When I was 4, my grandparents picked me up from my mother and stepfather’s inner city apartment for the birthday present of every little kid’s dreams: a trip to Disney World. I never went home. The thought probably occurs to any number of children while they’re sitting in their room, grounded—“If only I could live with Grandma instead!” Grandma is the smell of freshly baked cookies. Grandma is a dish full of hard candy on the coffee table. Grandma is Yahtzee and Parcheesi and cartoons with buttery popcorn…Grandma and Grandpa’s house means getting to stay up past your bedtime.
My grandma was all of those things and more, but she was also a human being with human challenges, the biggest one being this complicated and emotional young girl who was dropped into her lap at a time when most people are getting ready to retire.
She had already been raising children for 30 years when I was born; she gave birth to her first at the age of 16 and had 3 by age 20. Her youngest finally moved out the very summer that I moved in.
That adds up to 46 consecutive years of child rearing. Enough to give anyone a headache. Furthermore, she came of age in a time and place that didn’t ask you whether you even wanted to take on motherhood—it was more than expected. In fact, considering her roots—a one room shack with an underemployed stepfather and several younger brothers to mother—getting married off and starting a family was her ticket out.
My grandparents are my best friends today, but we didn’t speak for an entire decade. How we got to that point is the story of my childhood. I used to have a laundry list of complaints, histrionics about yard work and dusting and how “none of the others kids had to do it” (or so I thought). I even resented the brand new clothes so clean and so nice that I actually stuck out like a sore thumb among the jeans and baseball caps at the farm-school-elementary I attended.
“Looking a gift horse in the mouth” doesn’t even begin to describe it. All I could think about were my feelings of isolation, my pain over not having friends…even though retrospect goes to show that I brought most of my social conflicts on myself. Like the time in sixth grade that I came home crying because a group of girls surrounded me and started lambasting me with cruel taunts, and my grandmother retorted, “Well, what did you do to them?” This is just one of the many things I used to hold against them—the perceived lack of empathy that was really just a call for self-reflection and personal accountability.
“Tough love” is a strange concept. To this day, I do still advocate for the following principle: “Be encouraging—the world has enough critics.” But a girl as volatile as I was needed a proverbial slap in the face to get out of her own head sometimes. And oh, proverbial slaps in the face I was given. Without going so far as to criticize or blame them, I’m not going to pretend they ever put on kid gloves when it came to the exhausting job of raising me. But along with that tough love came goodnight kisses and trips to the bookstore and the toy store, a pool and a grill and a big backyard that they worked their butts off to keep beautiful with all the energy of a couple 20 years their junior.
Now that the mini-memoir is out of the way, here are the top 11 differences between being raised by your grandparents versus your parents:
1. Instead of Nintendo, you have Etch-A-Sketch and Lite Brite. Along with a whole toy box full of other 1970’s playthings inherited from aunts and uncles. Very, very cool, and probably worth a mint on eBay now.
2. There are “school clothes” and “play clothes.” You change into the latter from the former at 4pm before “going out to play.” It doesn’t matter that other children do not do this. This is what is done.
3. You love Elvis but have no idea who Gloria Estefan is. You can already sing along to the best parts of rock and roll history in kindergarten.
4. You have weird hobbies. My grandparents, specifically, restored and collected player pianos. This is another thing that made me “weird” growing up, but as an adult, I find it incredibly cool.
5. You aren’t a jock. You’re being raised by people from a generation in which “girls’ sports” equaled cheerleading and not a whole hell of a lot else. However, you’ll be incredibly gifted at math or music or other equally rewarding pursuits.
6. Just because you’re legally entitled to a new perk doesn’t mean your folks don’t have the final say on the matter. That goes for driver’s licenses and R-rated movies alike.
7. You love buffets and Sam’s Club. Because they are awesome.
8. You are patient with other people’s bad days. Chronic pain and other health problems are inevitable as we age, and when you grow up around that, you learn not to take a sharp word personally when it stems from a pounding migraine—it’s not about you.
9. You won’t get away with squat. Your mom and her siblings already tried all the tricks in the book and their parents learned from it every time they got caught. There’s no pulling anything over on them.
10. The phone is for conveying brief messages, not for long-winded conversations. This was before cellphones, and we paid by the minute!
11. You’re not going to have to worry about paying for college, because they made learning to read a priority as soon as you could talk, and the ripple effect throughout your life led to academic scholarships. Being semi-retired, they had the time, and being experienced parents, they had the patience.
I don’t claim to be representative of the entire demographic—parents’ parents raising children is a social situation that more typically arises from the consequences of institutionalized racism. I’m still just a middle-class white girl. And an incredibly lucky one, at that. Instead of foster care or an orphanage, I was raised by two people who loved me so much they put my interests ahead of their own.
There’s an old saying that you can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family. In my case, my family chose me.