Tagged Grandparents

The Year Grandparents Lost

Generation Grandparent

The Year Grandparents Lost

The enforced separations of the pandemic have brought a particular kind of mourning to many grandparents.

Kathy Koehler of Ann Arbor, Mich., relies on Skype calls to connect with her infant grandson, Elya, who lives in London. He was born at the start of the pandemic and they have not yet been able to meet in person.
Kathy Koehler of Ann Arbor, Mich., relies on Skype calls to connect with her infant grandson, Elya, who lives in London. He was born at the start of the pandemic and they have not yet been able to meet in person.Credit…Cydni Elledge for The New York Times

  • March 11, 2021, 4:03 p.m. ET

Kathy Koehler had made elaborate plans to meet her first grandchild. Her daughter, who was expecting a baby last March, lived in London, and Ms. Koehler intended to fly there from her home in Ann Arbor, Mich.

She had collected a small stash of blankets, toys and clothes to tuck into her suitcase, and reserved a bed-and-breakfast near her daughter’s flat for the month of April.

“I’d be there every day and help out and get to know this little guy,” said Ms. Koehler, who’s 63. “I could not wait.”

That trip never took place, of course. Nor did her daughter make a planned visit home in October to introduce her new son, Elya, to the rest of the family. Covid-19 intervened.

Crushed, Ms. Koehler hoped she could at least celebrate her grandson’s first birthday in person. Friends scoffed at her pessimism, assuring her that surely international travel would safely resume before then. But Elya turns 1 on March 13, and his maternal grandmother has yet to hold or kiss him.

“It feels like a double loss,” she said. “I’m losing time with this newborn that I’ll never get back. And I didn’t get to see my daughter and son-in-law fall in love with him and become parents. I felt so cheated.”

The enforced separations of the pandemic have caused widespread sorrow for grandparents. Whether they live an ocean apart or around the corner, many have had to cancel visits, forgo holiday gatherings and give up the ordinary pleasures of reading stories and playing games. Even though distancing protects grandparents’ physical health and safety, because elders are at higher risk, it has been a painful time.

And it’s not entirely behind us. The vaccine rollout may prompt a spate of joyful reunions in coming weeks; new guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that fully vaccinated grandparents can now safely visit with grandchildren.

But, in many states, older people are still scrambling for appointments and the C.D.C. has maintained its warnings against travel. Ms. Koehler, who doesn’t yet qualify for vaccination in Michigan, watched Elya’s birthday party via Zoom.

Long before the pandemic, researchers knew that social isolation afflicted many older adults. In widely cited studies, about a quarter reported feeling isolated and more than 40 percent felt lonely, states that can affect both psychological and physical health. For many people, the pandemic intensified that sense of disconnection.

The inability to spend time with grandchildren brings a particular kind of loss, however. Children change more quickly than our other relatives. As Ms. Koehler pointed out, missing time with babies means they have passed through phases and stages we will never witness, except on video screens. Grandparents were unable to attend many older kids’ milestones, too, over the last year — dance recitals, soccer games, graduations. Some special occasions did not take place at all.

Nor could they help their beleaguered children the way many wished to, as they faced uncommon economic and other pressures, often without child care or in-person school.

Ms. Koehler waves to her grandson on their daily call.Credit…Cydni Elledge for The New York Times
“He absolutely knows my face,” she said.Credit…Cydni Elledge for The New York Times

Kerry Byrne, founder of The Long Distance Grandparent, a business that helps build intergenerational connections, heard from distressed grandparents all year. After extended apartness, “they worry that the grandchildren won’t know you or you won’t know them,” she said. “They worry they won’t be able to maintain these bonds.”

Risa Nye, 69, a writer in Oakland, was able to see her four grandchildren in the Bay Area, though in some cases only outdoors. But what about the two in Syracuse, N.Y.?

Prepandemic, Ms. Nye and her husband would fly east or her daughter and family would come west several times a year. Sometimes they’d vacation together at the Jersey Shore or in Southern California near Disneyland.

