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On Mother's Day, Don't Forget Grandma


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, we want to pay tribute to the man who showed generations of children where the wild things are, author Maurice Sendak. He just passed away and we want to tell you more about him in just a few minutes.

But first, they say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. Every week, we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy advice.

Today though, since Mother's Day is coming up, we thought it would be fun to hear from people who have really earned their stripes in the parenting department. We are talking grandmothers.

On the surface, being a grandma seems like a pretty easy gig. Visit your cute grandkids, let them stay up late, give them all the candy they want and hand them right back. Of course, that's far from the whole truth for many grandparents now. Many are providing child care or financial assistance and a rising number of grandparents - more than six million now - have grandchildren who live with them full-time, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

So with us today are four grandmothers. Barbara Graham is a grandmother of two. She's also editor of "Eye of My Heart." That's a collection of essays about the pleasures and pains of being a grandparent. We talked with her earlier about that book.

Also with us, Myra Patner (ph). She is a grandmother of five and we want to tell you the truth. It was her gentle nudge that led to this idea. She sent us a note saying how about hearing from some more grandmothers?

Also with us, Marita Golden. She is an award-winning essayist and author of more than 10 books. She's also a grandmother of three and she was just a judge in the prestigious Pen Faulkner Awards. Talk about having it all and doing it all.

And we hope to hear from another grandma who is raising her grandchildren full-time. We'll see about that.

Welcome, ladies, grandmothers. Thank you all so much for joining us.


MARITA GOLDEN: Great to be here.

MYRA PATNER: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So, Barbara Graham, I'm going to start with you. I just want to remind people about the essay you wrote for your own book and you also collected the essays of other grandparents. What gave you that idea?

GRAHAM: Well, as soon as I became a grandmother, I was flooded with feeling, flooded with love, overwhelmed. I knew I would love this little being, but I didn't know that I would be like a teenager with her first crush. And, as a writer, the way I make sense of life and the way I make sense of the world is to write about it.

And I also started talking to lots of other grandmothers and everybody has a story who is a grandparent, so that was really what triggered it.

MARTIN: Myra, I want to also say thank you for your very nice note, a very direct note, though, saying that, you know, people pay lip service to the wisdom of grandparents, but then they ignore what they have to say. And I just wondered, you know, do you think that's ageism or is there something else to that, you think?

PATNER: You know, I've pondered that and I have not come up with an answer to it. Maybe Barbara can help me come up with an answer because I'm sure you've thought about that, too. I don't really know why and I don't know if it's just because this is the world we're living in now, a world of youth and high energy where people don't get sick.

I mean, let's face it. As a grandmother, you're not in A-number-one young shape that you were when you were having babies in your 20s. Your knee has to be replaced, your this, your that. I mean, you have to go to doctors. It almost becomes a half-time job to take care of yourself.

MARTIN: Take care of yourself.


PATNER: So I don't know whether that idea is secretly in the back of people's minds. I don't know. Barbara, what do you think?

GRAHAM: Well, I would also say that, when you become a grandparent, the metaphor I like to use is that you go from being a member - this is baseball - of the starting lineup to it's like being a relief pitcher on the bench.

And what you have to realize, and it takes some realization, is that you're not in charge anymore. The parents are in charge and once - as we had to find our way as parents, we have to allow our children to find their own way, too.

And I think an interesting piece these days is the Internet. The amount of information available to new parents on the Internet. They can find out everything they want by just clicking on the mouse.

MARTIN: Don't have to ask you. Marita, you know...

PATNER: That's an interesting point.

MARTIN: It is an interesting point, but get ready because I'm going to...



MARTIN: ...ask you to lay some grandma wisdom on us, anyway, so get ready for that. So this is your shot. Make sure you don't miss it.

Marita Golden, I wanted to ask you - I'm so glad you were able to join us and congratulations, also, on all your many, many awards. Do you feel as an African-American, though - you know, African-American grandmothers kind of have a story place, both in the culture and in the literature. Not just African-Americans. A lot of other cultures do, too. But do you feel - I don't know - a little extra pressure to be the perfect grandma, to live up to that image that many people have of what role you should play in your family?

