What Happens When Parents Have No Parents?

A look at the new book Parentless Parents, which explores the pain mothers and fathers feel raising their children after their own moms and dads have died

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I am 45 and pregnant—facts I never thought would exist in the same sentence. But thanks to a very good fertility specialist, nightly injections of a viscous concoction of hormones, and, what my doctor called a "juicy, grade A+ embryo," I have been staring at my growing belly with a mix of bug-eyed amazement and slack-jawed disbelief. This tentative astonishment only allows me to forecast out for the next few years and I've been imaging a future of endless diaper changes, a perpetual state of jet lag, and weighing the academic credentials of "Brainy Baby" versus "Baby Einstein."

What I haven't been able to imagine for my son and me is a future without grandparents. According to the latest government statistics, reports Allison Gilbert in her new book Parentless Parents, while fewer women are having babies, "mothers between forty and fifty-four are having more." As the average age of women giving birth increases, millions of children are at risk of having fewer years with their grandparents. "Unquestionably," she writes, "a revolution is happening in the way generations are connected in America." While grandparents are living longer, Gilbert continues, they're not living long enough. My grandmother watched me walk down the aisle. Should my son marry at 25, my mother, already infirm, would be 93, my father, 100.

Gilbert interviewed more than 1,300 parentless parents from across the US and a dozen counties to write her book, which explores the issues and challenges and heartbreaks facing new mothers and fathers whose parents are dead. Gilbert, a parentless parent herself, combines poignant interviews ("I definitely felt like I was operating without a safety net. Without my mom and dad, I found myself awash in doubt and anxiety," writes one respondent in Gilbert's survey. Writes another, "I'm envious of friends who have parents at every milestone and school play. These are my lowest times."), with her own personal story. Early in the book, Gilbert recounts the first Thanksgiving after the loss of her father that begins around the dinner table at her brother's house and ends with her, sobbing in his walk-in closet, inhaling her father's flannel shirt and questioning her inadequacies as a parent.

My father was a parentless parent. His father died when he was eight; his mother, my namesake, while he was in college. Whether it was some sort of generational stoicism or his desire not to revisit his past sadness upon his children, I knew next to nothing about my paternal grandparents other than what I gathered from the few photos I found tucked away in my father's dresser drawer.

My maternal grandparents, who lived less than a mile away, made up the difference. They sang my praises, acted as trusted allies, and provided an endless source of comfort whenever my parents just doled out punishment. My grandmother, a curious mix of benevolence and vanity, taught me the word cleavage when Barbra Streisand wore a particularly low-cut dress in a movie we were watching. My grandfather, an architect, would sit next to me on the couch and help me fine-tune my endless pencil drawings of Jim Morrison and Sting.

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Cathy Alter is a DC-based writer and author. Her articles, essays, and reviews have appeared in local and national newspapers and magazines including the Washington Post, Washingtonian, the Huffington Post, Self, and McSweeney'sMore

Cathy Alter is a DC-based writer and author. Her articles, essays, and reviews have appeared in local and national newspapers and magazines including the Washington Post, Washingtonian, the Huffington Post, Self, and McSweeney's. Her book, Virgin Territory: Stories from the Road to Womanhood (Crown) was released in 2004 and her memoir, Up for Renewal: What Magazines Taught Me About Love, Sex, and Starting Over (Atria) was released in July 2008 and is now available in paperback.

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