When family size shrinks, it is one thing, but when it disappears altogether, it leaves many parents of grown offspring feeling incredibly sad because they will never have grandchildren. The reasons couples today are not starting families are all over the lot: They can’t have children, they don’t want children, they married too late to have children. The couple is gay. The daughter never married. The wife is infertile and in vitro didn’t take. They have horrendous student debt, they can only afford a tiny apartment, the job market is unstable, they are discouraged about the world. In addition, some young people have had serious medical issues and don’t want to risk a pregnancy, some are concerned about their family’s faulty gene pool, and others are nervous about or even anti adoption. Still others, very frankly, don’t want to give up their metropolitan/frequent flier lifestyle.
Attitudes are Changing
Perhaps the most important factor of all, though, is the changing attitude in our society toward not having a family. It’s now okay to say you’re enjoying your childless state, a sentiment that would not have been acceptable years ago. “In the past women had children because that was what was expected of them,” says natural health specialist Dr. Eva Detko. “Women today have more options and they don’t feel the same societal pressure to marry young and reproduce early and often.”
Hopeful grandparents cannot take heart from demographic projections, either. The Pew Research Center estimates that as many as a quarter of millennials may never have children. Stewart D. Friedman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business and author of Baby Bust: New Choices for Men and Women in Work and Family concurs. His research shows that in 1992, 78 per cent of graduating students from the U. of P. said they planned to have children. In 2012 only 42 per cent did – a decline of nearly half in just 20 years - and these figures were nearly identical for both sexes.
Parents left with a sadness
“Having grandchildren wasn’t so much an expectation as an assumption,” Bonnie K. told me. “But then life has turned out very differently for us Baby Boomers than for our parents, hasn’t it?” Don N. mused, “You’re meant to go through certain experiences at certain points. Without grandchildren, I feel I’m out of sync with life.” Other comments I heard were: “I can only describe it as an empty feeling,” “I was devastated,” and “I loved being a mother and I was so excited by the thought of becoming a grandmother. It’s the next step—but it doesn’t look like I’m going to be taking it.”
The parents I spoke with didn’t blame their adult children, whom they felt had the right not to reproduce if that’s what they wanted. Still . . .”I knew I was making my mother happy when I had a child,” said Dawn W. “It wouldn’t even enter my daughter’s mind to make us happy. I know she loves us, but she is fulfilled by having a dog.” For some people the sense of loss didn’t set in right away. Dinah P. confided, “I was so happy when my son found this wonderful woman that I didn’t care about the abstraction of babies. But now when I see other peoples’ adorable grandkids, I yearn for them. I also see how wonderful it would be to have another person who loves you beyond your husband and your friends.” It was not originally a sadness for Lisa M., either, who was so into her daughter that she never thought about having another child. “Now,” she says ruefully, “I would buy one if it meant I could have grandchildren.” Jerry Q. was blue about that the fact that, “This is the end of the line for my line.” Maureen G.’s biological clock had run out for herself, but she held out hope for her stepchildren. “At least your kids will have our grandkids,” she said to her second husband. But then they didn’t.
The parents I spoke with claimed their feeling of missing out on something special has been exacerbated by the insensitivity of others. New grandparents, apparently, are the worst, indulging in what has been termed “grandparent triumphalism.” This leaves non-grandparents feeling left out. “It’s like a sorority that I wasn’t asked to join,” said Linda C. “I stay away from them as much as I can.” Karen B. said of some professional grandparents, “They’re the ones who didn’t have much of a life before and this is their big moment.” By their over-the-top participation in—and recitation of—the younger family’s lives, these exuberant grandparents rub salt into the wound, feeding “grandchild envy.” As Kathy F. experienced it, “A member of our bridge group bragged so incessantly about her grandchildren that I finally couldn’t take it anymore. There’s a young girl I’m close to, so I began to brag about her just for something to say. I’m fighting back!”
In Part 2, we will explore the constructive ways other non-grandparents are “fighting back” to have enriching lives without grandchildren.
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