Now, she wonders if Madeleine, 13, and Ezra, 7, will remember eating blue pancakes at the Rise N Shine Diner or seeing “Wonder Woman” together. “It’s been a year-plus,” Ms. Nye said. “The older one’s a teenager. I’m missing out.”

“This has been devastating,” agreed her daughter, Caitlin Nye, 43. Her parents hinted about visiting, and “it’s very hard to tell your mom, ‘There’s no logistical way to do this safely and without huge anxiety.’” But as a nurse educator hyper-aware of viral risks, that is what she told her mother.

Grandparent grief — a term used by Emma Payne, founder of a company called Grief Coach — involves another dimension: older people recognize that time with their families is growing limited. The average age for becoming a grandparent in the United States is 50, but many grandparents are older, or face health problems.

A year apart can feel more wrenching to a 75-year-old, for whom it represents a greater proportion of her remaining life span, than to her 35-year-old son or daughter.

In April, Marilee Reinertson Torres of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, met her  youngest grandchild through a hospital window.
In April, Marilee Reinertson Torres of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, met her  youngest grandchild through a hospital window. Credit…Marilee Torres

Marilee Reinertson Torres, 61, has five grandchildren within a half-hour drive of her home in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Last April, she greeted the youngest, Salma Elaine, from outside the window of the hospital where she’d just been born. Though Ms. Torres could see her grandchildren outdoors over the summer, and hold the newcomer, those visits stopped in the November cold.

Because she undergoes chemotherapy infusions and scans every three weeks for a recurrence of cervical cancer, Ms. Torres said she is more aware of mortality than other people. “I saw Salma when she was born. Can I see her go to school? I want to see what my 10-year-old is like as an adult.” She questions whether she will.

Experts in child development are reassuring on one score: Family bonds can weather this interruption.

“Grandparents shouldn’t worry that they won’t have important roles in their grandchildren’s lives going forward,” said Dr. Dimitri Christakis, who directs the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children’s Research Institute.

“Children are resilient and they’re highly adaptable,” he said. “If a child is being reintroduced to grandparents after a year apart, they will still have a very important place in that child’s life.”

Maintaining those connections, especially with children who didn’t know their grandparents well before Covid-19, does take effort, however.

Ms. Koehler has Skyped with Elya and his mother every day. “He absolutely knows my face,” she said. She and her husband show him their dog and cats and play where’s-your-nose together. “It feels like a real relationship is being formed,” said Ms. Koehler, who also Skypes with a second grandchild in Maine.

Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek, a psychologist at Temple University, Zooms nightly with her own young grandchildren. “If there are ways that allow you to see a face or hear a voice, that can be very powerful in maintaining relationships,” she said.

“A willingness to be silly and playful is important,” Ms. Byrne added. Oh, I know.

I haven’t been separated from my granddaughter, now 4; she and her parents and I have formed a pandemic pod. We mask and distance from everyone else, but not from one another.

Since I’m lucky enough to remain her child care provider one day a week, we don’t need to FaceTime often. But when we do, I pull out the hand puppets and have been known to get cheap laughs by bonking a pesky horse puppet on the head with a banana.

Vaccination is finally allowing some grandparents to resume spending time in person with their grandchildren.

But no matter how hard all parties have worked at staying in touch, many grandparents have suffered deeply this year. Resumed visits — the real kind, in person — cannot come too soon.

“Grief” isn’t too strong a word for those grandparents who have yearned all year for a small hand in theirs, for a hug without fear.

Connecting My Children to Their Heritage in Mandarin

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Connecting My Children to Their Heritage in Mandarin

Although my parents’ English is serviceable, it is only in Mandarin that they’re at ease, that they can inhabit their own skins.

Credit…Lucy Jones

  • Feb. 12, 2021, 5:00 a.m. ET

On Sunday afternoons, my grandfather would sit by my elbow while I gripped his prized calligraphy brush, tracing inky lines on tissue-thin paper. “Many Chinese consider calligraphy a high form of art,” my grandfather reminded me whenever my attention flagged or arm drooped.

I’d sigh in response — this weekly ritual just felt like more school.

