Mary Jo Carlson, of Hastings, Minn., breathlessly answers the phone on a recently afternoon. She's spent the afternoon chasing after her 1-1/2-year-old grandson, Flint, at the Milwaukee Zoo, and finally has a couple of minutes of downtime while Flint naps.
Mary Jo, 58, recently made the 5-½-hour drive from Hastings to Milwaukee, Wisc. to help her daughter, Dana. Dana is seven months pregnant with her second child and confined to strict bed rest to avoid the complications she had with her first pregnancy. "I don't know if I fit the title of Super-Grandma," Mary Jo says, laughing. "But I certainly get to visit a lot."
"A lot" is an understatement. Mary Jo had to retire her first minivan this year after putting 250,000 miles on it. The heavy mileage is due partly to her monthly visits down to Milwaukee, and partly to the time she spends carting around her other set of grandchildren; 85-year-old mother; and 96-year-old mother-in-law; all of whom live in the Hastings area.
It may sound like a lot of work for someone approaching the supposed ease of retirement age, but Mary Jo is part of a growing number of Baby Boomers to tackle the role of grandparent with newfound gusto. The generation that brought us the Super-Kmart and the Super Big Gulp has invented a new superlative: the Super-Grandparent. As the oldest Baby Boomers head in to their 60s, they're re-defining what it means to be a grandparent in America.
Though she'll never admit it, those who know her best would agree that the "Super Grandma" title is fitting for Mary Jo and her contemporaries. Like superheroes, these young grandparents seem to enjoy coming to the rescue of their adult children and families.
The moment last year Mary Jo got the call that her daughter had gone into labor two months early, she cancelled all of her own plans and revved up the minivan. Yet she says she still feels guilty for having to swap one important grandmotherly duty for another. It was her grandson Tristan's ninth birthday, and Mary Jo still regrets not having had enough time to properly ice his birthday cake. "I was going to do the penguins from 'Madagascar' [the animated film] in frosting," she recalls, "so I [quickly] ran to Wal-Mart and bought three little plastic penguins, frosted his cake, went over there to apologize to him and then took off."
As recently as a generation ago, grandparents were not expected to play as vital a role in their grandkids lives as they do today, according to Don Schmitz, director of St. Paul, Minn.-based Grandkids and Me, a nonprofit foundation. In 2000, Schmitz started a summer camp for grandparents and grandchildren to help both older and younger generations appreciate the value of intergenerational relationships.
"When I was 21," Schmitz says, "my father was so glad to get rid of me and get me out of the house, because he felt his responsibilities were completed, and I don't think that's true today of parents." Today, he says, it's more typical for parents to invite their children back home at any age.
But not all grandparents today are as excited about their familial roles. In his recent book, The New Face of Grandparenting... Why Parents Need Their Own Parents, Schmitz describes three categories he claims each represent about a third of American grandparents. The first, the "Been There, Done That" grandparents, after raising their own kids, don't want anything to do with their grandkids. The second group, the "Grandparents When Asked," are willing to help when their kids ask for it, but do not volunteer to take care of the grandchildren. The third group, who he believes will eventually describe more of the population as more Baby Boomers reach grandparenting age, are the "Parents Forever," or "Grandparents Forever." "These are the people," Schmitz explains, "that are saying [to their kids], 'I love you. I love who you are. I love what you do. I loved you as my child, and I love your children just because I love you, and I'll do everything I can to help you. Now, what can I do for you?'"
Kathy Lisberg and her husband, David, would certainly fall into Schmitz's "Parents Forever" category. After the Lisbergs' daughter, son-in-law, and 18-month-old twin granddaughters left their native Chicago for Boston seven years ago, she and David "got this terrible, lonesome feeling," Kathy says. So Kathy, a 61-year-old retired homemaker still living in Chicago, was determined never to let more than two months go by without seeing her daughter, Amy, and family.
Kathy is grateful she can afford to fly to Boston several times a year, but doesn't consider herself a "Super-Grandma." "We're fortunate enough that we've been able to be there for the major things," Kathy says, like birthdays. But she and her husband lament not getting to participate in the more routine events like soccer games, sleepovers and piano recitals that have helped shape their relationship with their son's children who live in the Chicago area. She can't be everything to everybody, and one of her primary responsibilities right now is taking care of her elderly parents — both in their 90s — who live down the street from her in Chicago. When she visits Boston or her daughter and family come to her, Kathy says the hardest part is that "everything is concentrated into a really short time."
Distance is one of several factors that are changing the role of grandparenting in the United States. In the past, people did not live as far away from their families. Schmitz's own parents grew up in rural Minnesota less than a mile apart from each other, and their seven children stayed in the region as adults.
The strain of this kind of long-distance relationship prompted Gloria Spivak to make plans to move cross-country when she and her husband, Allan, retire in a few years. Gloria is 64 and owns a gift shop in Los Angeles. Her three adult children and two young granddaughters all live near each other in Brooklyn, N.Y. Like Kathy, Gloria does not like to let too much time go by without seeing her granddaughters. Whenever any of her children visit L.A., they are her top priority. "The business can run itself," she says. "I feel very strongly that the time that I spend with the children will never be given back to me."
According to the National Center for Health Statistics, in 1930, the average life expectancy for American men and women was approximately age 60. Today, it's almost 78. Schmitz believes that older adults have more responsibilities and are more valued today than in previous generations because they are healthier later in life. "People do not like sick people," Schmitz claims. "When people turned 50, or 60, or 70 in the past, that meant that they were sick. They were dying, or they were about to die, so [younger people] never really respected them because they weren't vital, whereas today, that's totally opposite."
Gloria's daughter, Ellen Umansky, 37, considers her mother extremely vital as a grandparent. Ellen and her daughter, Lena, recently visited Gloria in L.A. Even though as a toddler, Lena is normally very attached to her mother, she instantly took to Gloria and didn't notice when Mom walked away. "Within two hours," Ellen says, "I basically turned into a doorstop. I just didn't exist. It was like the greatest pleasure I've had in the 21 months since she's been born." Ellen occasionally hires sitters for Lena, but only when a grandparent is not available. "What's so great with grandparents," Ellen says, "is that it's sort of win-win. It's so clear to me that my mom really just wants to spend time with my daughter and my daughter and vice-versa. And then [my husband and I] get a break."