Older parents face 'grandparent deficit'

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Story highlights

  • "Grandparent deficit" refers to kids growing up without active grandparents in their lives
  • As more people have children later in life, more kids may grow up without grandparents

This story was originally published on CNN.com in 2015.

(CNN)When I do the math, one particular consequence of having children later in life hits me squarely in the face.

I had my first daughter at 39. If she has kids when she's older like I did -- let's say she gives birth the same age I was -- I will be a whopping 78 when I become a grandmother. 78!
Will I be able to be the Nana I hope to be, have close relationships with my grandchildren and watch them so my daughters can devote more time to their careers, or will my girls need to be taking care of me in addition to their own children?
It is a concept that women and men have been debating online since Susanna Schrobsdorff, an assistant managing editor for Time magazine, coined the phrase "grandparent deficit" in a provocative column last month that went viral.
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Schrobsdorff, a mother of two girls ages 13 and 18, said she thought about the impact not having grandparents would have on her children's lives when her mother died four years ago at age 73.
But the issue really got her attention when she watched her young niece during a visit to the assisted-living home where her father, 81, is suffering from dementia.
Women and men can't choose when they fall in love and plan every aspect of their lives, including when and how they will have children, said Schrobsdorff. But she said she and her sister -- and probably many other women and men -- also never really factored in the impact of grandparents primarily being people who need care as opposed to being caregivers themselves.
"We didn't think, 'Oh, I'll be running around taking my 6-year-old to play dates and meeting with my dad's hospice nurse simultaneously,' " she said.
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She thinks about the relationship her mom had with her daughters when she was alive, how she would read them poetry and get on the floor to build dollhouses with them.
That special bonding time plus the help her mom gave her when she needed a break from child care have led her to wonder in hindsight about her decision not to have children until four years after she was married.
"If somebody had said, 'OK, we'll give you those three or four years with your mom, an extra three or four years,' right now, I might take it," she said.

Editor: Don't discount having kids in your 20s

Schrobsdorff, who has carved out a successful career in the women's space, is as supportive of women's rights and choices as one can get, which is why she approached this topic cautiously.
The last thing she wants to do, she said, is create more anxiety for young women, especially after women have been bombarded with so many different -- and often conflicting -- messages. They've heard everything from "Princeton Mom" Susan Patton, who has said women should find their mates in college, to Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, who says women should lean in and give their careers a chance.
"I don't think there's any one answer for every woman," said Schrobsdorff.
"But it's another piece of the equation that maybe having kids when your parents are a little younger, you will get some help, and you'll be able to lean in more," she said. "I guess my message would be don't necessarily discount having kids in your 20s."
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Buzz Bishop, a father of two in Calgary, Alberta, and founder of the blog Dad Camp, said he sometimes laments how long it took him to "get things together" and settle down and have a family.
At 45, and with boys just ages 5 and 7, he will be 73 if his older son has a child at 35, 78 if he has a kid at 40. Those numbers take on added significance when he thinks about his relationship with his grandfather, who just turned 90 this year.
In a beautiful, must-read blog post, Bishop talks about the six things he learned from his grandfather, including the importance of "paying attention to the little guy," planning for the future, and sleeping naked and having a cookie before going to bed.
"If that's what it takes to get to 90, I'll do it," he writes.
But Bishop also learned another lesson from his tightly wound grandfather, which is to "chill out." He said you can't spend too much time worrying about what might have been or what will be.
"You need to appreciate the present and the family you have at this time in life," he said.

Finding a way with or without grandparents

Creating your own extended family or "intentional community," in the words of Avital Norman Nathman, host of the blog The Mamafesto, is another way to cope when blood grandparents are not in a child's life because of age or circumstance.
While her 8-year-old son is lucky to have both sets of grandparents, she and her husband set out to make sure their child's life is filled with a variety of people who love and care for him even if they're not related.
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"We only have one child, and when we made that decision, we also made the choice to actively create a community that mimicked a family," said Norman Nathman, editor of an anthology on motherhood called "The Good Mother Myth: Redefining Motherhood to Fit Reality."
"My son does have siblings, though not blood related, and by proxy, he has a host of 'aunts' and 'uncles' as well as special older friends."
Katia Bishops of the blog Iamthemilk immigrated to Canada eight years ago from Israel and raised her children, ages 2½ and 6, without the presence of grandparents until one of her kids' grandmothers moved to Canada a few months back.
Although Bishops said grandparents can provide an extra set of hands, support and even be a psychological crutch, not having them involved in the raising of kids can also be very liberating.
"Raising your children on your own allows you to examine the way you were raised and sift through the traditions you choose to embrace as opposed to allowing inertia to happen and defaulting to less welcome traditions and routines," she said.
Grandparents can also scrutinize and judge their children's parenting styles, which some parents may prefer to live without, but not Vincent O'Keefe, a writer and stay-at-home father of two currently working on a memoir on gender and parenting.
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He lost his mother-in-law, Josephine, in a tragic car accident 18 years ago, which means his girls, ages 12 and 14, never got to meet her.
"Especially as Mother's Day approaches, I cringe whenever fellow parents complain about how their parents or parents-in-law are not babysitting their children in the right ways," said O'Keefe, who taught at the University of Michigan.
"While I understand that kind of tension, we would love to have the luxury of complaining about Josephine's babysitting."
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"My own children do not have grandparents in their lives, and they feel the loss," said Janeane Davis, a mom of four and founder of Janeane's World.
"They notice the great times their friends have with grandparents and wish they had stories like that of their own."

A different kind of 'grandparent deficit'

Lori Day sees another "grandparent deficit" but not one resulting from grandparents passing away or requiring care from their children.
It is one borne out of a culture where 60 is viewed as the new 40, and grandmothers are "aghast at being seen as elderly and dieting to excess and having plastic surgery and so forth to try and look young," said Day, author of "Her Next Chapter," about mother-daughter book clubs.
What happens then is kids are "deprived of grandmothers (maybe increasingly grandfathers, too) who are comfortable in their own skin, aging gracefully and being a good role model to kids, showing that growing old is not the worst thing that can happen to a woman."
Day said she's thrilled to have grown up at a time when grandmothers were "a little chubby, had ample bosoms, smelled like Jergens lotion and were comfy to snuggle with."
Will she be that kind of grandmother? She hopes so but said no matter what, women need to support each other through the aging process and help each other "not just feel OK but good about being grandmas."

'Did my mother make you write this?'

As for Schrobsdorff, she continues to hear stories from people on both sides of the spectrum in response to her column.
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She has heard from parents who said they are so glad they had their children when they were young and others who said their children never got to know their parents or will only know them as this "frail person."
And then there are those women who were already getting messages from their parents to get moving and give them grandchildren and who ask Schrobsdorff, "Did my mother make you write this?"
What impact do you think a "grandparent deficit" can have on children and their parents? Share your thoughts with Kelly Wallace on Twitter @kellywallacetv.