Growing up as a child of first-generation Chinese immigrants, I was used to straddling two worlds — that of my parents and the country they emigrated from, and America, where the pressure to assimilate buffeted us constantly. The message was clear in the media and popular culture of the 1980s: It was better to speak English, exclusively and without an accent; to replace thermoses of dumplings with hamburgers. My father’s college classmate, also a Chinese immigrant, proudly boasted that his kids knew no Mandarin, a claim confirmed when his son butchered the pronunciation of his own name while my parents looked on with unconcealed horror.

My parents, instead, dug in their heels against this powerful wave that threatened to wash out the distinctive features of their past. I spoke no English until I started preschool, but in Mandarin — according to my grandmother — I was a sparkling conversationalist, a Dorothy Parker of the toddler set. The school administrators wrung their hands, worried that I’d fall behind, but my father shrugged, figuring (correctly) that I’d learn English quickly enough.

But as I grew older, Chinese lost ground, inch by incremental inch. And while I happily accepted the bills tucked in crimson envelopes that adults bestow on children for Lunar New Year and consumed my weight in mooncakes during the Moon Festival in autumn, I didn’t feel connected to the culture.

Before my children were born, I had already decided that I would teach them Mandarin, but I hadn’t spoken it with any consistency since I left home for college. At the time, mine was more a nebulous wish, a feeling that they ought to be able to speak the language of their grandparents, the first language their mother encountered.

It was awkward at first. I was a new mother, home alone for the first three months with my daughter — a wriggling, needy, nonverbal lump. Speaking to her in any language, much less a language in which I had not strung more than a few words together in over 15 years, seemed daunting.

Parenting books advised narrating your actions as a gentle entry into communication with your baby. Gamely, I started excavating long-buried words: “ball,” “eat,” “sleep,” “play.” Most words, however, lingered on the periphery, frustratingly out of reach.

As this exercise continued, the gaps in my Mandarin became more and more obvious. After a nap one morning, when my daughter was especially alert, wide eyes tracking my movements, I started a game with her. I gently tugged on her nose, pointed to her stomach, grabbed a foot — naming each body part after her answering giggle. When I got to her arm, the game stalled. What was the word for “arm?” I panicked. Had I already reached the boundaries of my knowledge?

Since those sleepless days, much of my Mandarin has come back to me — the long dormant part of my brain awakening and reforging connections to my earliest memories, when the lilt and rhythm of Mandarin dominated my conscious thoughts.

These days, the ready availability of Chinese language media, from books to television shows to music, is a much-needed boon to parents like me — second-generation immigrants, often with a tenuous grip on the language, who nevertheless want to pass it on to their children.

The first time I stepped into the local library in my Bay Area hometown, I was amazed to find a well-stocked Chinese section in the children’s wing. I emerged with an armful of books, their fanciful pages filled with half-remembered refrains, echoes from my childhood. Like the mischievous Monkey King, Sun Wu Kong, whose spirited high jinks seized my daughter’s imagination, or the tale of Chang E, the lady who lives on the moon, which prompted late night examinations of the moon’s pocked surface.

Learning Mandarin is more popular than ever. As a kid, my Saturday class was populated by students like me, with parents who spoke Mandarin exclusively at home. But the demographics of Mandarin learners today run the gamut from heritage speakers to those without a familial connection but with other motivations to learn (an affinity for the culture, an appreciation of Asia’s growing importance in the world’s economy).

In 2015, the Obama administration set up an initiative to increase fivefold the number of students learning Mandarin in five years. Today, more than 300 Mandarin immersion schools operate all over the United States. The language and customs I had hidden and compartmentalized, considering them “weird” as a child, have entered the mainstream.

But it’s an uphill slog. According to the Foreign Service Institute, Mandarin, a Category Four language, takes four times as many hours to master as languages like Spanish or Italian. And, as I can personally attest to, maintaining fluency is a lifelong commitment.

