Whether you’ve been a grandfather for a while, or one of your kids just shared their sonogram with you, it’s likely you’re navigating a changed life landscape. The self-image you’ve had as a father has been updated, and people may be looking at you a little differently than before your offspring sprung their own progeny.
In my case, upon hearing the news of my impending grandfatherhood, I felt like a boulder of emotion had hit me in the chest. I was so overwhelmed with happiness, I joined my wife in weeping and hugging and generally going bananas. But I also suddenly remembered my grandfather or, as we all called him, Gramp.
My Gramp was an impressive figure. In World War I he was a tall, dashing pilot with the fledgling US Air Force, taking reconnaissance photos from the cockpit of his biplane of the moonscape trenches of Verdun. In World War II he was a Colonel stationed in London who helped coordinate supplies for the D-Day landings. When I knew him as a teenager, employed to help manage his rental cottages in Vermont, he still had a commanding presence.
Gramp was also old. Well into his 70s, his face was deeply lined. And while he was about 6 foot 2, Gramp was bent with age. He’d walk about in khaki shirt and pants (and cap), ordering me to do this or that. When I became a grandfather, I was only 55. Yet in an instant I was part of the same grandpa club. I didn’t really know how to reconcile those two images, the old man and me, into who I was.
So, I hunted about for answers on the web. How could I be a good grandpa? The only cultural reference to grandpa was the movie Bad Grandpa. I love comedy but didn’t exactly relate to the senile lecherous drunk in the movie. I immediately started publishing a blog called, you guessed it, Good Grandpa, and began writing about my experiences.
I’ve been publishing stories for about nine years now, talked with a lot of grandparents, and learned a few things along the way. Here, in brief, are a few suggestions. Think of them not as tips or rules, but general guideposts to navigate by as you traverse planet grandpa.
- Grandfatherhood as the closest thing possible to a fountain of youth. Thomas Jefferson said, “Tho’ an old man, I am but a young gardener.” I’ve found the new experience of being a grandpa to be revitalizing. Playing with the grandkids, I’ve rediscovered my inner boy. Total strangers tell me I don’t look old enough to be a grandpa. That may be because many people automatically assume that all grandfathers are ancient. But I wonder if part of the youth and vigor of my grandkids creates a halo that I become part of in some way.
- Celebrate the fact that you are not in control. Maybe in your career you’ve always been a Master of the Universe (my marketing agency is called Captains of Industry, which is pretty close). When you had kids, it may have been a planned decision. When your kids have kids, it’s their decision, not yours. Whether you are ready or not for this experience, you’re going to have it. I liken this to the movie Jurassic Park where the dinosaurs escape and Jeff Goldblum’s character says, “Nature finds a way.” My advice is to fully embrace your newfound lack of control and enjoy it. You’ve earned the ability to let go of the reins. Enjoy it.
- Babyrunning is the new babysitting. In the old days, there was a lot more sitting around with the little ones, watching them play. You and your grandkids will have much more fun together if you’re both running around the playground together.
- Helping out is an extension of your career. My wife and I are busy with full-time jobs but, when one of our kids has a problem with daycare, we pack up our laptops and go to the rescue. I tell clients I’m in a meeting. I just don’t mention that it’s a meeting with my grandchildren. It’s the best job I ever had.
- Climb mountains now. Some time ago, I was talking to my friend Tony, who has several grandkids. I said to Tony, “My goal is to hike mountains with my great-grandchildren.” Tony replied (in this thick Greek accent), “What mountains are you climbing now?” I stammered an excuse for not climbing due to a sore tendon in my foot. Tony said, “Then you’re not going to make it!” Not long after that I forked over an exorbitant amount of money to buy custom hiking boots and got back on the trails as soon as possible.
- Create experiences that will shape who your grandkids will become. When my two kids were 10 and 12, my dad — an MIT-trained chemical engineer — decided to have a fun and educational activity with them. My mom had killed two mice and was going to toss their furry corpses into the woods. Dad retrieved the mice in the nick of time and stapled them onto a board, arms and legs splayed out. He brought my kids outside to the board and asked them, “How did the mice die?” They didn’t know, of course. Dad handed them each a scalpel and instructed them on how to do an autopsy. My kids, giggling and just a little weirded out, went to work. They soon cut open the mouse stomachs to discover they were full of poison. Case solved. My daughter credits this experience as inspiration for pursuing her Masters in Science degree, and today she’s a speech pathologist helping special needs children.
- Be there. When my daughter was pregnant, I asked my 96-year-old great aunt Louise if she had any advice for me. She looked thoughtful for a moment, held up one finger as if pointing to the seagulls then flying overhead as we sat together by the shores of Willoughby Lake. She said, “Be there for them.” This is the best advice I’ve ever heard in my entire life. I do everything I can to spend time with my grandkids, trying (and failing) to assemble complicated Lego structures, playing games, reading, hiking. Or just hanging out. It’s great, and they love it, too.
There’s a lot more to learn, of course. But if you take these simple principles to heart, you’ll be on the right path. There’s one last bit of advice I almost forgot – a very important key difference between fatherhood and grandfatherhood: If you’re with a grandkid and you smell a poopy diaper, hand him or her to your child and say, “Here you go!” A lot of times this trick actually works. But not always.
Written by Ted Page of Good Grandpa.