By Faith Salie
March 30, 2018
IDEAS
Salie is the author of Approval Junkie.

It often happens during a class with one of my kids. We’re together, and I’m relishing “co-learning” with my 3- or 5-year-old. (Did you know the squares on a turtle’s shell are called scutes?) I look up and notice some other kid with an engaged, adoring caregiver — someone who’s significantly older even than I am, and I’m one of those geriatric wonders who didn’t give birth until her 40s. I realize that child is with his grandmother. And I feel sorry for my kids.

It happens, too, on the rare occasion when my husband and I are going out of town, sans our young children, and someone asks, “Who’s taking care of the kids?” My husband makes the obligatory, tired joke about how we’ll leave food and water for them and the dog. And then we answer, “Our nanny.” I love our nanny, but I hate that answer. Our nanny makes it sound like we are people who have a staff, rather than people who work and need childcare. Our nanny makes it sound like we blithely jet off, leaving hired help to raise our children. Our nanny reminds me that my kids don’t have grandparents who will take care of them for a few days. Or a day. Or an evening.

Those are the times when it hits me: grandparent envy.

Don’t get me wrong, our kids have grandparents. Grandparents who love them, in fact. My father and my husband’s mother are alive. My dad (their “Pooh,” as in “Winnie The…”) is in Florida, and we are in New York City. He sends Halloween/Hanukkah/Valentines/Easter cards to my Judeo-Christian kids and always answers when we call on FaceTime. He’s as generous as he can possibly be, which we do not take for granted. My mother-in-law lives on our island, but she works, and her commitments own virtually all her time. She occasionally takes our son to lunch. They eat pizza and watch Bugs Bunny on her phone. My boy and his grandma have decided that I deem the screen time and the donut that follow as great transgressions, so they — as grandkids and grandparents ought — giggle as they pull one over on me, their perceived common adversary.

But as we have children later and later, our parents age with us. Pooh has diabetes; Grandma has bad hips. They can’t run after the littles. Both in their 70s, they often announce they are “old.”

Would my mom have been old in her early 70s? I don’t think so. It’s hard to picture her senescence, since she died at 53, when I was 26. My mother envy lasted a long time. It still haunts me, but the aching pain of it, the hot irrational resentment I assigned to women who had moms to call or shop for wedding dresses or baby clothes with or simply mention in present tense — those feelings attenuated over time. You just… get used to the loss. So I was unprepared, having largely exorcised my mother envy, to be confronted with grandmother envy.

Becoming a mother made me experience the loss of my mother in a new way, on behalf of my kids and on behalf of her. I mourn for them — that they’ll never feel her fingers play with their hair or pull her homemade taffy across a kitchen through their little buttery fingers. They’ll never design a Halloween costume for her to sew or watch her beam and hear her exclaim, in her always-youthful voice, “My darlin’!” And I mourn for her — that she’ll never know their relentless exuberance or behold their “Shake It Naked” dances or feel my son’s kisses that smash your mouth like a lip mammogram or observe my daughter walk up to disheveled hipsters on the street and ask them in her tiny, concerned voice, “Are you homeless?”

Even if your parents are alive, even if they show up, grandparent envy may resonate with you. Like Tolstoy’s fungible happy families, all unimpeachable grandparents are reliably present and eagerly helpful. And like his unhappy families, the older folks who aren’t so available are ungrandparenty in their own ways. Serious and sad physical ailments render grandparents inaccessible. Others can’t afford to travel distances for visits.

Today’s older parents mean older grandparents. I willfully forget that my dad is technically an elderly man. When I recently watched him struggle, with dignity, to get down on the carpet to play with my daughter and miniature Belle, Gaston and Lumière, my heart hurt. But it’s not just the more aged seniors who may fall short of our grandparent fantasies. On the other end of the spectrum, the average age of the first-time grandparent in the U.S. is 52, according to a projection by American Demographics founder Peter Francese. (My daughter will be 9 when I’m 52 — I won’t have any tampons around to lend her.) Grandparents under 65 make up half of all grandparents , and a majority of them work. They have jobs and friends and yoga cruises and lives that do not revolve around their kids and grandkids, thank you very much.

If you’ve ever felt grandparent envy, then you know it can sneak up on you. It hits me at school pick-up, when I see my son’s classmate walk home from school holding his grandmother’s hand; when I see the Nanas and Poppys at my kids’ schoolmates’ birthday parties; when I see a tiny suitcase in a store that says, “Goin’ to Grandma’s!”; when a friend casually mentions how her father-in-law loves making grilled cheese for her daughter.

But grandparent envy fundamentally reveals more about us than it does about the particular grandparent cards our kids are dealt. It highlights what our dreams are for our children — the cliché that’s the truth: we always want the best for them, and that includes the Nan who knows her grandson’s favorite book and the Pop who teaches his granddaughter how to whistle.

And grandparent envy is also about what you want for you. By the time you have a kid, the days of showing report cards to your parents or trying to hit home runs while they watch are long over. Your babies become the most dramatic way for you, an adult child, to say to your parents, “Look what I did! Look what I made!” I’d give anything to hear my mom whisper to me, “My baby, you’re such a good mom.”

Some fundamental and ever-needy part of us recognizes our parents’ devotion to our kids as a demonstration of their love for us. And their willingness to care for and celebrate our children — their grandchildren — is a nod of approval, a way of saying every once in a while, “This parenting thing you’re doing is hard, and I’m proud of how you’ve raised these little people. I’d love to spend some time with them, probably feeding them crap, and giving you a break.” By embracing our children, our parents hold us, too, ever closer.

Here’s the rub: becoming a healthy adult child is an exercise in depending less on your parents, lowering your expectations of them, thanking them for what they did and forgiving them what they did and didn’t do. But it’s almost impossible not to have expectations of your parents when you make them grandparents, because everything you want of them, you now want in your kids’ name. In that way, becoming a parent can take you right back to being a child: please give me what I — and now we — need.

But just as we must allow our children to be their own people, so must we adjust our expectations of our folks when they become grands. Because grandparents are, well, just your parents… only older, more tired and calcified. There’s not much you can do about that. We learn to make the most of what we have.

And so the antidote to grandparent envy must be that panacea: gratitude.

Gratitude that you have parents who are alive.

Gratitude that you have children.

Gratitude that your parents got to hold your babies and your kids got to meet your parents.

That old Eastern European adage comes to mind, “The Bubbe who is rarely there to peel potatoes is better than the Bubbe who is always there to stir the pot.”

Actually, I just made that up, but it should be an old Eastern European saying.

Envy, if identified, spotlighted and contained, can remind us of what we do have. It can remind us that family can be whoever shows up, with enthusiasm and love.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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