Lesley Stahl’s “Becoming Grandma” has an identity problem. There’s no doubt in my mind that the veteran journalist wrote this interesting and often lovely little book as a memoir lightly sprinkled with references to science and anecdotes related by “girlfriends and colleagues.” Unfortunately, somewhere along the way—most notably in the subtitle “Science of the New Grandparenting” and the chapter on Hope Meadows, “a planned community in Rantoul, Illinois, created for the sole purpose of rescuing children who were abused”—the project acquired a veneer of serious reporting.
Once that happened, even Stahl’s repeated concessions—like “my small sampling” and “my admittedly unscholarly survey”—as well as nods to “income inequality” can’t defend the book from the criticism that it draws sweeping generalizations from interviews with a narrow subset of humanity and two controversial sources (work on “innate” gender difference by Louann Brizendine, “whose books and conversations were central to [Stahl’s] education,” have been labeled “junk science” by some, and Wednesday Martin has been accused of blurring the lines between fact and fiction in her social scientific pursuits). Case in point: referencing tabloids and advice blogs works fine for a memoir, but not so well for serious nonfiction.
Accepting these caveats as table stakes and reading the book as primarily one of personal reflection, however, leaves much to enjoy. Stahl says of becoming a grandparent: “I was at a time in my life where I assumed I had already had my best day, my tallest high. But now I was overwhelmed with euphoria [similar to that generated by] … romantic and carnal love.”
She tells, with satisfying name-dropping and an almost unerring eye for relatability, tales of her own grandparenthood and the larger issues they implicate. Things like being part of the “sandwich generation” caring both for aging parents and new grandchildren, dealing with in-laws (“We find ourselves having to share the new center of our life with basically strangers”), and how perplexing her cohort of “have-it-all” women finds modern parents (noting “how much more engaged and eager-beaverly women today are about motherhood than I was”).
Stahl also speaks at length about grandparents like her feeling controlled and regulated:
We grans begin holding our tongues. We turn passive, lest we irk or antagonize. We see clearly that they hold a new card, the power to deny us access to the most precious thing on earth. So we enter a new precinct of best behavior and walking on eggshells. We live by their rules now, and rule number one is: Do it their way.
This can sometimes feel awfully crotchety, like when she writes, “Before I could hold Chloe, I had to sanitize my hands—on Taylor’s orders. I really do wonder how on earth my daughter survived all the germs I carried, the wine I drank when I was pregnant and the general carelessness I subjected her to.” That said, it’s often done in a self-aware way (“‘We’re becoming fussbudgets’”) and Stahl employs her formidable powers of perception to level with the reader: actually, she says, the younger generation doing anything differently “feels like a reprimand.”
Stahl tries to strike an objective tone when discussing issues of intergenerational strife:
I am issuing a call to arms to all grandparents: If you’re not already pitching in, start now; become actively engaged in your grandchildren’s lives…. I’m also calling on parents of young children who are denying or curtailing grandparent access: ease up (except in cases of egregious physical or mental abuse). It’s time to be forgiving. Swallow hard, if that’s what it takes, “for the sake of the children.”
Ultimately, though, the book is one written by a grandmother about grandparenting and as such it slants toward the older generation’s perspective. That said, it contains many reflections on life as a working mother that will make parents feel understood at the same time they’re being asked to stretch:
During the following summer in Nantucket, I grabbed any chance to be with [my granddaughter]. I would drop whatever I was doing, gladly. I’d give up a nap or stop reading the papers. I hadn’t been like that with [my daughter]. Back in those days I was never ever free just to simply, uncomplicatedly love my kid. Work intruded on her time, or she was intruding on my reading or my sleep. As a mother, I lived with teeth grinding and stomach turbulence from worrying about [her], my job, my husband’s depression, the bills, my parents, [her] piano lessons, my boss looking at me funny. My emotional neighborhood was an overcrowded tenement. I felt trapped; I was in a fight against an urge to unshackle.
Stahl waxes downright philosophic about how grandparenthood differs:
[We’re] playmates with our grandchildren versus the policewomen we were with our own kids…. [D]uring parenthood, [our feelings are] burdened with responsibility and fear, and lack of sleep. Grandparent love is unfettered, uncomplicated…. [W]ith grandchildren there is no weariness that competes with the elation and joy of being with them.
As a parent of three young children, I found these words reassuring. Maybe we don’t need to feel guilt about not slowing down to smell roses with our kids, maybe that’s just not our role right now. Along these lines Stahl offers up a fascinating thought: Because contentment bottoms out around our thirties and forties, she says, “[B]abies are being raised by people in the unhappiest phase of their lives. Which makes it all the more important that we happy, satisfied zikna step in.”
Though “Becoming Grandma” isn’t perfect—with the organization slipping and repetition in the back half—many grandparents, especially those of Stahl’s socioeconomic standing, will find much to love, and parents like me will find a number of true gems of expression and point of view.