It's National Grandparents Day: Beloved Author and Grandmother Anna Quindlen Has the Family Advice We All Need to Hear. (And You'll Love What She Did to Impress Her Grandson.)
Impromptu headstands. Playing fort. Watching an infant sleep for three hours. Is this the adventures of a babysitter? Not quite: It’s a handful of the many moments legendary author Anna Quindlen chronicles in her 2019 book, Nanaville: Adventures in Grandparenting.
In this compilation of heartfelt essays Quindlen takes us through her life-changing journey of becoming a grandmother. As one may expect, joyful moments abound. Same for goofy and funny. But that is not all. Quindlen, who has a profound talent for capturing life’s realness—the great, the hard, the beautiful, the uncomfortable—offers an honest look at the trials of this often-misunderstood role of grandparenting, and the lessons she’s learned. “We grandparents are secondary characters, supporting actors,” she writes.
To honor this Grandparents Day, I recently called Quindlen, a grandmother to three, to chat about her learnings and wisdom. In true Quindlen fashion, her insight is truthful, hilarious, and refreshingly unexpected.
A CONVERSATION WITH ANNA QUINDLEN
You write that being a good grandparent is a complicated relationship because "it hinges on a series of other relationships.” It's an odd combination of being "very experienced and totally green,” you add. Will you reflect on this?
I wasn't familiar with this term at the time, but it’s called a mediated relationship, which means that someone else, in some essential way, holds the reins. [Grandparenting] puts you in a relationship with your child, whom you've been accustomed to having power over, in which they essentially have the power. To negotiate that successfully, you must be very respectful.
Some of the most troubling grandparent stories I’ve heard hinge on grandparents who thought they should be able to set the ground rules of the relationship. And that's just not the way it works. My grandchildren have wonderful parents who decide how they're going to eat and sleep and behave and where they're going to be at any given time. I must roll with that. If I don't roll with that, I could mess up not only my relationship with my grandchildren, but my relationship with my children. And I am not going to let that happen.
This speaks to your emphasis on knowing your “rightful place” as a grandparent. As a grandmother to three children now, can you say you are comfortable knowing your rightful place?
Yes, absolutely. I've gotten quite comfortable with the mediated relationship, and knowing when it's appropriate for me to ask, ‘Is this okay with you?’ to the parents. I think that's very, very important. I know from experience that when you're a new parent it can be challenging and sometimes frightening. Having someone Bigfoot you when you're working out that relationship is not only not useful, it's damaging. Of course, none of us want to damage our children, and trying to communicate to them that we know better than them can be damaging in that situation.
I like to think I was a good mother. I was very hands-on. I was the oldest of five, so I was familiar with dealing with infants and negotiating with little kids. At the same time, at some threshold level, I had no clue. None. So the idea that suddenly now I am the Delphic Oracle of parenting just because I'm a grandparent makes me laugh at myself. When I'm tempted to backstop my kids, it’s always useful to think about how clueless I was when they were little.
I laughed out loud from some of your stories in the book, especially your attempts to entertain your grandkids. At one point you confess you did a headstand for your grandson Arthur and he looked unpersuaded.
There are all kinds of things that I think will be amusing or enthralling where they sort of look at me like, Oh noooo, Nana. What are you doing?
You hoped that when Arthur was a teenager he would tell his friends about it…
Well, I'll tell you what I am excited for him to tell his friends about. I turned 70 in July. For years, I had been saying to the kids, 'if I get to be 70, I'm going to get a tattoo.' In the beginning, everybody laughed. Then after a while they realized I meant it. I had thought I was going to get this cartoon character that Christopher, my second child, has drawn for me many times over the years. But then about a year ago, Arthur did this hilarious drawing of this stick figure woman expressing chagrin. I said to Christopher, ‘Would you be upset if instead I got this picture Arthur drew?’ And he said, ‘No mom, it's perfect.’ So on my left hip, I have tattooed this picture that Arthur drew.
I must say, there's part of me that thinks of Arthur at 16 going ‘Dude, you're not going to believe my Nana has a picture I drew when I was five tattooed on her hip!'
He will, for sure. And Anna, for the grandparent out there who's overwhelmed by their role, what is a lesson that has always helped you navigate grandparenting?
It’s most important to listen to the parents of your grandchild. You've spent your whole life thinking of them as your kids. It's time for you to think of them as the mother and father of your grandchildren. That's a different role, which requires more listening than talking and a good deal of respect. They will make decisions for their children that you would not have made for yours, and you need to hold your fire on that.
The line that gets quoted back to me the most from the book came from my extraordinarily wise friend, Susan Parent—and yes, that is her last name—who said to me when I was nattering on about something I disagreed with, ‘Did they ask you?’ The moment that she said it, I realized those are Nana words to live by. Did they ask you?
The key to this mediated relationship is to tender the respect of understanding that they're the ones in charge. They're in the driver's seat. And if you're lucky, you're sitting in the second seat with the grandkids.
Anna Quindlen is a best-selling author and novelist. To learn more, and to order her book Nanaville, visit annaquindlen.net.