Still, when I see my youngest converse with his grandfather in rapid-fire Mandarin or when my daughter insists on fish for Lunar New Year (“fish” and “abundance” are homonyms in Mandarin — it’s somewhat of a sport among the Chinese to play with these happy coincidences), the time spent poring over books and taking them to activities feels well-spent. Although my parents’ English is serviceable, it is only in Mandarin that they’re at ease, that they can inhabit their own skins.

In Mandarin, I can almost see the people they were before they uprooted their lives in search of better opportunities in a foreign land. I think about how frightening it must have been, what an act of bravery it was, to raise their children in a language whose rhythms and meanings will always remain cryptic to them, to know that those children will forever be wai guo ren — “foreigners.”

For the Moon Festival performance at my youngest child’s preschool last fall, he recited Li Bai’s “Quiet Night Thoughts”— perhaps China’s most celebrated poem by its most famous poet. For generations of Chinese children, it’s the first piece of literature they memorize — trotted out for all occasions, but most often for the Moon Festival because of its four poignant lines, which describe how the glow of the full moon reminds the poet of his distant home.

Decades ago, my Chinese teacher explained to me how the steadfast moon connects all those who seek its light, no matter how far apart they are. So, too, does language, mediating culture and history and memory, connect future generations to past ones. Buried in Mandarin’s rounded vowels and tones, in the whimsical idioms that pepper our speech, in the Tang era poems every child knows, are irrevocable pieces of me, of my family.

Before my bed the bright moon’s glow

Seems like frost on the ground

Raising my head, I gaze at the moon

Lowering my head, I think of home

My son’s voice rang out with confidence and his chubby arms swept up to indicate the moon above. Joy and wonder alighted on my father’s face as he listened to the familiar verses tumble out of his grandson — verses that had been spoken by my father as a little boy in Taiwan, by my grandparents when they were students in China, and by countless boys and girls before that.


Connie Chang is a writer and mother of three in Silicon Valley.

At a Heavy Metal Concert, Balancing Independence With Boundaries

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At a Heavy Metal Concert, Balancing Independence With Boundaries

My mother, a freewheeling feminist, gave me freedom, while her mother gave me a nest of safety. Both shaped how I’m raising my own daughter.

Credit…Lucy Jones

  • Feb. 5, 2021, 5:00 a.m. ET

A cloud of marijuana smoke drifted by as my 13-year-old daughter asked, “Mom, can I walk around and meet people?” We were standing in an outdoor line for Warped Tour, a music festival with acts typically described as “pop punk” or “metalcore.” That is, hardcore heavy metal. Men in ghoulish masks playing electric guitars and growling lyrics about the devil.

It was 2018, long before the pandemic brought us the concept of social distance. Festivals like this one involved spending hours in extremely close range of other people’s breath and sweat as they screamed along with the bands. My daughter loved this music. I did not. I have no idea where she picked up a taste for it. All I knew was that she wouldn’t hold my hand anymore — she was too old for that, she said. She still had her blonde hair, but in a few months, she would dye it deep red and start adorning the corners of her eyes with eyeliner “wings.” She’s a smart kid — and even though she’s her own person, she’s also at the point in her development where it’s normal for her to “follow the crowd,” which scares me a little.

She asked me again if she could go explore. I said no. She asked me why, just as a car drove by with a shirtless woman hanging out of the sunroof screaming, “Unleash the beast!”

“I need to get inside and get my bearings before I feel safe enough for you to walk around on your own,” I told her.

“I know, but still!” she pleaded.

How many parents parent the way they were parented? Probably a fair number. Many of us also deliberately push back against what our parents did. I do both, perhaps because I was raised by two women — my mother and grandmother — who had very different parenting styles.

My mother, elated with the freedom of her fresh divorce, wanted to make me strong and independent, an adult before my time. Her mother, the martyr, shielded me from the world by giving me a nest of comfort and safety. Which parenting philosophy would inform how I raised my newly teenage daughter?

My own preteen years were intense. On my 10th birthday, my mother, whom I called “Mama,” gave me a private birthday celebration. She’d started her period at 10, so she expected mine any day. She told me that as soon as I started bleeding, I’d go on the pill. She’d had the traumatic experience of getting pregnant as a teenager, and then being whisked away by her mother to a town where no one knew them, giving birth and putting the baby up for adoption with Catholic charities. She’d insisted that the pill would give me freedom.

