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Off their rockers

What kind of grandparents are the Baby Boomers? Healthier, wealthier and a lot more active than the gray-haired grannies we're used to, a TCU sociologist says.

By Rick Waters '95

Jean Giles-Sims took the news that she was about to be a grandmother like most women -- a flood of excitement and questions rushed over her: the due date, the expected baby, the parents, the baby's sex.

Then came other concerns: the pregnancy, how prepared the parents were, financial resources, timing.

With all the attention directed elsewhere, it wasn't until later that she focused inward: How exactly do I feel about becoming a grandmother?

So Giles-Sims, a sociology researcher at TCU for 23 years and expert on family issues such as divorce, remarriage and aging, did what she always does -- she checked the research. Except there wasn't much. Even the pop psychology literature in the bookstore was slanted to "gray-haired grannies," not the woman she saw herself to be.

What about the Baby Boomers?, she thought. They grew up in a different world. How are they handling this new life phase? That question -- part budding research topic, part personal quest -- launched Giles-Sims into a series of interviews with grandmothers across the country.

One result is, a web site for grandmothers to submit stories, trade advice and find support. The conversations and research will also be worked into a book, Becoming "Grammy", due out next year.

The women Giles-Sims interviewed had a message: They've reached their 50s as empowered women, having juggled work, family and marriage while pioneering social change in the workplace, culture and the political arena. Remember creeping hemlines, bra burnings and women's lib? These are the women who started it, and Giles-Sims reports that most won't be found in rocking chairs and baking cookies when grandbabies arrive. Boomer grannies will definitely look at this new stage differently than their own grandmothers did.

Statistics show Giles-Sims has a large audience. A record 70 million Americans -- about one-third of all adults -- are grandparents, and the number is expected to be 80 million by the end of the decade, according to the American Association of Retired Persons. The average age of a first-time grandparent today is 47 -- the average life expectancy a century ago. Now, mature adults can expect to be grandparents for three decades. Maybe more.

In her book, Giles-Sims focuses on three developmental factors grandparents face -- identity, family connection and meaning questions.

Identity factors ask the practical questions: What are grandmas expected to do and be? What's their place in the family and how will they fit it all into everyone's busy lives?

"Boomer grandmothers are defining their own roles," she said. "These empowered women often must show support from a distance. They have the same amount of love as traditional grandmothers, but they show it differently. They may not bake cookies, but they may help with home work by e-mail." Their health, wealth, knowledge of technology and access to travel allow them to stay in touch and offer mentoring in ways past grandmothers did not.

"I have very fond memories of my grandmother," Giles-Sims said, "but a formality was there. Even though there was a lot of love, there was a distance. We really want to connect with grandchildren now. We really want to be with them."

Family dynamics is another major issue. Cooperation, conflict, negotiation and finding a place in the extended family can be potential trouble spots.

"When women become grandmothers, the parents basically decide what the grandmother gets to do." Giles-Sims calls it the "family jig," a jigsaw puzzle and dance at the same time. "There is a choreography that goes on, figuring out what the grandmother can do without undermining the parents, and figuring out what the grandmother wants to do -- if she is willing to do it."

Most grandmothers don't consider such scenarios when the big news arrives, Giles-Sims said, but they quickly learn that the mothers are the ones to decide.

"There is a process of working out problems that goes on," she said. "Many times the relationship between mother and daughter needs to be worked out before there can be a grandmother-mother relationship."

During her research interviews, Giles-Sims discovered that most grandmothers valued the meaning of one thing above all others -- making memories with their grandchildren.

"Many are awe-struck at this new child in their lives," she said. "It's not a decision they made. It happened to them. And now they want to make memories with them."

That's not surprising because memories are important to kids. "It tells them they are valuable and loved. It gives them a sense of history and their place in the world, and it is grandmothers who do that."

Giles-Sims relates firsthand how rewarding this can be. This summer, her 9-year-old granddaughter brought the first book she made -- lined pages included -- to her author-grandma for approval.

"She brought it over to me and asked, ÔHow do I get this published, Grammy?' It was something that I did, so she thought she could do it, too. Isn't that amazing?"

Spoken like a true grandmother.

Contact Giles-Sims at