Getty / Will Mullery

This summer, my family has been spending a month at the beach. It’s been like a daydream come to life: bright days and languid evenings spent with family, including a sparkly 3-year-old and her serene new baby sister. My granddaughters. I started picturing—and pining for—this kind of family gathering, the three-generation kind that includes grandchildren, as my 60s loomed and my two daughters entered their 30s with no obvious plans for baby-making. I’d kept to a pretty brisk schedule when I became a mother; I had both of my girls before I turned 30. But now those girls, like so many other women their age, seemed to me to be acting as if they had all the time in the world to decide about kids. I didn’t think they had all the time in the world—and, more to the point, I knew that I didn’t. As my joints started creaking and my knees stiffened up, I started to worry that by the time grandbabies came along, I’d be too old to enjoy them.

I tried to keep my mouth shut about my eagerness for grandchildren. The subject did come up several times with my younger daughter, but that’s because we were writing a book together on the topic of 20-somethings and their life choices, which made the conversations seem impersonal and therefore relatively conflict-free. I learned the hard way not to raise the subject with my older daughter, after I asked, on the eve of her first marriage, “So, how do you think you two will decide about having kids?” She told me, in no uncertain terms, to back off. I’d thought it was an innocent question, that we were close enough to be able to discuss these things. But I learned that on this topic, there’s no such thing as an innocent question.  

The longing for grandchildren is something my friends and I talk about among ourselves, but we’re afraid to say anything to our kids for fear of angering or alienating them. Almost as worrisome is that in working so hard to hold our tongues, our silence could be misinterpreted as disinterest, or as unwillingness to be actively involved grandparents when the opportunity finally arrives. So is there any safe way for parents to raise the subject with their adult children?

Don’t even try it, the psychologist Karen Fingerman told me by email when I asked what advice she’d offer to would-be grandparents. You might introduce tension and even drive a wedge between you and your children, she wrote, which could have a direct effect on the quality of your relationship with the grandchildren you eventually have.

“Grandchildren are a ‘contingent’ relationship,” wrote Fingerman, who heads the Adult Family Project at the University of Texas at Austin, “contingent on a middle generation who is really the key to that tie. In general, in adult families, the generation that ‘owns’ the decision is the one that should be driving that decision. In some families, grown children may discuss this subject with their parents. But for many individuals, fertility is deeply private.”

Fertility can also be a topic tinged with grief, anxiety, and pain. If would-be grandparents are disappointed that the grandchildren they yearn for aren’t materializing on schedule, they should stop for a moment to consider the very real possibility that their children are disappointed, too, to see that their family-building isn’t shaping up quite the way they planned.

A recent survey of young adults commissioned by The New York Times in collaboration with the polling group Morning Consult found a fair amount of dashed expectations on the subject of childbearing. The National Center for Health Statistics had just reported that the nation’s fertility rate is at a record low, at 60.2 babies per 1,000 women of childbearing age. So the survey team wondered: Where have all the children gone?

They polled 1,858 men and women ages 20 to 45, half of whom were already parents. About one-quarter of the respondents said they were going to start having children, or had already started having them, later than they wanted to; a similar proportion expected to have fewer children in total than they’d originally hoped. Earlier this year, the Times conducted another survey, this time with the forecasting company Demographic Intelligence, that found something similar: that the gap between the number of children women said they wanted to have (2.7, on average) and the number they expected to have (1.8) was the largest it’s been in 40 years.

The main reasons for this lowering of expectations were financial. In the Morning Consult poll, respondents indicated that child care is too expensive (64 percent), that the economy is too uncertain (49 percent), or that they just, for unspecified reasons, think they “can't afford more children” (44 percent). Some respondents said they were having fewer children than they’d originally hoped because of what might be termed “quality-of-life” decisions: They found that they wanted to devote more time to the children they already had (54 percent), wanted more leisure time to themselves (42 percent), or were already struggling to find the right work-life balance (36 percent).

These surveys show that adult children have likely already given the question a lot of thought. If they have decided not to have kids, as 24 percent of the nonparents in the Morning Consult poll had, then having their parents ask about it just puts them on the defensive. If they haven’t decided yet, as was the case for 34 percent of the nonparents, asking about it just adds pressure they don’t need. And if they want children but have had to temper their expectations, either because of financial hardship or troubles conceiving, raising the topic could bring up painful feelings of disappointment and regret that they’d just as soon keep to themselves.

So is there anything parents can say to lighten their kids’ burden, or to make them think differently about having children? Is it better for parents and their adult children to talk about this subject, or better not to?

