What Happens When Parents Have No Parents?

By Cathy Alter

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

Parentless Parents Cover_carousel.jpg

Hyperion

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.

They were so beloved my baby brother once set off for their house, toddling down our sidewalk-less street wearing his footy pajamas and sucking on a pacifier. Neighbors recognized him as he was about to cross a major intersection and drove him back to our house. "I wanted to see grandma and poppy," he explained.

My grandparents didn't change diapers (I wouldn't look to my own parents to help with this) or get on the floor and play board games (I'm convinced my mother stacked the deck in Candy Land so she'd be put out of her misery within a few rounds), but they did offer me rare and propriety glimpses into their daughter's precious girlhood. Like me, my mother was an early reader, preferred to wear her hair in two braids, and, just like me, took up the bongos.

Gilbert writes, "Parentless parents could read every book and article ever written about parenting, and not one sentence would answer the question we really want to know: 'Was I like that, too?'"

It's hard not to think about all this as Father's day approaches, to not only deeply long for more years with my own father, but to think about my husband Karl, who is soon to become a father despite not having a relationship with his own. This, according to Gilbert, creates a specific loss for a man. She interviewed Dr. Brad Sachs, a psychologist and founder of the Father Center, who says, "What he'll miss is that sense of continuity, his desire to proudly show off this new generation to his father, and to earn his father's blessing."

This puts a lot of burden on Karl's mother, who likely soon will be the only grandparent I'll have to offer my son. I don't know if I'll have trouble letting her fill that role. My mother, I will think, had a more welcoming lap; my father knew more knock-knock jokes.

Of course there are things I can do now, while my parents are still upright and breathing. I am a journalist, after all, and can gather from them my own personal history as well as memorialize their own narratives. It's the intangibles that refuse preservation. And I know I will one day find myself, as Gilbert did, in a closet, desperately trying to regain my father in the fibers of an old shirt.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2011/06/what-happens-when-parents-have-no-parents/240447/