sign up to get the latest updates from Barbara Stark-Nemon
  • Barbara Stark-Nemon

Getting to Be the Grandmother I Want to Be

I recently read a Tablet Magazine piece that discussed ways in which Jewish baby-boomer women are redefining what it means to be a grandmother. The particular (and somewhat narrow) subset of women considered, were often first-generation Americans, raised in suburban enclaves, and products of “traditional” Jewish homes. As a baby-boomer daughter of immigrant parents, raised in a suburban Jewish home, I had more than a passing interest in this conversation. While I fit quite well into the demographic described in the article I read, my experience as a child, a mother, and now a grandmother doesn’t quite add up to the version proposed in the article. Though I identified with some of the trends attributed to my cohort, I recognized more, how different my family’s expectations, role models and relationships were compared to those in the magazine article, and I believe those differences helped me define an identity as a grandparent that I live with comfortably.

The gist of the article is that the group of women described tended to have gotten a college education, though not necessarily in preparation for a profession. They tended to have become stay-at-home moms, though they then encouraged their daughters to develop professions and financial independence. After years of raising families, these boomer women departed from the expected narrative and are divorcing, finding careers late in life, and/or resisting the expectation that their next job will be to play a central role in raising their grandchildren. In short, they are claiming this post-child-raising portion of their lives as their own first —with responsibilities to children and grandchildren second.

In my family, the change in maternal and grandmotherly roles seemed to have begun a generation earlier than those described in the article. My grandmother, raised in an affluent home in Germany, insisted on training as a secretary and learning how to drive, neither of which was typical for a young woman from a wealthy family in 1920s Germany. Forced to leave Germany, she went to work as soon as she came to the U.S., and continued to do so for 20 years. She loved seeing her grandchildren, and as we lived close by, we saw her every Sunday evening for dinner, and stayed with her several times a year when my parents were out of town.

Her daughter, my mother, broke somewhat free of the restrictive boundaries of the well-disciplined German child when arriving in the U.S. as a 13 year-old, and while remaining dutiful to her parents, worked after school, studied hard, and insisted on going to college even though she married young, had four children and was supported by her husband. In contrast to her mother (and her daughters!) she chafed against having to manage the household and raise kids as her central function, and wasn’t eager to be involved in our activities, though she did what was necessary. As soon as we were grown, she used her multi-lingual skills to become an interpreter and translator, and worked until she was in her eighties. It was where she hit her stride as a woman. She liked her grandchildren well enough, but didn’t do more than sew the occasional costume or drive to the occasional lesson in terms of helping raise them. My sister and I, the two local daughters, were at least as likely to invite her to our homes for a meal than the reverse. What interest and commitment of time and energy she had to offer remained in connecting with her children—not their children.

I married young, but divorced early, then cultivated my profession, then married again and became a mother in my mid thirties, having my last child at 41. I was a hands-on mother, but always had my own interests in my work, my fiber arts, and in volunteer efforts.

As a grandmother, I find I am much more like my own grandmother than I am like my mother. I trained for a profession that allowed me to comfortably work around child raising. I enjoy cooking, entertaining on family occasions, and our home was one where my children’s friends regularly visited. Two of my three sons had children young, and as a grandmother, I often see and care for my local grandchildren with my husband, though we are not their primary caretakers.

After a long, satisfying first career, I’m enjoying a second one as a novelist. I don’t have the resentments or need to break out or away from my role as a parent and grandparent in the way that the article I read describes about my age mates. I rather assume that I have a right to choose the work I do now in balance with how I devote myself to my family. Perhaps the “work” that my grandmother and mother did to define themselves as women modeled for me a different pathway. As I contemplate why I identify my role as a parent and grandparent so differently than some other women in my cohort, I realize that the messages transmitted by the women in previous generations of my family reminded me early and often that I had and have agency in defining my own identity. These are messages I wish to convey to my grandchildren.

The Messages

  1. Follow the rules- with latitude. I did grow up with the Germanic dictum to follow the rules. But everywhere among my family members, I saw operating the skill of fitting in without letting the social structure, the workplace, the relationship threaten one’s individual’s sense of identity.

  2. The oxygen mask rule- While taught to think of others and “get along,” I watched my mother and grandmother take care of themselves as well- to balance hard work with recreation and a social life- to exercise and rest. They were better able to care for others for having taken care of themselves.

  3. Partners with space- I believe my mother and her mother had unusually independent and balanced relationships in their marriages, which ultimately allowed them to appreciate their spouses while having some space from them.

  4. Excellence with freedom and responsibility- I was expected to bring home excellent grades from school, and to fulfill the responsibilities I was given at home and in caring for younger siblings. In exchange, I was given more freedom than most of my peers. I never felt the need to rebel. My parents assumed I would continue to deserve their trust in me, and so I did.

  5. Resilience and persistence – Both implicitly and explicitly, I was taught that hard work, sticking with a problem to solution and the ability to pick myself up from a defeat or trauma were measures of good character. These became often-used life lessons for me, important themes in the novels I’ve written to date, and I hope are models for my sons.

  6. Do what you can do with a happy heart- Somehow, all the messages of hard work and responsibility and excellence came from my family absent the measure of guilt that often accompany such instructions. I believe this allows me to understand what it is I can and want to do for my children and grandchildren at this point in my life with real willingness. It allows me to set boundaries, and to embrace my role in my families’ lives with real joy.

Is this a redefinition of what it means to be a grandmother? I think not. I think it is an embrace of a legacy of freedom to be who I am.