These days, they are taking on more active roles.
There are some 70 million grandparents in the U.S. these days, according to the American Grandparents Association (AGA), and if you ask Karen O’Donnell, a grandmother to four girls, there are probably just as many grandparenting styles.
“I find that with each grandchild or with each set of grandchildren I play different roles,” said Ms. O’Donnell who lived in Dongan Hills for decades before moving to New Jersey. Some of her grandchildren are still on Staten Island.
According to grandparents on Staten Island or those who have ties to Staten Island, the “rules” of grandparenting can be tough to define because the same grandparent has different relationships with different grandchildren — based, in part, on life circumstances, but also on individual personalities, schedules, resources and proximity. It’s hard to make rules, but most grandparents say they respect boundaries set by their children, in terms of parenting.
Ms. O’Donnell, is a step-grandmother to two on Staten Island, ages 9 and 5. “I probably have a more formal grandparenting role with them. We (husband and herself) see them quite frequently and sometimes babysit,” she said. The girls live in Tompkinsville.
But it’s a different story with her other two — ages 21 and 11. Her 21-year-old granddaughter, formerly a professional child actor, “spent a lot of time with us when visiting” with her father in her younger years, said Ms. O’Donnell. Ms. O’Donnell said she was often involved in actual child care, though she never assumed the role of a surrogate.
Her 11-year-old granddaughter, is more typically grandparented. “Early on, I babysat a couple of days a week while they both worked,” she said of her granddaughter’s parents. “I have a combination of formal/fun seeker relationship with her since I will try to pick her up from school and hang out every week or two. I have her sleep over, and we do fun things like library trips and trips to the city and shopping. I am also her only grandmother.”
Ms. O’Donnell, a retired nurse and now a professional photographer, said she honors parental rules and guidelines when stepping in to help out.
“Like, my son and his wife didn’t want their daughter to have soda. So, I didn’t allow it either,” she said.
She has never been one to intrude in the lives of her children, she said, though she has made herself available to help when asked. “It is hard not to intervene or interfere when a grandchild is misbehaving or having trouble or is sad and sick, but you have to hold your tongue.”
She says she’s benefited from the big age range among her granddaughters. “I have learned along the way,” she admitted.
Alex Flint of New Springville has six grandchildren — five girls and one boy — which followed the same sequence as his own children, with the boy being the youngest.
Flint, who taught physical education for years at Susan Wagner High School, started planning his life out about five years before retiring. “I intended to relocate to two places I loved dearly — Salida, Colorado in the heart of the Rockies for the summer months, and a beach in Florida,” he said.
Then, his first granddaughter was born — and his vision of retirement went out the window. “I remained on Staten Island for the next two decades before I became that snowbird I planned so many years earlier,” he said.
Family is important to Flint and up until recently, when he finally embraced the snowbird lifestyle, he was with his children and grandchildren on a regular basis — providing child care on occasion, but mostly enjoying birthdays, holidays and other special events with them.
“I have never intruded into my children’s lives,” he said, noting that child care decisions are theirs and theirs alone. “Actually, I am fortunate that they never gave me reason to intrude.”
According to principals of two Catholic grade schools on Staten Island, grandparents are definitely stepping in to be more a part of their children’s and grandchildren’s lives. They both have noticed the change in recent years and say it’s cause for celebration.
Tara Hynes, the principal at Our Lady of Good Counsel in Tompkinsville, is deeply committed to the 322 students who are enrolled. But she is keenly aware of the contributions of another group at the other end of the age spectrum — the students’ grandparents.
“They are fully engrained in our school,” she said.
For years, the school has offered grandparents a chance to come and lunch with their grandchildren, but Ms. Hynes has recently noticed that this one midday meal has grown into something much bigger.
“I see that grandparents pick up kids after school because their parents need to work. They go to many of our sporting events. And there is a group of grandparents who work as volunteers in the library. They organize the books, read to younger children,” she said. “The kids love it.”
Ms. Hynes thinks grandparents expand the dimensions of a school or a family. “They can do fun things. They don’t need to be so much in charge of the day-to-day. They can be the fun person without any of the challenges,” she said.
Her colleague, Cathy Fallaballa at St. Christopher School in Grant City agrees. “Grandparents are very important to our children. They are very involved in our school,” she said noting that in addition to offering homework help, and rides to and from school, there is a more organized group that volunteers for lunch duty. All are celebrated at an annual luncheon dubbed Grandparents/Special Person Day.
“They assist in keeping the family together,” she said. “I didn’t have this growing up. It’s a wonderful thing.”
According to a poll taken by the AAG, grandparents are happy to be pitching in more. Seventy-two percent say being a grandparent has been the single most important and satisfying thing in their lives. But every family has different dynamics, say those on the front-lines.
“Grandparenting style changes from grandchild to grandchild sometimes, and from circumstance to circumstance. A lot is determined by the relationship with your children as well,” said Ms. O’Donnell. “If your child is dependent on you, then often you have more involvement with their children. Also, I do strongly believe that mothers of daughters get to take a more surrogate role with grandchildren than mothers of sons, especially when the daughter-in-law has a very involved mother.”
For Flint, who now lives in Florida from November to May, the hardest part of being a grandparent is “not seeing the children enough. The best part is having a child to enjoy, “but when the mood changes and the fun begins to ebb, the parents are able to bail you out.”
Flint often travels with his children and grandchildren. Cruises are popular among them all, because they allow everyone to be together on an adventure, yet separate to pursue different interests.
It’s a symbiotic relationship, notes Ms. Fallaballa. “I only used to think of it from the grandparents’ point of view, but that has changed. What child doesn’t like to see a grandparent?”
Judging from kids’ reactions, she’s right.
“My grandparents are very important. They do a lot for me. When my mom needs a break, they watch us on the weekends,” said 10-year-old Evangeline, a resident of Dongan Hills. She said she loves to play Bingo with them. “We do it the Spanish way, speaking in Spanish.”
Katelyn, a new sixth-grader at Egbert Intermediate School in Midland Beach talks about her grandfather, a Travis resident, repeatedly. When she was younger she said he used to play tricks on her, like saying there was an elephant in the back yard and then hiding her plate of food when she ran outside to look. “I always fell for it,” said Katelyn. “I like to joke around a lot.”
Gaetano, 11, a Bay Terrace resident, has one grandfather and a step-grandmother living in Italy, and one grandmother living in Brooklyn. He said that although he rarely sees his grandparents in Europe, it’s always a big deal when his mother’s mom comes to visit.
“Usually once a week on a Sunday, but also for special events like holidays and graduations,” he said. And when she comes for those special events, she stays for days and brings along other family members, like uncles, he said, so her presence in his life is always something he anticipates because it means a celebration is at hand.
By Marjorie Hack, a Staten Island writer.