GOLDEN: Well, I think that because - I think all African-American families, no matter their economic or sociological status, are under a different kind of pressure than other families in this country. And the pressure is often subliminal, it's overt, it's covert. And I think as the grandmother, I feel very responsible about schooling my grandchildren - who are actually my step-grandchildren - about the world that they are a part of. So for example, when my 17-year-old granddaughter graduates from high school this June, as she will, and then heads off to historically black college, you know, I'm point to talk to her about, you know, leadership and carrying on some of the work that I've tried to do, and her role as a young African-American woman in the African-American community.

So as a grandmother, I'm going to have conversations with her that maybe, quite frankly, her mother doesn't have time for. Her mother's got three children. She's working. She's juggling a lot of things. And that's the kind of role that I, my husband and I, find ourselves having these conversations with our grandchildren that quite likely, you know, the parents don't sometimes don't have time to have because we have that long view of life.

MARTIN: And yeah, passing on heritage.

GOLDEN: Exactly.

MARTIN: Jacklyn Laird though, you are, as we mentioned earlier, doing your second tour of duty in the parenting, the primary parenting role. You are the full-time caregiver for me three of you grandchildren. You have 12 overall. I just wanted to ask how, the second time around - and I understand that the circumstances that led you to this place were not the happiest ones, so I want to acknowledge that. But the second time around, do you feel more confident in some ways or do you feel perhaps less so, perhaps less isolated, a little more scared?

JACKLYN LAIRD: It's definitely much more frightening. I think comparatively there are many, many, many more dangers out there as is expressed with the Internet, you know, and I mean it's tough. It's tough. I used to doubt the wisdom of raising our grandchildren or raising our children when we were so young. And I thought why don't we wait until we are older and wiser. Oh, boy.


LAIRD: Don't question the way things are because you don't know, I'm telling you. It's really hard and it's really hard also the fact that you're and then you're mother and then you're a grandmother and then you're a great-grandmother. Well, unfortunately these children I don't get the grand part.

MARTIN: Do you feel...

LAIRD: That's been taken away.

MARTIN: What's the - is the hardest part the financial piece? The financial pressure, is it the physical toll? I mean, 'cause Myra was talking about that. That the fact is, you know, you are in a different place physically than you would have been, you know, 20 years ago. Which is the hardest for you, if you can, if you don't mind telling us?

LAIRD: I think that if I won the lottery and had all the money in the world it would still be very, very frightening. So I probably would have to say the hardest part is the emotional part, the frightening part. Just because you did it once doesn't mean you know what you mean you know what you're doing. Trust me. Trust me.


LAIRD: And I hope that I'm not and you just going to have to do this until I get it right because I'm really scared.


MARTIN: We're having our weekly parenting conversation. We decided for in honor of Mother's Day to go to those who really earned their stripes. We're having a roundtable of grandmothers. We're talking with Jacklyn Laird, that's who was speaking just now. She's a grandmother of 12. She truly wears the crown...



MARTIN: ...including three who lived with her. Also with us, Barbara Graham, editor of "Eye of My Heart," a collection of essays about grandmothers from grandmothers. She has two grandchildren Myra Patner is a grandmother of five. And wrote us a very nice note saying, how come we don't hear from more grandmas? And also, the award-winning author Marita Golden.

And on the upside, Marita, you were telling us that - and you've actually written about the fact - that your being a grandmother has some ways smoothed relationships with your adult stepdaughter. Tell us, can you tell us a little bit more about that?

GOLDEN: Well, yeah. I, thanks to my stepdaughter, because we have a blended family, I'm a grandmother of three and they range in age from a year and a half to 17. And so, you know, this whole thing of being a stepmother is very dicey, and you're going to be the greatest stepmother in the world and then when there's a little resistance, you know, it doesn't quite work out. But when my stepdaughter had her second child, it was a lot of, you know, sort of difficulty with the birth and it was an early birth and during the time when my grandson was in the incubator, there was a moment when we were alone in the hospital room and I shared with her - because she was very fearful about what would happen and there was a lot of fear and anxiety and I shared with her my own experience of losing a child. And so I knew what that was like.

