August 21, 1997
Cover Story: Grandparenting Today
Roseann Cronrod grew up in the tenements of New York, the child ofrecent Polish immigrants to the United States. She went on to becomea working single mother and an entrepreneur, and, in retirement, hasnever depended on children or grandchildren to fill her days. Rather,she has traveled the world, has volunteered at schools and hospitals,and is now a docent at the Japanese Garden in Van Nuys. She dates,goes ballroom and line dancing, and, the doctor says, is in thephysical shape of someone 15 years younger. She looks it too.
As it turns out, Grandma has been ahead of her time, the precursorof the new model of grandparent, one who is far removed from thebubbes and zeydes of old.
Traditional bubbes and zeydes are an endangered species, saysSally Edelist, director of Jewish Family Service/Los Angeles citysenior services. They are more common in the Russian and otherémigré communities, where grandparents are more likelyto live with children and grandchildren. They take on child-careduties while their children go off to work to establish themselves inAmerica.
Most contemporary grandparents are American-born, and they'reliving much longer than their Old Country forebears. Life expectancyin 1900 was 46. Today, it's 72 for men and 78 for women, says Dr.Gary Small, director of the UCLA Center on Aging.
But if today's grandparents are healthier (and wealthier) thanever before, 80 percent are less involved with their grandchildren,says Santa Fe, N.M., psychiatrist Arthur Kornhaber, the founder ofthe Foundation for Grandparenting.
Often, that's by choice. As one woman wrote to Kornhaber: "I...gotthrough raising my own kids. Don't I have the right to my own lifeand time for myself?"
Then there are all the bubbes who went to work during the feminist1970s and still hold full- or part-time jobs, and the grandparentswho have retired to Arizona, Palm Springs or Miami, far away fromtheir grandchildren.
Even when grandchildren are close by, the family is no longer theraison d'être, says Paula Shatkin, casework supervisor at theFreda Mohr Multiservice Senior Center, Jewish Family Service/L.A."These people have a life, whether they're busy with friends or work,volunteering or traveling," she says. So these grandparents are lessavailable for baby-sitting duty.
But, sometimes, it's the children and grandchildren who areunavailable. By choice or circumstance, yuppies tend to substitutenannies for grandma. And as society becomes increasingly mobile, it'soften the adult children who move away.
Dorie Gradwohl, director of Valley Senior Services of JewishFamily Service/L.A., has a daughter and son-in-law who relocated tothe Washington, D.C., area to work at the Smithsonian Institute. Whenher grandson was born five years ago, she and her husband, anattorney, made a choice: They were not going to be the typicallong-distance grandparents, who see grandchildren for short, intenseperiods once or twice a year. They had the means to visit every sixweeks, using airline frequent-flier tickets and much of theirvacation time, and that's exactly what they've done.
"Maintaining our relationship with Jeremy is a top priority,"Gradwohl says.
If the Gradwohls represent the new norm of long-distancegrandparenting, other seniors are on the opposite end of thespectrum. They are among the some 7 million grandparents -- about afourfold increase since 1980 -- who are intimately involved in theday-to-day rearing of grandchildren in their own homes.
"They've been called the 'National Guard' of the family," saysMerril Silverstein, a USC assistant professor of gerontology. Theystep in to tide the family over whenever their children succumb tothe unprecedented ills of the boomer generation (divorce,incarceration, alcohol and drug addiction, child abuse and neglect).
One grandmother in Kornhaber's book, "ContemporaryGrandparenting," described "being wakened at 3 a.m. by a knock at herdoor. When she opened it, she found her 2-month-old grandson neatlywrapped and lying in a small basket. 'What choice did I have?' shesaid. 'My daughter was back on the street.'"
The numbers are so significant that Jewish Family Servicefacilitates a Grandparents as Parents group (818- 587-3333), whichmeets weekly in the Valley.
"Our youngest member is in her early 50s, and the oldest is 78,"says co-facilitator Gloria Gesas, a licensed clinical social worker."But all talk about the different expectations they had for this timein their lives. They thought they would retire, maybe go on a cruise.Now, they are unexpectedly raising a grandchild, and the experienceis bittersweet. They love their grandchildren, but they are alsoworking out [mixed] feelings."
The grandparents themselves acknowledge that it's all unchartedterritory, even when the family is healthy. And nowhere is that moreevident than in the area of transmitting Jewish culture.
With the skyrocketing intermarriage rate and with grandchildrenbecoming ever more assimilated, "many [grandparents] are realizingthey're the last link to Jewish continuity," says Temple Aliyah'sRabbi Stewart Vogel, whose Woodland Hills congregation includes asignificant number of baby boomers with children.
Thus, Vogel is seeing grandparents who are not members of any shulbut who are, nevertheless, taking it upon themselves to accompanychildren and grandchildren to synagogue. They are paying for Jewishsummer camp, for religious school and, in some cases, for bar and batmitzvahs. If the other set of grandparents lights a Christmas tree,they know they have to be the ones who cook the latkes.
"Previous generations of grandparents didn't have to take such anactivist role," Vogel says. "They just lived their natural Jewishlives."
Many baby boomers treasure ties to Judaism through a belovedgrandparent, but most contemporary Jewish grandparents are notritually observant. They had put aside the religion of theirimmigrant parents to become assimilated Americans, and many raisedtheir own children with minimal Jewish involvement.
Some grandparents are so assimilated that it's the grandchild inJewish day school who does all the teaching. Rabbi Harold Schulweisof Valley Beth Shalom, for his part, recalls the grandfather whoadmitted that he didn't know a particular bracha during a bar mitzvahmeeting. "Don't worry, Grandpa," the grandson said. "I'll teach it toyou." In Schulweis' experience, this family model is the norm.
Whatever the nuances of Jewish family life, it is clear that thecurrent generation of seniors is going where no grandparents havegone before. Unprecedented numbers will make it togreat-grandparenthood.
"The history of grandparenting is being made at this moment,"Kornhaber says.