The Expectant Grandparent
When your child is expecting, it's hard not to be excited. And it doesn't matter whether this will be your first grandchild or your fourth. "Each one is one more chance to be involved in the future," says Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United. "And the time before they're born is a time to get ready to enjoy the experience."
Ms. Butts, who served on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' National Kinship Care Advisory Panel, says grandparents have a role to play in more than just the life of their grandchild. They also have a role in helping their own children be parents.
"There's a lot to do," she says. "Everything from shopping for baby clothes to preparing the room for after the baby arrives. If this isn't their first child, the expectant parents may need -- and appreciate -- a break from the other children. If it is the first child, they may want advice on things like planning finances. They may even want help choosing a place for the delivery."
But there is a caveat. "It's important," says Ms. Butts, "to be respectful and take the lead from the parents-to-be. The one thing you don't want to do is become overbearing. It's their turn to be parents," she says. "And not everyone wants or needs the same kind of help."
Michael Fleming, M.D., agrees. "Being sensitive to your children's needs is very important. Listening and letting them know you're available -- like you were when they were young -- is the best way to help." A family physician in Shreveport, La., and a past president of the American Academy of Family Physicians, Dr. Fleming proudly describes himself as a grandparent. "It's one of the best jobs in the world."
Dr. Fleming and Ms. Butts offer tips on what to do while you wait for your grandchild:
Share the enthusiasm. It's easy to undermine your child's excitement, Ms. Butts says, especially if this isn't your first grandchild. But your son or daughter wants you to be enthusiastic. There'll be plenty of time for your children to learn the downside of parenting. Don't focus on it now.
Become a good listener. Dr. Fleming says your children will appreciate being able to come to you when they need help. But they will do so only if they know you're paying attention. "I try to remember what I wanted from my own parents when my children were being born," he says. "And then I try to be that for them."
Keep in mind things may have changed. "You need to trust the medical care your child is getting," Ms. Butts says. "And you need to let them be the parents both before and after the birth." For instance, you may suggest painting the baby's room pink or blue. "But your daughter may want a gender-neutral color such as green or yellow. Remind yourself, it's her turn to make those choices."
Offer to help. You might watch the older children while their parents go to the doctor or birthing classes. If you live in another city, you might offer to have the older children visit so their parents can have time to get things done. Let the expectant parents know you're willing to help them find answers to questions they might have, or to run errands if they need you to.
Coordinate your efforts. It's possible to have too many people around at one time. If there's another set of grandparents, try to coordinate your visits so you don't overwhelm your children.
How you can be a good grandparent
Grandchildren need grandparents. "You can be a mentor. You can be a friend. You can be someone they confide in because grandparents tend to be less tough and more tolerant than parents," says Dr. Fleming.
But to do those things, you have to make the effort. Here are some pointers:
If you live close, work it out with your children to visit often or to have the grandchild come visit you.
As your grandchildren get older, share stories with them about what their parents were like.
Talk with grandchildren about your own parents and what it was like when you were growing up.
Share your hobbies. Let them help you in the kitchen or the garden.
If you live far away, write, make phone calls and send e-mails.
"We know from studies that when older people get involved with younger generations, the younger people aren't the only ones who benefit," says Ms. Butts. "You become more optimistic, and that has a direct bearing on how good you feel about your life."