Not only was Mama my mother, she was also my best friend. I felt fortunate to be positioned as her confidante, even though that meant, according to her, that I was “too old” to hold her hand in public. In the months leading up to my 10th birthday, I heard all about her newfound dating life. This included a one-night stand with a 19-year-old bartender. Since she was 36 and he 19, she said, “we were both at our sexual primes.”

On my birthday, Mama served pink champagne and she-crabs — the egg-bearing females — and dared me to eat the roe. She played Helen Reddy’s “You and Me Against the World,” and when Helen sang “when one of us is gone / and one of us is left to carry on,” we cried in each other’s arms. I felt aching nausea at the fear of losing my mother; it started in my stomach and spread up across my chest.

When my period finally came, I was 13, but by then Mama no longer needed my friendship and confidences; she’d met the man who would become my stepfather. I became part of the wallpaper. Mama moved miles away to their new house. And I moved in with my grandmother and started drinking.

When Mama was 13, Grandma had left her with her mother for nearly a year so that she could try to find her husband who had run off with another woman.

By the time Grandma was 80, she was ready to make up for how she’d abandoned my mother, by providing the safest, warmest, most loving home possible for me. I hid my drinking as best I could, so I wouldn’t disappoint her. That limitation most likely saved my life, because I was, shall we say, wild.

Grandma doted on me. As soon as I got out of my bed, she’d make it. She woke up at 3 every morning to do my laundry, press my clothes for school, and make my meals. Living through the Depression made her a workhorse for ensuring everyone was properly clothed and fed. She was the opposite of my mother, who’d insisted that I cook for the family and do the dishes, but didn’t care if I made my bed or not. In return for everything she did for me, however, Grandma made sure I knew it: She’d show me the bones visible through the soles of her feet after she’d stood on them all day. I hated when she did that, almost as much as she hated it when I unmade my bed right after she made it, just to spite her.

By the time my daughter and I squeezed into the festival, pulsating with bass and throngs of leather- and spike-clad metal fans, my wild days were long gone. This was her heaven and my hell, but I was happy she had found something she felt passionate about. My wife and I have tried to bring our daughter up in such a way that she knows she is loved, and that we are happy when she is happy.

As we made our way toward our eventual meeting spot, I surveyed the landscape of the three stages and thought about what kind of parent I wanted to be. Should I nurture her independence to ensure she can survive this often-cruel world, or should I protect her for as long as I can to show her that I am always there? The truth is that although my mother was selfish and irresponsible, she cared that I would grow up to take care of myself, and I have. And although my grandmother martyred herself with her overabundance of attention and selflessness, she cared that I would be safe in the world, and I am. My parenting can be informed by both of my “mothers.” I can nurture my daughter’s independence and give her boundaries to make sure she is safe.

“Can I go now?” she asked impatiently.

I looked into her eyes. “Yes,” I replied. I’ll be right here.

I found the “parent tent,” also known as “reverse day care” — a cool, comfortable lounge perched atop a hill with a vantage point that allowed me to see all three of the stages, with the audience pumping heads and tattooed fists to the various screaming guitars. I was afraid. I wanted her to hold my hand. I wanted her to need me. But I reveled in her sense of freedom. The joy of her budding independence rippled through my heart and cracked it wide open. At one point, I caught a glimpse of her running through the crowd to make it to the next show. She was smiling and laughing. “There’s my daughter,” I told the mom next to me.

“They grow up so fast,” she said.

“I know,” I said. But still.

Susannah Bell is a teacher and writer who lives with her wife and teenage daughter in the San Francisco Bay Area.

An Invisible Cost of College: Parental Guilt

An Invisible Cost of College: Parental Guilt

Is it any wonder that plenty of people are tempted to borrow a whole lot of money to send their kids to college?

