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Kathleen Stassen Berger Explores Grandmothering

Kathleen Stassen Berger
AAAS Member Kathleen Stassen Berger has recently published a book on grandmothering.

The phrase “OK boomer” may be a trendy way to dismiss baby boomers, but the sentiment behind the viral phrase isn’t new, says Kathleen Stassen Berger, a life span developmental psychologist and author based in New York City.

Berger, an adjunct professor of developmental psychology at Bronx Community College, has spent her career trying to understand why different generations don’t often see eye to eye and how families can function better.

“The boomer generation gives advice and says, ‘This is how you should do it,’” Berger says. “And the younger generation says, ‘No, you don’t understand.’”

As a life span developmental psychologist, Berger studies and teaches the entire human life cycle, from conception to death.

These days, she’s especially interested in research on grandmothers and the roles they hold in families, which she reveals in her latest book “Grandmothering: Building Strong Ties With Every Generation.”

The new book, which explains how grandmothers can navigate generational divides and fully integrate themselves into the lives of their children’s families, represents Berger’s first book for a general audience. The project is also personal, as Berger has three grandsons. Two are 10 and five years old, and live near her in the city, giving her the luxury of picking them up from school every day on the subway. Her 9-year-old grandson lives in Connecticut.

Although she’s studied and written about grandmothers for decades, Berger says the birth of her oldest grandson inspired her new book, because that’s when she actually became a grandmother.

Berger remembers being in the hospital with her daughter and son-in-law for the birth of this grandson, and that staff didn’t quite know what to do with her.

“I was in this little room way, way down the hall, told to wait and I waited for hours all night,” Berger recalls. “They didn’t even tell me what was happening.”

It struck her that hospital staff didn’t understand the role of the mother of a woman having a baby. There was a discussion on her daughter having a Caesarean section that Berger wasn’t part of. And for Berger, it crystallized the real psychological gaps on how grandmothers feel and what people expect from them.

Grandmothers, Berger says, are misunderstood and misinterpreted in our culture.

We have this idea of grandma of being an old woman who didn’t do much beyond baking cookies, and knitting — things Berger tries to do — but this mythological grandmother wasn’t supposed to have political opinions or be active in the world. Many grandmothers don’t fit that mold.

Berger saw her generation as the one who took great pride in women’s liberation and refused to stay at home. While Berger says she didn’t burn bras or break the glass ceiling, her developmental texts did appear in hundreds of colleges and universities. In 2016, Time Magazine even named Berger as one of the 100 most-read female writers in college classes for her book “The Developing Person.”

As women of Berger’s generation become grandmothers, Berger saw a lack of understanding of who grandmothers really are, and because child development changes every decade, it’s hard to know what to do, Berger says.

For example, grandmothers had about a dozen grandchildren in the past, but now they don’t because children are born later, families are much smaller and more distant.

“It used to be that if there was one set of grandchildren you didn’t get along with, it was OK because you had too many anyway,” Berger says. “Now … you don’t have the luxury as a grandmother of picking which grandchild you’re going to focus on.”

Besides that, children lead much different lives, thanks to the technological revolution, the sexual revolution, and the drug scene.

That means the role of grandmothers is constantly evolving and there are changes to be understood by grandmothers and American culture.

In many families, grandmothers take on the role as mothers and raise their grandchildren because of an issue with the grandchild’s parents. But the problem with idealizing grandmothers as coming to their grandchildren’s rescue, is that the middle generation feels as if they failed and the grandchildren resent their parents for not being there or abandoning them, Berger says.

“Everybody’s unhappy and it doesn’t work out so well,” Berger says. “It should not be seen as, ‘What a wonderful thing a grandmother is raising you.’ No it’s not a wonderful thing, it’s, ‘Well, it’s the best we’ve got right now.’”

According to Berger, our society and grandmothers haven’t figured out the appropriate balance between being too intrusive and too distant, and sometimes grandmothers and their families get it wrong.

They can get it right by talking about their relationship, sometimes with a mediator, if necessary. Grandparents in general should listen to and support their adult children and not interfere in how their grandchildren are raised.

Her Brooklyn grandsons, for example, are only allowed to eat organic food, per her daughter’s request.

“I think that’s a little extreme, but I buy organic food for them,” Berger says. “If that’s what she says, that’s how it should be.”

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Lenore T. Adkins