· Vatican City ·



are not baby sitters

 I nonni non sono baby sitter  DCM-004
02 April 2022

How to experience the relationship with grandchildren: a personal experience

Pick up the children from school, take them to the pool on Tuesdays and Thursdays, to music on Wednesdays, having them at home in the afternoons when both parents are at work, take care of them when they have the inevitable colds and flu, and prepare a few meals when mom and dad work late. Young millennial grandparents increasingly resemble babysitters who are substitutes for busy parents and the almost non-existent welfare state.  They do what others in the management of the family cannot do, they lubricate a harsh daily routine and provide, in addition to commitment and time, the guarantee of affection, care and security. Nevertheless, is it right that it should be so? Is it beautiful and useful that the figure of the grandparents is this? Often only this?  Is it possible to imagine a more fruitful role for them? 

When I am entrusted with my grandchildren - and I am happy about that - when I am confronted with the daily tasks, the race between a swimming lesson and a piano lesson, I sometimes think “but I’m not a baby sitter, I’m a grandmother”. The grandmother's or grandfather's task is not -or rather should not be-, what others do for money or necessity.

What, then, would be useful for grandparents to be today? Here I will avoid bombastic phrases such as that according to which grandparents “represent the bond between generations”, or “the unity of the family”. I will be careful not to say that they are “the memory and the past without which the present and the future lose their value”. That they “foster dialogue between generations”. They continue to recount “the importance of family unity” at times of frequent divorces and separations. However, between the rhetoric and the trivial and economic use, the downsizing of an affectively important figure, there should be a middle way or rather another way, a different way.

In my decades of experience as a grandmother, I have asked myself this question and given myself certain answers. The role can only be the one that grandparents would like and feel is their own.  They are the ones who have the right-duty to design their tasks, to imagine their relationship with their grandchildren. They are the ones who must break out of the boundaries that a productivist and consumerist society has drawn. Just as they have tried to determine their lives, their work, their affections in their years of youth and becoming mature, they must define them when they become grandparents. Look critically at the role we want to impose on them and change it. “Grandparents of the world rebel”, I would be inclined to say, if even that phrase did not come across as rather stale.

So what should we grandparents expect?

First of all, to experience fully the relationship of love with the grandchildren. Complete, without obligations, without exchanges, without limitations. Not even the “good limitations”, those imposed by the need to teach and educate.  Grandparents, in fact, do not have to teach, they do not have to show any right way, they do not have to suggest the grandchildren’s future. They have a limited but very strong claim; that is to be with their grandchildren in the space of life that for them is their last and to see, to enjoy the presence of those who came after them and after their children. If love is always a gift, the one between grandparents and grandchildren is even more so.

They want to give. A lot. Without anything in return. Because grandparents, having freed their role from rhetoric and utilitarianism, have so much to offer. Security, stories, unimaginable games, unlimited caresses, unknown perspectives, mysterious realities. Their life for their grandchildren is an arcane, with everything to be discovered.

They want to keep surprising themselves; after all, if motherhood and fatherhood are amazing, “grandparents-hood” is more so. It is not only the fulfillment of an extraordinary natural process but the completion of its meaning. Grandchildren are the life that extends beyond death, the everyday takes on a universal and eternal meaning.

Grandparents want to recount whether that be true stories or invented ones, the novels they have read and the life they have lived. In addition, not only because grandchildren like their stories, they like them very much, and they spend hours listening to them; but because through welcoming the little ones, they review and reorder their own lives. They give it meaning. Through the eyes of a grandchild, they see better what they have been and are. They can better observe how time has sculpted their character.

To be a grandparent takes time, free time, time unhindered by a pressing daily routine. Social organization has provided it with the conclusion of a working life, during retirement. Then that time was taken back, forcing even grandparents to follow the rules of a daily frenzy. The frenzy that dominates the world of work, where parents are too busy to follow their children’s commitments and the “educational” frenzy (and I put this word in quotation marks, not without reason) that forces children to hurry continuously from one activity to another. The adult world claims to teach children a lot; but, they do not realize that, in this way, they educate them only to consume more, to interject a logic of exchange, even in affection (to be loved, you must perform well in music, in gymnastics, in a foreign language).

Grandparents, if they were actually able to be grandparents, would give the new generations the only substance that is in short supply in life: the gratuitousness and limitlessness of love that demands nothing except to express itself in the thousands of ways in which it can do so. Without wanting anything in return, not even that they be cultured, well educated, and able. Nothing at all.

Grandparents spoil their grandchildren, they say. Nevertheless, what are “the vices” if not an escape from the rules that the world of adults - not yet old - wants to impose on children? Who are they if not the freedom to love outside the rules?

Fortunately, between a school run and one to the playground, a music lesson and an English lesson, a few minutes remain. Just enough time to feel the magic of grandparenthood and to regret having to give it up so often.

by Ritanna Armeni