I have had a premature birth that unfortunately, you know, the infant died. But I shared with her all the pain, the grief that I felt and just shared with her that I knew what she was going through. And even though it did not seem at all that that was going to be the prognosis for Von, she was afraid that it would be - and he just didn't know what to do with all these feelings. And I think that it was very comforting for her to know and as a stepmother who we'd had some challenges in our relationship, that I could access her feelings at the moment.


GOLDEN: And that's sort of opened up a space where from that point on there was a little more intimacy. And these grandchildren I think, are these wonderful sort of beings that come into our lives and they have a mission, and that mission is to open our hearts if we will let them. I mean, as Barbara was saying earlier, that you turn to this person who has a crush on, you know, like I have a crush now on my year-and-a-half old granddaughter and you just turn into Silly Putty. It's quite wonderful.


MARTIN: Well, Myra, you also have mentioned that you've had some, not always the easiest time, but...


MARTIN: But give us, we have about three minutes left and I want to hear from the group, if we can.


MARTIN: What was your best bit of grandma advice?



PATNER: Well, the hardest thing for me is to keep my mouth shut. I'm a blurter and I have to keep my mouth shut, and I have to not say it. And I want to say it. And if I say it, I get in trouble and then I have to retract it. And so I'm trying not to say it. That is, that's the hardest thing for me.

MARTIN: You can tell me.


MARTIN: You can give me any - see I am - see here's the thing. I am old enough that I'm too old to rebel. You can tell me anything that I'm doing wrong. I'm happy to hear it. Barbara, what about you? You've done such a, you've done a deep study of your own life as a grandma.


MARTIN: Then you've talked to all these other grandmothers about their experience. What's your best bit of grandma advice?

GRAHAM: I would say curve your expectations but not your enthusiasm. Life throws a lot of punches your way. I was a local grandmother in the beginning and then my kids moved overseas and they had the nerve to kidnap their baby and take her with her, and...

PATNER: I wasn't there.


GRAHAM: ...out of my neighborhood. So, really, it's - you're not in charge anymore so you have to kind of bow to the parents, figure out how to be in be in their lives, in the kids' lives. If you're a long-distance grandparent sometimes it's a little bit different. If you're the mother of the father, versus the mother of the mother...


GRAHAM: ...there are all kinds of issues. And then especially in this world of and blended families, there might be three or four grandmothers in the same family and it can arouse feelings of his of junior high school flashback competition. But really, you know, the heart is a very generous muscle and so you need to trust and believe that you will find your place and just enjoy. I mean there is enough love to go around.

MARTIN: You're going to make me cry. That would not be pretty.


MARTIN: Jackie, I'm going to ask you. Give you the final word. We only have a minute left. I apologize. So what would make your life better as grandma doing the second tour of duty? Is it recognizing your role? Is it having people recognize? What do you - I know it's a tough question to ask, to answer in a minute, but what would be better?

LAIRD: Oh, boy. Just always, always tell them you love them. Always, always tell them you love them.

GOLDEN: Mm-hmm.

LAIRD: And I made it through once. I can do this again.


LAIRD: I can do this. I am old but I'm tough, yeah. Yeah. That is true. We're tough.

MARTIN: You've got the collective good wishes to all of all of your folks here. And can I say just on behalf of all children everywhere?

LAIRD: Yeah.

MARTIN: Thank you for your service.


MARTIN: And Happy Mother's Day to all of the moms.

Barbara Graham, grand mom of two, editor of "Eye of My Heart," a collection of essays about the pleasures and perils of being a grandparent. Myra Patner, grandmother of five. Very kind enough to join us in our D.C. studio. Thank you for your note. Do come back and see us.

PATNER: Thank you for listening.

MARTIN: Jacklyn Laird is the grandmother of 12, including three who live with her. She was with us from station KPFK in North Hollywood, California. And Marita Golden, an award-winning author and grandmother of three, with us on the line from her home office in Maryland.

Thank you all so much and Happy Mother's Day.

GOLDEN: Thank you.

PATNER: Thanks, Michel.

GRAHAM: Thank you.

LAIRD: Thank you.

PATNER: It was fun.


LAIRD: Thank you.

GOLDEN: Bye-bye. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.