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Do You Have To Crawl On The Floor To Be A Good Grandparent?

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My partner, my four- and two-year-old kids and I spend a lot of time at the Jersey Shore, with my partner’s parents at their summer house. I love that the children get to visit with their grandparents, who, truth be told, when I was first pregnant, gave me concern about their desire for grandchildren.

My in-laws have really warmed to me over the years, but at first, they were, well, not super-warm. They’ve always been incredibly gracious, generous, and charming, but they’re not huggers. They’re not baby people. They don’t coo at infants, don’t want to hold them, don’t find drool and feces charming. So I worried about whether they’d be all that psyched to have grandkids running around, tearing up their beautiful, modern-beach-decor mansion, screwing up martini hour.

But my in-laws have really come around. Particularly since the children have passed the infancy stage and have personalities, Grandma and Granddad both have wonderful relationships with my daughter and son. But they’re still sort of old-school grandparents, of the “children should be seen and not heard” era. They’re incredibly welcoming and wonderful, but they’re not getting down on the floor and playing with the kids – and not just because my father-in-law has had his hip and knee replaced, and if he got down on the floor, wouldn’t be able to get back up.

One weekend over the summer, my in-laws had old friends visit for the weekend – another couple in their late 60s. This couple has a son but no grandchildren. My daughter, the four-year-old, is “socially brave” (so say her Montessori teachers), and none of us was surprised when she asked this couple to play with her at different times over the weekend: the woman, to color with her, the man, to play Family. Family is a game that the kids play with the little girl next door at home in Brooklyn, that’s as simple as it sounds: each participant takes on a role of a family member and they act out being in a family together.

Our daughter took the role of Daughter, gave our younger son the role of Son, and gave our family friend, a man, the role of Dad. She doesn’t have a dad, and whenever this comes up, it’s always interesting to hear how she is going to process the idea. This time, she would hand a “crying” doll baby to Dad and ask him to calm her down. My in-laws were laying low in the background, sort of giggling and listening to the scene, my father-in-law joking, “Aren’t you sad you don’t have grandchildren of your own?” The man was a great sport, playing along with my daughter, comforting the doll.

Later that night, my daughter lost a stuffed animal in the bushes in front of the house. My mother-in-law asked my father-in-law to get a flashlight so he could look for the bunny. FIL said he didn’t know where a flashlight was. MIL said, “Go look for the flashlight! You’re the real grandpa!”

I live in brownstone Brooklyn, a place where one of our defining identities is competitive parenting. That was the first moment that it occurred to me that grandparents might feel some peer pressure, too – that my mother-in-law might actually like to see her husband get down on the floor and play with the kids. He didn’t get the flashlight out that night, I found the bunny in the light of the next day, and the family friends departed the next morning. “Was it too many games of Family?” I asked, only half-kidding. They insisted they were in fact charmed by our children and enjoyed visiting with them.

I’ve accepted that my partner’s dad isn’t going to be a warm and fuzzy grandpa, and that he is trying, in his way, to get comfortable in the role of grandparent. We were down at his Shore house again later in the summer, for a week, and he came down two days earlier than expected. “I just missed the kids,” he said, obviously joking. But I believe there was a tiny bit of truth to it, that some part of him does enjoy having them around. A few hours later, he handed me my martini, and I forced a hug on the old guy. I swear he hugged back.

(Photo: Stephen Denness)