Unlike the perennial best seller and pregnancy bible What to Expect When You're Expecting, which has provided guidelines for expectant parents for 25 years, there is no similar manual for grandparents. But we think the best advice comes from those in the trenches: expect the unexpected.
1. They might come along when you least expect it.
Andrea King Collier of Lansing, Michigan, received the shock of her life when her 20-year-old son announced that his girlfriend had just delivered a baby boy. "I was furious that he hadn't told us the baby was on the way. Then one of my mom's friends said, 'You had the best grandparents in the world, and I don't expect any less from you,'" Andrea says.
"There was nothing ever like the love I felt the first time I held Miles," she continues. "I even gave up traveling for business so I wouldn't miss seeing him smile, sit or walk for the first time." The Colliers keep their grandson every weekend and now, at age three, Miles views even the simplest excursion as an adventure. "His favorite activity is going to the grocery store to watch the live lobsters in the tank," Andrea says.
And the joy keeps coming: "Our daughter's first baby was born just two weeks after my husband lost his father. It was like sunshine in the midst of sadness."
2. They'll ask a lot of questions.
Even though she had always wanted to be a grandmother, Bonnie Mason of Salisbury, Massachusetts, didn't anticipate the total love and laughter her granddaughter brought into her life. What surprised her most were the deep questions Gianna asked: "Where is your daddy?" (meaning Bonnie's deceased husband) and "What happens when you die?"
"I had to think really hard about how to give her answers that were appropriate for a young child," she says. The hardest part of being a grandmother? "Learning not to give advice unless it's asked for, which it rarely is," Bonnie says. The best part: "The chance to be completely silly and act like a child again, especially when her mother goes out of town and leaves her with me."
3. You might become the primary caregiver.
Mary and Tom Miller* of Florida were relaxing at home on a Sunday afternoon 10 years ago when two policemen and a social worker holding their six-month-old grandson knocked on the door. "Either you take him, or we'll have to find a foster family," the social worker said. "His home environment is totally unsuitable for a baby."
The Millers were stunned. Although they had cared for their grandson on many occasions, their son and his girlfriend had a house full of pit bulls that terrified Mary, so they exchanged the baby at the car. Being full-time caregivers was supposed to be temporary, but four years later, the boy's parents hadn't gotten their act together. The Millers formally adopted him and have never looked back. "We're at the ages when most people retire. Instead, we're full-time parents again attending soccer games, parent-teacher meetings, and enjoying watching our (grand)son grow," Mary says.
*Not their actual names.
4. It's never too late to be a first-time grandparent.
Margie Goldsmith of New York City had never had children, but when she re-married at age 70, she became an instant grandmother to her husband's grandchildren: a newborn, a toddler, and four teenagers. "I had never even held a newborn and didn't expect the wonder and total love I felt," Margie says. "I was amazed at my grandson's 10 perfect fingers and toes and fuzzball hair-he completely stole my heart. My husband says the only duty grandparents have is to make being together fun, and we try our best."
She's also blown away with the 4-year-old's creativity. "He literally becomes Captain America, and when we bought him a full costume with built-in muscles, he threw his arms around me and said, 'Oh, my heart!' I just melted."
5. Grandparenting is not always sunshine and roses.
Suzanne Smith* of Tennessee had always been close to her son, who was a Marine, and his two children. But when he was tragically killed in Afghanistan, his wife packed up the kids, took them back to her hometown in Maine, and completely cut off Smith's access to them.
"I was very close to my own grandparents and never dreamed that I would have a strained relationship with my daughter-in-law," Suzanne says. "She doesn't want me around, and if I displease her, she retaliates by preventing me from talking to the kids."
It became so difficult that Suzanne threatened to take her daughter-in-law to court to get grandparent's rights. Even now, Suzanne has to wage war just to have a weekly conversation. "Their mother's only concession is letting them visit me for two weeks every summer which we all love, but the long separation is heartbreaking."
* Not her actual name.
6. But it can be even better than what you've heard.
"Whatever I thought having grandchildren would be like, it's 1,000 times better," says Janey Pillsbury of El Dorado, Arkansas. "I listened to my friends talk about their grandkids and swore I would not drag out pictures and bore everyone, but now I'm doing exactly the same thing."
Her grandchildren are seven months and 2 years old, and Pillsbury is thrilled when they hold out their arms to be picked up. "My hope is they love us as much as my kids love their grandparents, because that's how much we love them."
7. You may be a l-o-n-g distance grandparent.
Eileen and Mike Pink's daughter, Sara, first surprised them when she came home from a study-abroad year in Spain with her future husband. The second surprise was that she was moving permanently to Seville. "I was still teaching, so we could only see them during the summer months," Eileen says. "Luckily, they come back to Dallas once a year." On one memorable visit, Sara told them she was expecting.
"Even though we live 5,000 miles away, I'm not sure we 'grandparent' any differently than others who live a distance from their grandchildren," Eileen says. "We stay in touch frequently via email and Skype-sometimes at 5 a.m. due to the time change-and send them books in English that are difficult to find in Spain. The kids are bilingual and speak English at home, which eliminates the language barrier."
Recently retired, the Pinks have rented an apartment in Seville for three months this summer to test the waters for a permanent move. "It's still on the back burner," she says. "This elongated visit will help us decide."
8. You won't grandparent the way you parented.
Unlike the Pinks, Myron and Deborah Brown of Charlotte, North Carolina, live very close to their three grandchildren. "It's a real blessing because I never expected to feel such incredible love," Deborah says. "I'll even reschedule business meetings in favor of going to the kids' sports activities. My grandchildren take priority over everything."
When Angelina, their first granddaughter, was six or seven, she loved to spend the night. "We would kick Paw Paw out of the bedroom and sing songs, tell stories and go outside and look at the stars -things I would never have allowed my two girls to do," she says. "As far as I'm concerned, these children came straight from heaven just for me."
9. You may learn a few things about yourself.
First-time grandmother Amy Swanson lives in Atlanta, and her daughter and granddaughter in Charleston, South Carolina, a five-hour drive away. Compared to the Pink's 5,000-mile separation, it's like being next door, but Amy says she hated missing Emma's first smile, first laugh, and first steps. "There is a level of joyousness in being with this child I didn't expect," she says. "As a mother, I was just trying to survive each day. As a grandparent, I laugh the entire time I'm with her."
The birth of her granddaughter inspired Amy to reflect on bloodlines. "It's like all the secrets of the universe are poured into her," she says. "My husband's family is pure Swedish, I'm Scotch-Irish and Native American. A little part of all who came before her is in that one little body."
10. You may be a diva granny.
"I knew from the start that I wouldn't be one of those grandmothers who takes care of the grandbaby all the time," says Wylene Campbell Adwater of Atlanta. "When they were babies, I considered myself a 'Granny Diva' and didn't want my kids to get too comfortable with the idea that I was available to bear the responsibilities of doing their motherly chores."
But she also knew that she would love and spoil them-so much so that when they were young, she created a playroom complete with musical instruments, books, and toys. "They looked forward to visiting 'their room' at grandma's house but knew that nothing went home with them."
Now that all seven grandchildren are well out of diapers, Adwater asks to keep them. "We have granny chats where I share stories about their moms and dad and when they get in trouble with their parents, I beg for mercy for them. I also love bragging on them to anyone who will listen."
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