Credit…Ana Galvañ
Ron Lieber

  • Feb. 3, 2021, 9:47 a.m. ET

Many of us put our heads in the sand when it comes to confronting the cost of college for our kids, and I’ve spent the last several years trying to figure out why.

Sorting it out is a personal finance challenge of the highest order, given that the retail price of a four-year degree from many selective, private institutions has sailed past the $300,000 mark. Even at some state schools, the bill for four years of tuition, room and board can run to more than $100,000. And while it is tempting to throw up our hands and bet on financial aid or free college for all by 2030, doing so (and saving nothing) would be pretty risky.

To get more clarity on what to pay and how, we need to focus more on the personal and less on the finance. These are our kids after all, so there will be feelings.

Last week, I wrote about fear. This week, I want to bring you back from the guilt trip you may be on, perhaps without even knowing it.

Many of us seem to go through life with little voices in our heads that repeat the following, softly or maybe emphatically: It is my solemn duty to make sure my offspring get to and through college, and I should pay for it, come what may.

So how can these feelings of obligation lead to guilt if we’re not careful? Let’s start with the government. If you apply for financial aid, you fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), and it spits out what is called an “Expected Family Contribution” — the amount of money the government has determined that a family should be able to pay toward the student’s bill.

Those words are hateful — the great expectations, the presumptuousness around family composition, the notion that this is a gift. Thankfully, they will go away in the 2022-23 school year, when the government will replace them with the less loaded phrase, “student aid index.”

Good riddance to all of it, though the federal dictate that families, not governments (as is the case in many other countries), should bear the costs of higher education will remain.

Next come the prices that schools quote to you — discounted, perhaps, but not enough to feel affordable. Yes, people with lower incomes who apply to extremely well-endowed schools may get generous aid packages, but most schools can’t offer grants to cover everything that families with below-average earnings might need.

Then, there is the upper middle class. Cue the small violins, sure, but many of these families are stretching to buy homes in the good public school districts and to pay for ongoing after-school enrichment and summer activities.

It may be hard to save much for college if you’re investing in offspring on an ongoing basis (and trying to mind your own retirement and perhaps your own remaining student loans, too). Then even some of the most generous colleges believe you should be able to pay $40,000 per year or more.

Sometimes our guilt comes from what we see and hear around us. Our friends and neighbors tick off lists of schools their kids are applying to, often with no mention of whether or how they can afford them. We can’t know what kind of debt they are taking on, whether there are wealthy grandparents in the background or what kinds of discounts they may have received.

But it’s hard not to feel inadequate when we learn that some of the schools they view as candidates are impossibly unaffordable for us. What must our own children think about that? It is probably best to address the question directly before they even wonder, perhaps before high school starts. This is especially true if you do not want to end up among the group of parents that, as Kevin Carey recently reported in The Upshot, now owes around $100 billion in outstanding federal Parent PLUS loans.

But there is more. We are, after all, the product of our own parents. And whatever they did for us, we may at least want to match for our kids. Whatever they did not or could not do for us, well, we may want to do a whole lot better.

Is it any wonder that plenty of people are still quite tempted to borrow a whole lot of money to send their kids to college?

Sure, we have trained for trade-offs. We made them, or not, when we purchased the first stroller; the first athletic gear; the first and third and fifth musical instrument. No matter what, our children probably found their passions and excelled where they were meant to.

But college may seem different. It is the launching pad for life. Here, trading off — or planning to — feels as if it will matter more than whether a child makes all state orchestra or the soccer travel team. And so we worry that if we can’t pay for what might be best for our child, we will be taking something away that will matter forever.

One way to begin your return from the guilt trip is to have an honest conversation with your own parents, if possible. There is no shame in telling them that you are scared and feel overwhelmed about what you’re up against when it comes to paying for college. It is possible that some of them may want to help.

Putting $100 per month into a 529 plan for their new grandbaby can add up to nearly $35,000 over 18 years if the investments grow at a 5 percent annual rate. The gift of child care matters, too: If grandparents can help, it may enable parents to save a bit more, or focus better on their jobs so that they may eventually step up to better-paying positions. It’s worth asking.