I posed these questions to The Atlantic’s family-centric Facebook group, Homebodies, and the consensus seemed to be that the best technique is to keep your mouth shut. As one group member, Suzanna Kruger of Seaside, Oregon, wrote, “That’s nobody’s business but the couple planning on having children or not. It demonstrates a SEVERE lack of boundaries for people to pressure their adult children to have grandchildren for them.” Kruger, a high-school biology teacher and single mother of two girls, ages 13 and 7, had a suggestion for the older generation: “If you want grandchildren, go volunteer in an elementary school classroom or become a lunch buddy at the middle school.”

Fingerman, too, mentioned volunteer opportunities as a way to create the grandparent-grandchild relationship older adults might be yearning for, without having to drag their kids into it. “The key,” she wrote, is for the parents “to own their feelings and find ways to deal with their desires,” such as by working at a local school or becoming a mentor through programs like Generation to Generation.

“No one but a couple knows what’s happening in their bedroom and in their doctor’s offices,” wrote another member of the Homebodies Facebook group, a young mother from Tel Aviv named Inbal. (She asked to be identified only by her first name; she says she still feels a lot of shame about her infertility.) “So often parents broach the subject and don’t think about the pain that the couple or their child might be experiencing because they’re trying [to have a baby] and it’s not working out.”

It’s to avoid this possibility that Maureen Kelly, the medical director of Society Hill Reproductive Medicine, in Philadelphia, told The New York Times last summer that no one should ask young people whether they plan to have children, when they want them, how many they’ll have, or anything else about baby-making. “This includes mothers, sisters, close friends, acquaintances and other family members,” Kelly said. “This is a highly personal topic and should be considered off limits unless someone brings it up.”

Still, silence can create its own problem. When Inbal and her partner went through the stress and grief of infertility, they did so without their parents’ knowledge, which they now realize would have been a comfort. “We had no idea,” wrote Inbal, now the mother of a toddler conceived through IVF, “how to ask for and get the support we needed from our parents, whom my partner and I are both very close to.”

Deborah Tannen has some ideas about how Inbal might have raised the subject. “For mothers and adult daughters, it might be helpful to realize that knowing what’s going on in somebody’s life, for most women, is treasured, and they feel hurt when they realize they had not been told something important,” says Tannen, a linguistics professor at Georgetown University. That makes it possible to raise a difficult topic like infertility with a simple statement: “I don’t want you to feel like I’m keeping anything from you.”

For men and women alike, conversations between intimates always take place on two levels, Tannen says: the message (the literal meaning of the words) and the meta-message (what it means about the relationship that you say these words, in this way, at this time).

“Criticism and caring often exist in the same words,” says Tannen, whose books include You’re Wearing That? Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation. “A mother might think she’s just offering advice or help, and a daughter might hear it as criticism.” And both would be right, she says. The mother is speaking out of love, but criticism is implicit too, since “someone doing nothing wrong does not need advice or help.”

Tannen said would-be grandparents can raise the subject of grandchildren cautiously, as long as they’re sensitive to the potential double-edged nature of the words being used. “Try to cut off at the pass the implication that you are disapproving or that you are making an indirect request,” she says. “Start with something positive: You have a great life and I’m full of admiration for the way you have organized it, or you have such a great career, or you keep such a beautiful house, or you have such excellent judgment— whatever you know your daughter takes pride in.”

But Tannen is cautious about offering a script, because “what is the right thing to say to one person could be the wrong thing to say to another.” She also thinks the odds are good that the adult children already know exactly how their parents feel about grandchildren. “I’ll bet anything that many adult children of parents who think they’ve never broached the topic will tell you that their parents have made their feelings clear.”

My daughters certainly would tell you I’d made mine clear, even though I worked hard not to dump my late-life baby lust into their laps. After that first misguided question to my older daughter, 10 years ago, I never asked either one a direct question about childbearing. But kids know their parents so well that it doesn’t take much for them to read our minds, even when we’re not literally saying anything. Texting a long-single daughter too quickly to see how a first date went, or looking around for a room that could work as a nursery in a just-married son’s new house, can speak volumes.

My younger daughter tolerated my unspoken questions, and I tried to focus on other things—my career, my husband, my mentorship of a teenage girl—as my internal grandma-clock ticked away, until my daughter found the right guy and the right moment in her own life to start a family. And today, as I watch my 3-year-old granddaughter cavorting with her parents in the gentle waves of the Delaware Bay while I sit on a sand chair with her three-month-old sister on my lap, I’m glad that I—mostly—held my tongue during the years I was so, so eager to get to this lovely, long-imagined place.

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