise, even Zohar-Reich listens to the parents' instructions.

"I reached the conclusion, for example, that in my house there will be more candy than in my children's home. But I consult with them first. I don't do anything of my own accord. And even when it comes to television, my children do not agree that [the grandchildren] should watch everything, and now I'm an expert on all the children's programs."

Tausig, for her part, says: "I told my kids, 'I don't plan to tiptoe around you, even though of course, I respect you very much.' The other grandparents and I talked, and we decided that we are going to be very disciplined. We still haven't received the rules, but it's starting to come in - for example, no smoking around the grandchildren. Do not rock the baby vigorously. Yesterday I had a talk with my son-in-law about these issues. It reminded me of what my aunt once told me about a talk she had with her son, 'Okay, how nice, the chick is bringing up the hen.'"