If the grandparents are gone or cannot help, we should have gentler conversations with ourselves. Our financial lives are quite different from what theirs were like.

Real wages, adjusted for inflation, haven’t gone up much in a generation unless you’re affluent. Unions have less power, and employers push white-collar workers out of companies much more frequently than they once did. And then there’s the unknown, long-term impact that the pandemic may have on many industries.

If you’re lucky enough to have and keep a job, the majority of your retirement savings will probably need to come out of your paycheck via your discipline and good investing luck, not a pension contribution from a benevolent employer.

This may sound like a laundry list of financial sadness, but it’s actually a script for a conversation with yourself. Given what you are up against, you are under no obligation to make the same financial decisions your parents did, or that your neighbors do, or that the statisticians behind some government formula think you must.

Every family has its own particular balance sheet and budget, and each one comes with a slightly different set of feelings. So there is no algorithm that can ingest variables and spit out a formula for wonder, hope and the perfect college sweatshirt. But if you can ask yourself, directly, why you’re feeling guilty about this, it’s a good first step toward answering in a way that could make you feel better.

This article is adapted from “The Price You Pay for College: An Entirely New Road Map for the Biggest Financial Decision Your Family Will Ever Make,” by Ron Lieber.

When Grandparents Want a Say in Naming Their Grandchildren

Generation Grandparent

When Grandparents Want a Say in Naming Their Grandchildren

The expectant parents spend weeks deciding on their new baby’s name. Then the grandparents weigh in.

Credit…Luke Wohlgemuth

  • Jan. 19, 2021, 5:00 a.m. ET

Rachel Templeton felt honored when her father-in-law invited her out to dinner on Long Island, just six weeks after the birth of her first child. Expecting a celebratory event, she dressed with care for what would be her first real postpartum outing.

The restaurant was lovely, but “the light banter quickly turned serious,” Ms. Templeton recalled. Her father-in-law announced that she and her husband should change the name they had carefully chosen for their son, Isaiah.

Growing up in Philadelphia, he explained, he had encountered anti-Semitic sneers and discrimination; now he feared that a biblical name would make his new grandson a target. To protect the child, the family should use his middle name instead.

Startled and hurt, Ms. Templeton coolly replied, “If I ever feel he’s being harmed by his name, I’ll consider it. But in exchange, I never want to hear about this again.” Isaiah is 9 now, and she and her father-in-law had not discussed the matter in all those years, until they told me the story.

But Ms. Templeton, 45, a radio reporter in San Juan, P.R., clearly hadn’t forgotten the conversation. And her father-in-law, who asked to remain anonymous, insisted, “I still agree with my original premise,” reasoning that “there was a lot of anti-Semitism when I grew up and there’s a lot now.”

Other parents remember tangling with grandparents over baby names, too. An accountant in suburban Phoenix, a newlywed when she met her husband’s maternal grandmother, warmed to her instantly and vowed to name her first daughter in the grandmother’s honor: Colleen. “We didn’t think there would be any drama,” she said.

Wrong. Her in-laws had divorced years before her marriage, and her father-in-law was upset that they wanted to name the baby after his ex-wife’s side of the family.

The new parents felt whipsawed, wanting to keep everyone happy while also defending their independence. “Telling someone what you can or can’t name your child is so controlling,” the accountant said. She told her husband, “I didn’t marry your dad.” After considerable back and forth, they went with Colleen.

What’s in a name? Maybe more than we think or anticipate when our expectant children are kicking around the possibilities.

“Names are all about identity,” said Pamela Redmond, chief executive of the giant Nameberry baby-naming site and co-author of 10 books on baby names. “The name the parents choose is central to who the child is and will be, and grandparents feel very invested in that.”

Maybe we grandparents want a family name carried on, or one that reflects our religious or ethnic identity. If our children have other ideas — these days, they often do — “the link to their ancestry is broken,” Ms. Redmond pointed out.

Plus, we have our own notions of appropriateness and a probably misguided sense that our grandchildren’s names reflect on us. So when our children creatively come up with Nevaeh (it’s “heaven,” backward) or use the city where the baby was conceived (like Nashua), we bridle.

