The Secret World of Grandparents

Carol Orsborn’s initiation into grandparenthood came with some surprises

Carol Orsborn, an outspoken speaker and author on boomer issues, is senior strategist at VibrantNation.com, where, as the site says, “smart, successful women 50+ connect with others to make the most out of life every day.” Her newest book is The Year I Saved My (downsized) Soul: A Boomer Woman’s Search for Meaning and a Job [http://www.vibrantnation.com/f/vn-books/the-year-i-saved-my-downsized-soul].

Carol says her expectations about becoming a grand used to consist of stereotypical images. Now that she is a new grandmother to Mason, she has a new perspective-and a new respect for earlier generations of parents and grandparents.

GRAND: What makes a boomer grand different from previous generations? As for grandparenting, did you have any preconceived notions? Were there any things that came along that were hard to deal with?

Carol: [laughs] Actually, all the above. I have to say that [from] my own mother and grandmother and also my husband’s mother, grandparenting looked really simple. I just pictured a child on my lap with a serene smile on my face-that was about the extent of it. I was super excited from the very first-I’ve been anticipating this for a long time, and I know I’m going to be a fabulous grandparent, I know it…. I only had the two images: I had this image of a serene smile, and then I could “look” at the child at a much later age and see this incredibly rich relationship, whether we’re at the zoo or singing together, whatever. But from the very beginning I have found the actual experience of grandparenting to be defined by what I now realize [were] stereotypes or fantasies and much more complex than I’d anticipated.

It gives me great new respect for my mother, my grandmother and my husband’s mother. I have profound levels of new respect for that generation because I realize how they made it look simple by keeping their mouths shut so often. They went with the flow in a way that I think most boomers aren’t used to doing. Many boomers, especially boomer women, like the sense of mastery and control and want to call the shots and have high expectations. In this day and age in our situation there’s multiple grandparent sets who are equally invested in this and living in other parts of the country. The way I think of it is there was a secret world of grandparents that I’m only now being initiated into.

GRAND: And are you satisfied with the initiation? Or, is it an adjustment?

Carol: It’s a big adjustment, but it promises to deliver even more joy than I anticipated. But some pain, I would say. I think it’s a growth experience and an opportunity for transformation on every level, including learning how to be okay with complexity and how to be generous and how to want the best for others…to take the focus off having control.

GRAND: Yes, I encountered that when my daughter said she was going to deliver, I wanted to rush to her, but she said, no, don’t come now, wait a week. So I waited a week-an eternal week.

Carol: Right, that’s basically what happened with us. Secretly I wanted to be there for the birth, but I knew that they didn’t want a major production with a large audience, and that her parents were hoping to be out and around. But it ended up being like roulette, because I had to be on the East Coast anyway for work, and so I thought maybe that I might be the lucky one. But my day came and went, and then her dad was going to go, and then her mom was going to go-we didn’t know who was going to be there when the baby was born. It was really like the lottery or something. It turned out to be her dad, which in retrospect was absolutely lovely, perfect. I think there’s ego involved; you’d love to be the one that’s imprinted first or whatever. So from day one I’ve had to learn to share and to be really glad that the child has so many people to love him. And I don’t know where I got this idea that being a grandmother meant that you were first chair and the only one. And again, I guess it’s because that previous generation never talked about what they might have wished for.

GRAND: I think you probably have your finger on it. They didn’t talk about it…. And boomers talk about everything.

Carol: Exactly! And because I didn’t think about it, I realize that I was probably delivering some inadvertent pain; it never occurred to me…. Now that I’m a grandmother myself, when I think back, I think about birthdays, kids’ birthdays, when we didn’t make a big effort to get the grandparents there…. Little things like that I live and die for now. It never occurred to me as being that important, and [we] never got complaints! Which is what I don’t understand, because I think that in my current state [or] developmental scale, my tendency would be to complain a lot about not much.

GRAND: Well, that’s what we boomers do, right?

Carol: What I do professionally as well. But I’m really taking it as the opportunity to grow-and I have to say-grow rapidly, and I have to say I’m very proud of myself that sometimes you have to fake it until you make it. I just went through the most sublime Thanksgiving of my life and it was beyond my expectations, and it really did come out of finding this place in me that was going to be so letting go of control and so sharing and generous and so genuinely pleased for everybody, which was a small step for mankind….

GRAND: As for reinvention of self, how have you personally done that in your life, and can you give us some perspectives from the people you’ve talked to through your work with Vibrant Nation?

Carol: I think that many women of grandmother age and older have been kind of hidden from previous generations. Until recently we rarely saw behind the veil because the media didn’t value the generation of women when we hit midlife; the advertisers don’t. Without the media and without advertising, you don’t know that your experiences are universal. If you’re not feeling good about something, then there’s something wrong with you.

GRAND: Right, we buy into what we see in the media.

Carol: Exactly. And so, I’ve been getting bolder and bolder with my willingness to share my own vulnerability, partly because of my role with Vibrant Nation. I’ve started sticking my toe in the water and telling people the honest truth about things. And then run for cover, [Carol laughs], duck for cover, wondering what would people think if they knew what I was really going through….

GRAND: They’re probably relieved that you’re human.

