“Do you have grandchildren?” This seems like a simple question and one appropriate to ask women and men of a certain age. However, for those who are grandparents-in-waiting this question can bring layers of pain, fear, and challenge. These feelings are all the more powerful for grandparents-in-waiting who themselves experienced infertility years earlier, but they can wallop anyone whose child is struggling to have a child.
I’ll begin by defining “grandparents-in-waiting.” I use this to refer to people — usually in their 60s and 70s — who have adult children dealing with infertility or repeated pregnancy loss. Grandparents-in-waiting include those who already have grandchildren from their other adult children, and grandparents-in-waiting who have no grandchildren. There are also grandparents-in-waiting who face the dual challenge, or mixed blessing, of having a grandchild on the way through one daughter or son while another adult child grapples with infertility.
Feelings that may arise for grandparents-in-waiting
If you are a grandparent-in-waiting, here are a few of the feelings you might be experiencing or can anticipate.
Helplessness. There is a saying common among parents, “You are only as happy as your least happy child.” Whether one has zero grandchildren or 10, it is painful to see one’s child struggling to have a baby. You may be surprised to find yourself coping with your helplessness and lack of control by avoiding your friends. After all, many of them are grandparents, and being with them risks opening yourself up to news of new pregnancies or chatter about grandchildren.
Anger. By the time you reach your 60s or 70s, you’ve learned all too well that life is unfair. That said, it is hard to get away from the feeling that it is all so unfair. Pregnant women seem ubiquitous when your child is longing to be pregnant. If you are a veteran of your own infertility, you will recognize the nasty and harsh feelings that can arise toward pregnant women. If you had your own child or children with ease, these feelings can be unsettling. Grandparents-in-waiting need to know that angry, resentful feelings toward pregnancies — and even toward their friends’ grandchildren — don’t mean that they are turning into bad people.
Sadness. Having a child go through infertility, or suffer pregnancy loss, is a double sadness. You are sad for your child and you are sad for yourself, all the more so if you have no grandchildren. It is hard not to look around and feel that grandparenthood is a lottery. Some people have one child and wind up with four grandchildren. Others have four children and just one grandchild who lives thousands of miles away.
Rising to the challenge as a grandparent-in-waiting
Perhaps the biggest challenge for a grandparent-in-waiting is to deal with your own feelings without making things any more difficult for your child. Here are some guidelines for dealing with your daughter, daughter-in-law, or son during infertility.
- Let them control communication. Some adult children want to share their infertility struggles with their parents; some do not. If your child seeks privacy, respect that. Let them know that you are there if something changes and they want to talk.
If your child is open with you, talk with them about what helps and what does not. For example, they may want to fill you in on what is happening, but be upset if you offer advice or try to “help” more actively. An open discussion can help you avoid feeling like you are walking on eggshells.
- Avoid any hint of blame. Regret is often the most painful part of infertility. Be aware that your child may blame herself or himself for “waiting too long,” “having other priorities,” or perhaps choosing the “wrong” doctor. Be there to listen but do all you can to avoid contributing to self-blame.
- Communicate acceptance. While grappling with infertility, people begin to think about other options such as adoption, egg donation, and surrogacy. If your child is beginning to consider “option B,” she or he will be sensitive to your reaction. It will mean a lot to your child to know that you will welcome and adore a grandchild regardless of how that child joins the family. That said, you need to be careful not to inadvertently communicate pessimism regarding current treatment. Your daughter or son could perceive your embrace of adoption or egg donation as evidence that you don’t think that their efforts on their own, or with IVF, will work.
- Be the parent. Your daughter may be super successful in her career, but right now she is your child and she needs you. Whether she communicates it or not, it means the world to her to know she can lean on you. By being the parent and doing your best parenting thing, you will let her know that you are there for her and that you are okay with your wait to be her child’s grandparent. She needs to feel that you are not suffering. Or perhaps more accurately, she needs to know that you can push your own pain firmly aside because your priority is to help diminish hers.
It is not easy to be a grandparent-in-waiting. Aging teaches all of us that life is short. Your wait for a grandchild is all the more difficult when you feel that you are losing precious time. There is no way to explain away or sugar-coat the loss of time. Still, I hope you are comforted to know that being able to be there for your child at this difficult time is a gift and a blessing.