“Do you have grandchildren?” This seems like a simple question and a fitting question for women and men of a certain age. However, for those who have grandparents on hold, this question may involve layers of pain, anxiety, and challenge. These feelings are all the more powerful for grandparents in the waiting room who themselves have experienced infertility years before, but they can overthrow anyone whose child has difficulty having a child.
I will start by defining ‘grandparents who wait’. I use this to refer to people – mostly in the 60s and 70s – who have adult children who are experiencing infertility or repeated pregnancy loss. Waiting grandparents are those who already have grandchildren of their other adult children, and waiting grandparents who do not have grandchildren. There are also grandparents waiting for the dual challenge, or mixed blessing, of having a grandchild en route by a daughter or son while another adult child struggles with infertility.
Feelings that can stand up for waiting grandparents
If you are a waiting grandparent, here are some of the feelings that you may experience or that you can anticipate.
Helplessness. There is a saying among parents: “You are only as happy as your least happy child.” Whether you have zero grandchildren or ten, it is painful to see that your child has trouble having a baby. You may be surprised that you deal with your helplessness and avoid lack of control by your friends. After all, many of them are grandparents, and when they are with them, you risk opening up to news about new pregnancies or talking about grandchildren.
Anger. By the time you turn 60 or 70, you have learned all too well that life is unfair. That said, it’s hard to get away from the feeling that it’s all so unfair. Pregnant women seem ubiquitous when your child wants to be pregnant. If you are a veteran of your own infertility, you will recognize the annoying and harsh feelings that may arise towards pregnant women. If you had your own child or children with ease, these feelings can be disturbing. Waiting grandparents should know that angry, resentment toward pregnancies – and even toward their friends’ grandchildren – does not mean that they become bad people.
Sadness. Allowing a child to experience infertility or cause pregnancy loss is a double sadness. You are sad for your child and you are sad for yourself, especially if you have no grandchildren. It’s hard not to look around and feel that grandparents are a lottery. Some people have one child and end with four grandchildren. Others have four children and only one grandchild who lives thousands of miles away.
Accepting the challenge as a waiting grandparent
Perhaps the biggest challenge for a grandparent on hold is to deal with your own feelings without making things harder for your child. Here are some guidelines for dealing with your daughter, daughter-in-law or son during infertility.
- Let them control communication. Some adult children want to share their infertility struggle with their parents; some not. If your child seeks privacy, respect that. Let them know that you are there when something changes and they want to talk.
If your child is open to you, talk to them about what helps and what doesn’t. For example, they would like to inform you about what is happening, but are upset if you give advice or try to ‘help’ more actively. An open discussion can help you avoid feeling like walking on eggs.
- Avoid accusations. Regret is often the most painful part of infertility. Bear in mind that your child can blame himself or herself for “waiting too long,” “having other priorities,” or perhaps choosing the “wrong” doctor. Be there to listen but do everything you can to prevent yourself from contributing to self-accusation.
- Communicate acceptance. As they struggle with infertility, people begin to think about other options such as adoption, egg donation and surrogacy. If your child begins to consider ‘option B’, he or she will be sensitive to your response. It will mean a lot to your child to know that you will welcome and adore a grandchild, regardless of how that child joins the family. That said, you must be careful not to accidentally communicate pessimism about current treatment. Your daughter or son may consider your embrace of adoption or egg donation as proof that you do not think their efforts will work alone or with IVF.
- Be the parent. Your daughter may be super successful in her career, but now she is your child and needs you. Whether she communicates it or not, it means that she knows she can lean on you. By being the parent and doing your best parenting behavior, you let her know that you are there for her and that you are happy to wait to be her child’s grandparent. She must feel that you are not suffering. Or perhaps better said, she needs to know that you can push your own pain aside, because your priority is to help reduce it.
It is not easy to be a waiting grandparent. Aging teaches us all that life is short. Waiting for a grandchild is all the more difficult if you feel that you are losing valuable time. There is no way to explain away the loss of time or to cover with sugar. Still, I hope you will be comforted to know that it is a gift and a blessing to be there for your child in this difficult time.