“If you’re the conservative who named your kids Tom and Emily, and they’re naming their daughter Miles and their son Freedom, it’s like showing up at the country club with blue hair and tattoos,” Ms. Redmond said.

Being different is often the point, though. Young parents face a vastly wider assortment of choices than older generations ever considered. New parents may gravitate toward gender-neutral names, for instance. Older generations’ notions about playground taunts have become outdated when kids have such diverse names that a plain vanilla Linda or a mundane Mike may yearn for something more distinctive.

But that doesn’t prevent some grandparents from wading into the fray. Sometimes, since more spouses now keep their own names when they marry, differences arise not over the newcomer’s first name but the surname.

A personal example: My then-husband and I gave our daughter my last name, with his as a middle name. It caused no discernible problems.

My feminist hopes for a matrilineal naming tradition lasted one generation; my daughter’s daughter has her father’s last name, with her mother’s in the middle. I felt mildly disappointed, but not argumentative.

On the other hand, Mary Lou Ciolfi got an earful from her mother about her children’s last names. Ms. Ciolfi kept her name when she married in 1984, and she and her husband reflexively gave their son his father’s last name. Four years later, pregnant with a daughter, Ms. Ciolfi thought, “Why should he get all the names?” Her whole family is Italian and “very ethnic in our traditions.”

When she told her mother that her daughter would have her last name, “she was annoyed and angry with me and tried to talk me out of it,” said Ms. Ciolfi, 60, who teaches public health at the University of New England. “She said silly things like, my children wouldn’t know they were siblings. I was just rolling my eyes.”

As it happens, Ms. Ciolfi’s two sons (surnamed Vorhees) and her daughter (named Ciolfi) know perfectly well that they’re siblings. As for her late mother, “she was totally in love with all her grandchildren and moved past it.”

That tends to happen, said Sally Tannen, who has directed parenting workshops at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan for nearly 20 years, and grandparenting workshops for four.

The discussions can get intense, said Ms. Tannen, whose youngest grandchildren are twins named Cedar and Shepard. “This is the first stage in grandparents’ realizing that this is not their kid and they don’t have control,” she continued. “They have to step back, and some are good at that and some are terrible.”

Sometimes, parents find face-saving solutions, like giving children middle names they will never use to placate one grandparent or another.

But clashes over names can backfire, Ms. Tannen pointed out, if they make new parents angry enough to withdraw. Parents serve as the gatekeepers to their children and, as I learned from my conversations, they remember feeling pummeled, even decades later.

Fortunately, as Ms. Ciolfi discovered, these conflicts tend to fade after the grandchildren actually arrive. “As soon as you’re pregnant, everyone has an opinion” about names, Ms. Tannen has observed. “Once there’s a baby, it would be pretty silly to hold onto that.”

Even Ellen Robin, a math teacher in Sebastopol, Calif., and her late father-in-law got past their antagonism.

She still keeps a file of enraged letters he sent after she and her husband somewhat impulsively decided to call their new son Ivan. “He completely flipped out over naming our child after ‘the worst anti-Semite ever,’” she recalled 36 years later, referring to the terrorizing Russian czar, Ivan the Terrible. “He said, ‘You have cursed this baby.’ He went completely berserk.” Her mother-in-law helpfully sent a list of names they deemed acceptable.

“I had never been bullied like that,” said Ms. Robin, 69. As a compromise, she and her husband renamed their son Jesse Ivan. But they always called him Ivan and, to her surprise, her in-laws soon did, too. “After a few months, it was as if nothing had happened,” she said. She and her three sons all developed warm relationships with her father-in-law.

Rachel Templeton’s two boys are also close to their paternal grandfather.

But she has noticed this: She and her husband initially nicknamed her elder son Zay, until he said that he preferred his proper name. Then, everyone knew him as Isaiah — except his grandfather who, in nine years, never used his grandson’s full name.

He will now, though. It’s taken a while but, he told me, “I’m happy to call him whatever he wants to be called.”