I often refer to my grandson as an ambulatory antidepressant, a vivacious antidote to a time of life that has included the loss of my parents and the constant lashing of worrisome news.
Anna Quindlen ascribes similar jolts of joy to her grandson in her latest book, Nanaville: Adventures in Grandparenting: "Sometimes Arthur sees me and yells 'Nana!' in the way some people might say 'ice cream!' and others say 'shoe sale!' No one else has sounded that happy to see me in many many years."
Reading this, I was prepared to send copies of Nanaville to every newly minted grandparent I know. I mean, who wouldn't want to be placed on a par with ice cream and shoe sales as a source of delight? But not so fast. Quindlen's book isn't all cuddles and nursery rhymes. It comes with a stern warning and veers toward the preachy: Grandparents, know thy place — you're not in charge anymore.
Quindlen has been channeling Baby Boomers' concerns, from motherhood and life-work balance to aging and downsizing, for decades. Beginning with her must-read New York Times columns "Life in the Thirties" and "Public and Private" and continuing through reflections on the satisfactions of her 50s, Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake (2012), her essays are sharp, eminently commonsensical and quotable. In my review of Candles (for NPR) I wrote, "Oh, how we can relate. Can't wait to read her on grandparenting when she gets there."
And now, here she is. Quindlen sets the tone with a winning comment on the general consensus that grandchildren are "the best": "There's a higher level of agreement about grandchildren than there is about the benefits of democracy, or chocolate." That juxtaposition of grandchildren, democracy, and chocolate is classic, bittersweet Quindlen.
But she pushes back against the idea that grandparenthood is the payoff for the thankless job of raising kids. "I really liked raising my own children, and my reward for that is them," she writes somewhat humorlessly. She expressed this more movingly in Candles, when she wrote of marveling at the results of all those years of the "scut work" of childcare: "It's as though we were working long repetitive shifts on an assembly line, and in the end we had the Sistine Chapel."
Of course what those who extol grandparenting as the payoff are really celebrating is being able to share in the fun and wonder without the long repetitive shifts or weight of direct responsibility — and on a full night's sleep, no less.
Quindlen acknowledges that "Most grandparents are tethered but not tied, connected but not compelled, except by choice." But with this greater freedom, she reminds readers repeatedly, comes a "peripheral place in the family dynamic" as "secondary characters, supporting actors" to the new parental leads. She writes:
"Where I once commanded, now I need to ask permission. Where I once led, I have to learn to follow. For years I had strong opinions for a living. Now I need to wait until I am asked for them, and modulate them most of the time."
For Quindlen, this apparently has been a difficult adjustment, and she reveals a surprising degree of insecurity in her new position. "Maybe this is why so much of being a grandparent feels like auditioning," she writes, adding, "There are really only two commandments in Nanaville: love the grandchildren, and hold your tongue."
Yet here she is, writing about this situation — with her son and daughter-in-law's blessing. While she's at it, she heaps effusive praise on them. I'm sure they're terrific, but in this context, her encomiums come across as uncomfortably ingratiating.
That said, Quindlen's wonder at seeing her eldest child grow into his new role is lovely and moving. She reflects, too, on having a half-Chinese grandchild, and the growing prevalence of multiracial and multiethnic births in the U.S. "Where I grew up, a mixed marriage was between a Catholic and a Lutheran who had, naturally, converted," she quips, in writing about her two daughters-in-law, one Chinese, the other part black.
Despite her uncertainties in her new role, Quindlen is an involved grandmother. "Arthur is not exactly my job but a good deal more than a hobby," she comments.
The best parts of Nanaville are the charming vignettes of Quindlen's solo time with her grandson — undercut somewhat by the pedantic "Lessons Learned" she appends to each new adventure in childcare. A particularly funny episode has her pulling an all-nighter after realizing that, according to current wisdom, she should have put baby Arthur on his back and not his stomach to sleep. She notes that by the time she had her third child, "Pragmatism was my middle name. If she'd wanted to sleep upside down like a bat, I would have put a bar on the ceiling above the crib. Whatever gets you through the night."
But Arthur is not her child. So in the interest of a silent night and doing the right thing, she watches over him as he sleeps for the next three hours, until his 5 a.m. feeding.
And that, in a nutshell, is grandparenting. I can relate.