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Parentless Parents

Number of Parents Without Parents on the Rise

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Parentless Parents addresses the issue of parents who raise their children without grandparents.

Parentless Parents addresses the issue of parents who raise their children without grandparents.

Photo © Hyperion Books
Every child should have grandparents, but as the average age of women giving birth increases, the likelihood of children growing up without grandparents increases. Lifespans are increasing, but not enough to compensate for later pregnancies. Many children are growing up without their full complement of grandparents, and many parents are raising their children without the help and support of their parents. Allison Gilbert is one of those individuals. She surveyed over a thousand other parents without parents before writing this book.

The "I" Factor

When Gilbert was pregnant with her second child, she had an abnormal ultrasound. Although her baby was born healthy, she developed the term the "I" factor to describe how she felt. In such situations, one's own parents are "Irreplaceable." No one else can comfort you quite like your own parents, and no one else knows your own medical and developmental history like they do. Also, no one else will be quite as impressed with your children's milestones. Sharing them with siblings and friends isn't the same because, too often, it feels like bragging.

Gilbert found research showing that grandparents play a huge role in the lives of young children. In one study, preschool children were shown pictures of everyday objects and asked to place them next to a picture of a mother, a father, a grandmother or a grandfather. The researchers found that the children associated objects with grandparents almost as often as they did with their parents. Also, the objects associated with grandparents were usually associated with joy, gratification and play. Other researchers have found that grandparents play important roles in three areas: culture, skill development and family history. It turns out that grandparents are "Irreplaceable" to children as well.

As Children Grow

One might expect that being parentless would become easier as time goes on. Gilbert says it's not necessarily so. For one thing, older children have more events for grandparents to attend, making their absence more painful. The Grandparents Day events that some schools hold are especially problematic. Gilbert reveals that some parents actually keep their children home from school on those days. The absence of grandparents is best understood as a three-fold loss, as one parentless parent explains. "There are three different losses. You're constantly thinking what it would be like if they were here--for them, for you, and for your children. You're missing out on it, your kids are missing out on it, and they're missing out on it, too."

Gilbert's children do have grandparents on their father's side, but Gilbert found that cause for pain rather than for celebration. If she turned to her mother-in-law, she felt disloyal to her own mother. "If I depended on her, it felt like I was taking away an experience that should have been my mother's," she writes. Relationships with in-laws, typically difficult, can become even more so when this type of resentment is factored in.

Creating a Connection

Parentless parents have developed some ingenious ways of making their dead parents alive to their children. Gilbert took her children on a "Grandma and Grandpa Tour" of New York City. Her father was a prominent architect and her mother a ground-breaking female entrepreneur, so there were many impressive sites associated with their lives. Gilbert uncovered many other ways of creating a connection between the generations even after death. Photographs, slide shows and scrapbooks can play important roles. Gilbert also suggests turning some of the grandparents' belongings into special quilts or jewelry. Preserving and preparing family recipes, guiding children toward charitable endeavors and having purposeful conversations about their grandparents are other ways of keeping the memory of grandparents alive.

Parents Without Parents Can Achieve Resolution

The first half of Gilbert's book resounds with her pain, but the book closes on a more positive note. Gilbert has learned a few significant lessons. Realizing that siblings experience loss differently, she no longer resents her brother for seeming to mourn less than she did. She has come to appreciate her stepmom, who has cultivated a close relationship with her children even though her husband, the children's biological grandfather, is dead. She's realized that she's a strong, independent woman who can cope without her parents. And she's realized that children are a blessing and should be appreciated without mourning what could have been.

Gilbert includes several valuable resources at the end of her book. One is a Memory Journal for Parentless Parents, a version of the grandparent journals that are filled out by many living grandparents. There's also a summary of the Parentless Parents survey conducted by Gilbert and a suggested reading list of books that deal with loss.

Maybe about now you're thinking: "I'm a grandparent, and I've still kicking. Why do I need to read this book?" It's possible that you know parents without parents and have never really contemplated how that changes their lives. In addition, reading this book can help grandparents appreciate the triple blessings of grandparenting. We can support our children and enrich the lives of our grandchildren. In the end, however, it's our lives that are made much richer through the joys of grandparenting.

Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.

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