I may talk like a grand dad, but I know I’m only a relief pitcher

by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Life section of the Annapolis Capital, Sunday September 13, 2015

Unabridged from my Bonus Years column in the Lifestyle section of The Sunday Capital, Annapolis, Maryland

For those in their bonus years, there is nothing new under the sun, right? All that’s left is coasting home, right?

No. Not even close.

Nearly every day brings something new as growing older brings many new experiences. Example: grandchildren.

Ever since we were told that we would be grandparents sometime around Thanksgiving, I have felt an unending sense of excitement and anticipation.

I have also been reading everything I can about how to be a good grandparent, how to be helpful and not overstep, how to be engaged and still understand this is not your child, how to be loved and still enforce the rules. There is so much to learn.

As I was searching for information, I discovered today is National Grandparents Day. I never knew we had such a day, but we do. It has existed since 1979, when President Jimmy Carter, Naval Academy alumnus, issued a proclamation designating the first Sunday after Labor Day as National Grandparents Day.

This special day was inspired by Marian Lucille Herndon McQuade, a West Virginia housewife who worked hard throughout the 1970s to educate Americans about the important contributions of grandparents — and those they could make if asked.

That’s where the rub comes in: “If asked …” How do you get your kids to ask you to do all the things you are willing to do?

Since Mary Sue and I are in our bonus years, we have the time and the craving to do a lot. Baby-sitting, house-sitting (with the little one present, of course), diaper-changing and bathing and, later on, story-telling, nature-walking, gardening, zoo-visiting — you name it, we’ll do it.

We make these offers with a smile in a low-key voice, but so far we have not received any marching orders. Still, we are patient, so we wait — nervously and with some apprehension, wondering when and if they will come.

In the meantime, we read all we can about how to be good grandparents. So much to read; so little time. And it’s not all positive.

For example, I’ve learned that becoming a grandparent at a young age can make you feel old prematurely. That’s not a problem we face since we cannot be described as young. But then I read that becoming a grandparent at an older age can increase your awareness of just how old you are getting — especially when you are expected to get down on creaky knees or tender knee replacements to play horsey or hide-and-seek.

There are other negatives to beware. One of my friends told me this past weekend that his grandmother was known by all her grandkids as “Sergeant Safety,” or “Sarge” for short.

“Of course,” he said, “we all called her ‘Grandma’ to her face, but when we played together in the basement or the backyard she was ‘Sarge’ because she was a stickler on safety. Some of her techniques were OK: She put plastic plugs in all the electrical outlets. She secured kitchen cabinets with child-proof latches. But she earned her name when, among other limits, she would not allow us to use water guns unless we promised to shoot only below the knees.” Sergeant Safety indeed.

We also talked to some experienced grandparents who warned us about the dangers of “competitive grandparenting.” That happens, we were told, when one set of grandparents tries to outdo the others. One takes grandson to the swimming pool. The other says, “How’d you like to go to Disney World?” One signs him up for a library card; the other gives him a Visa card.

In fact, Peter Francese, founder of American Demographics, estimates that grandparents, now 70 million strong, will spend over $50 billion on their grandkids this year, the bulk of it on school tuition and other education costs ($32 billion), but also on gifts like clothes ($11 billion) and toys ($6 billion).

Grandkids, I’ve learned, are also responsible for a new trend, especially as many young people marry later in life, producing older grandparents. Instead of reverse mortgages as we see advertised on TV, we are finding “reverse downsizing.”

Reverse downsizing happens when grandparents in their bonus years decide to move to a larger home or to a home with a neighborhood swimming pool or closer to amenities that will appeal to a grandchild. Others may rent a boat, a beach house or cabin in the woods as a magnet for extended visits by a grandchild.

All kinds of new social trends are developing as first-time grandparents are increasingly in their 60s and 70s rather than 40s and 50s, as in the past. In fact, more than 50 percent of all grandparents today are over age 65.

I know we are going to fall in love with our little granddaughter. We already have, even though she doesn’t know us yet. The real issue, we are learning, is how to manage this transition with our daughter and son-in-law. To prepare ourselves, we are developing our list of do’s and don’ts based on what we have learned from writers and other experienced grandparents. These include:

1. Accept your role. It will be defined by your kids and will most likely be akin to that of a “relief pitcher.” That means you’re on the bench until called up by your adult children, at which time you are expected to perform.

2. Zip your lips — especially your opinions about child rearing — unless directly solicited. Don’t say things like, “We never used baby slings.” Never ask questions like, “What’s wrong with a little chocolate?”

3. Abide by the rules of the parents. Treat them like the Ten Commandments.

4. Let go of your agenda. Go with the flow and roll with the punches — even if that means biting your lip or walking the dog.

And, finally, thank God for the blessing of this little child — and whenever she eats at grandma’s house, we’ll make sure she eats her vegetables (see Rule No. 3 above).

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