Parentless Parents: What's The Impact of the Grandparent Gap?

As a mom who lives in the same city as both of her parents and her mother-in-law, I didn’t think that Allison Gilbert’s new book Parentless Parents would mean that much to me. Boy was I wrong. Subtitled How the Loss of Our Mothers and Fathers Impacts the Way We Raise Our Children, it seamlessly combines compelling personal anecdotes (including the author’s) and groundbreaking research to examine how the lack of grandparents affects families.  

Gilbert—whose mother passed away before her children were born and whose father died when her first son was just 18-months-old—doesn’t wallow in the loss. She also offers creative ways parentless parents can bring their deceased moms and dads to life for grandchildren who will never meet them.

As much as my mom and dad annoy me at times, Parentless Parents gave me a newfound appreciation for their love, support, family history and continuity, and, of course, free babysitting. iVillage chatted with Gilbert about this very personal project.

What inspired you to write this book?
For decades, researchers have been studying the impact that grandparents have on grandkids, both cognitively and socially. As a parentless parent, it seemed to me that the void should have been studied, too, especially since families are choosing to have babies later and later, which means they’re risking having fewer years with grandparents.  I called every government agency and private think tank that studies families and asked what research they had on the absence of grandparents. There was none. My kids are 9 and 11, and I constantly wonder what kind of people they would be developing into if my parents were here.

Do you feel like families with grandparents don’t understand the challenges of parentless parents?
Yes. It’s not that I lack for support. My husband and in-laws are great. Plus there are tons of parenting magazines, books and blogs. But while we’re overflowing with information, it’s not specific to us and our families. There’s no one to ask, “What was I like as a kid?” We’re missing that unique blueprint for how we developed, when we walked or got our first teeth, and how our parents helped us through these milestones, which are hereditary. I stuttered as a child and so did my daughter, but I couldn’t ask my parents how they dealt with that. I had to make my own decisions. Also, we miss being able to share all of our kids’ firsts with our parents. There’s nothing that replicates that for parentless parents. My son’s starting middle school and I have all of these wonderful memories about when I did that but I can’t replay them with my mom and dad. My book normalizes these feelings that parentless parents don’t usually articulate.

Do you think moms and dads who’ve lost just one parent or are estranged from their parents have similar experiences?
People can feel loss for many reasons, whether it’s due to death or abandonment or disconnection. I do think there are parallels, especially for somebody who’s lost just one parent. It also depends on the gender of the parent you’ve lost. Study after study has shown that, typically, maternal grandmothers are far more involved in their grandkids’ lives. 

Your book offers really interesting ways for parentless parents to introduce their kids to the grandparents they’ll never meet or barely remember. Can you share some of your suggestions?
The first is purposeful conversation. It’s the easiest thing you can do. Sometimes families avoid talking about people who’ve passed away, but conversations need to happen if you want to forge a connection between grandchildren and their deceased grandparents. I realize it sounds trite: Tell stories! You may wonder what your children want to know. Kids are really self-centered (it’s a developmental thing), so make sure whatever you share is meaningful to your kids. Something as simple as saying, “Your grandma or grandpa” as opposed to “my mom or dad,” can do wonders.

The second is the grandma or grandpa tour. I talk about one I did in the book when we went to visit my parents’ offices and talked to their former coworkers. Kids learn much more by doing than listening. As important as talking is, their interest will wane if that’s all you do. It’s so easy and fun to take them on a trip or excursion that has to do with their grandparents. It’s something they’ll definitely remember.

The third is something you do every day: cook! Instead of saying, “This is grandma’s chicken,” involve your kids in the creation of those family meals. Have them help with the shopping list, and the slicing and dicing. Again, kids learn best by doing. If your parents weren’t big cooks, do something they were into: crafts, sports, any activity.

The fourth is to make a composite family photo. In this age of digital photography, it’s easy to scan two similar images and put them together, so you can create a portrait with your parents and your kids. It’s a brilliant tool. Regardless of their age, your kids can see the physical traits that they may have inherited. It helps answer those questions: Who am I? Where did I come from? It makes quite an impression.

And lastly, the best thing you can do for yourself is connect with other parentless parents. We have a very active and growing Facebook group and there are Parentless Parent chapters all over the country where you can meet other moms and dads who are going through what you are. Even if you have the most supportive spouse or a sibling or a big family, sometimes what’s really healing is to talk to your peers. It helps you feel less alone.


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