Carol: Well, yes, the response was so amazing, and then it opened up the space for them to also be real, so some of us over at Vibrant Nation are so anonymous-you don’t have to say who you are, but more and more of us are actually saying this is me, this is who I am, and I’m dealing with this or that issue.  I would say…it’s given me more courage to talk to my own friends and family members in a real way. Once you find that you’re not crazy or alone, you start to be willing to take more risks with everybody. I personally think that reinvention sounds like it has too much mastery to it. It sounds like “I’m going to put these ingredients together and come up with something new and better.” I prefer the word “growping” for answers because I think that more captures the flavor of what it’s like for me.

The one thing I was really born with was this idea that it would be possible to have an experience of joy or wholeness or peace or something no matter what was going on in my life, that that would always be a goal and always achievable. Anything that departs from that I’ve always considered to be an aberration or something to be overcome. It’s just my general philosophical orientation towards life. That doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily effortless or easy to get from here to there, but I have ultimately always emerged on the other side of any emotion, conflict, issue…in a new and better place.

The grandparenting story I just told you and the triumph of Thanksgiving is a good example of that. But before I went, we were in Tennessee and I went to my hairdresser-I wanted to look really good for the grandbaby. He’s six months old-I don’t think he could see more than 10 inches-but I wanted to look beautiful for my grandbaby. I was telling my hairdresser that with all the loving adults in the room I was afraid I wasn’t going to get enough lap time. She said to me, “Please don’t be like my mother, who actually, honest to God, had a timer, and she was secretly timing how much time the other grandmother was getting!” Not that I would have ever done that, but it was a good anecdote to shake me out of any sense of looking at the situation from any perspective other than, again, wanting everybody to have plenty of time with Mason. Mason is in the 95th percentile for height and the 90th for weight-a really big baby and extremely active-so part of it is that these are 62-year-old arms. And I never expected that-[the picture I had imagined was] always the little gray-haired grandmother with the baby on the lap and they’re both smiling…. First of all, my hair isn’t gray; it’s dyed-and I’m carrying this incredibly vigorous child around and looking to see whose turn it is. And I think everybody felt that way, and it turned out to be such a party; it was so fun.

GRAND: You said you had this eternal optimism that you’ll find joy no matter what the other circumstances. Were you worried at all about being a grandparent?

Carol: I think the biggest issue really has to do with the long-distance grandparenting and worries about how I could establish a strong bond with the child if I’m so far away. Actually, the holidays did provide a very good example of the fact that you can have a huge impact just coming once a year-and that would be Santa Claus. The point is that kids can hardly wait to see Santa Claus-he only comes one day a year, so why can’t it be the same with grandma? For some of us it may turn out to be that. But what I realized actually, holding Mason in my arms, is that the bond-it’s almost more a metaphysical bond-has [more] to do with how much love I have for this child than spending time together. Spending time together I already know, because I have one adult child back in the empty nest and the other one who has the baby in New York, so I understand that there’s a difference between being in someone’s life on a daily basis, and you can’t replace that. I do envy grandparents who have that everyday kind of relationship, but I don’t have any less of a bond, and there’s no less love between my distance child and myself; it’s just that more emotion gets packed into those visits when they happen.

GRAND: It’s distilled.

Carol: Exactly-distilled. And also on a metaphysical note, you talk about reinventing yourself…. I had a huge breakthrough because I started to dream about Mason. My grandson started coming to me in my dreams, and we started to have conversations in our dreams. I just realized that there’s something so primal and so visceral and so organic about this relationship, and it will be for both of us. We’re just going to make the most of the times we have together. This Thanksgiving, really, it filled me up. I feel full now. While it was sad to leave, I left full.

In our parents’ generation, they tended to live closer to their parents, and other generations tended to live closer. With our generation, going off to college as we did and meeting people in different parts of the country- and then we’ve got all the military people who are separated from their own kids; they’re in Iraq and wherever-it’s very clear to me that love really does conquer all. There is a sense of loss and sadness when you’re not living in the same place-there can be-but that doesn’t impact the potency of the relationship or the impact on your life necessarily.

GRAND: What is something that you would like the readers of GRAND to know about you: what your perspective is, what is important in your philosophy?

Carol: Oh my gosh!

GRAND: [joking] In two minutes or less…

Carol: I think I can do it, actually: I think that the best lives are lives that are lived as really good stories.

GRAND: And…?

Carol: I don’t know if you want to get into God in this particular conversation, but I will tell you that I think God likes a really good read. I think the only reason I can think of for human existence… I think that God created humans because He likes a good story.

And I think that God doesn’t really want people to go into mediocre situations and suffer quietly and give up on what’s important to them and live lives that don’t have meaning or purpose. The opposite of all those things is what makes a really good story. The stories I like to read are stories in which somebody has a challenge and they overcome it. They dig down deeper; they reach out for help-all those kinds of good things.

Actually, I didn’t realize I was doing this-I was just living my life-but I think the reason I became a writer was I realized that my life was sort of playing out as chapters of books-eventually book after book. Almost every life experience I’ve gone through has ended up as one of my 16 books. That’s something I’m really proud of, that I’ve somehow found the ability to not only live my life from the inside out but be a witness to it at the same time.

And I think it’s particularly important because a lot of people don’t have some tool to provide some added perspective-it could be meditation, it could be long walks in the woods, it could be art, it could be a lot of things. But if you don’t, you tend to become a victim of your life. It feels like things are being done to you and you’re helpless. I tend to go through my life experiences trying to experience everything fully-the whole spectrum of human emotion-and then have a witness to it, as well, that is looking for, and therefore finding, meaning.

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