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Even a Grandmother Must Be Superwoman

Call her Grandmother, Grandma, or Nana. By whatever name or term of endearment, she is the fortunate woman who will be honored by two generations of offspring - children and grandchildren - on Mother's Day.

She is also the woman who increasingly defies Norman Rockwell-style stereotypes portraying a serene, white-haired lady whose primary task in her golden years is to preside over holiday gatherings of her extended (and impressively intact) family.

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For many grandmothers, modern roles are anything but predictable or passive. Social change never occurs in isolation. As the lives of parents evolve, so, inevitably, do those of grandparents. Older women - and their husbands - face three significant changes.

First, as more mothers work, more grandmothers find themselves caring for grandchildren on weekdays, once again changing diapers, making peanut-butter sandwiches, and watching "Sesame Street."

Second, as divorces and births out of wedlock continue at near-record levels, more adult sons and daughters are returning to the family nest with children in tow. More cooking, cleaning, and caregiving for Grandma.

Third, as drugs and other problems take their toll on young parents, more grandparents are rearing their children's children by themselves.

One rainy morning last week, eight grandmothers and two grandfathers gathered at a senior center near Boston to talk about the challenges. One woman, now in her 70s, is raising two young granddaughters alone. Another, a 50-year-old woman whose oldest daughter is unable to care for her son, is rearing the baby and working full time. "I was up with him twice last night," she says. "I keep thinking, 'Another 20 years....' "

So much for dreams of a carefree retirement in Florida.

Rosemary Manahan, office manager of the National Federation of Grandmother Clubs of America in Wauconda, Ill., measures changing lives in another way. At one time, the 50-year-old organization counted 15,000 members. Now there are only 5,000.

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Offering one reason for the decline, Mrs. Manahan says, "The young grandmothers are usually either working or baby-sitting, and the older ones are out having fun."

The nation's reigning expert on grandparents, Arthur Kornhaber, sees other changes. In the 1970s, when feminism was flowering, he says, many women in their 40s and 50s had the world open to them for the first time. "Some women said, 'I raised my kids and that's it.' Their daughters found that their mothers were out of the house working, or went away with their dads to retire. There was a grandmother absence. So many grandchildren felt they were grand-orphans."

Today Dr. Kornhaber, president of the Foundation for Grandparenting, sees "a much more balanced existence for women. We have a new ingredient - longer life. The women in this present boomer generation of grandmothers are going to have to redefine themselves in many ways."

As midlife and older women identify themselves in broader terms, the challenge will be to balance their own legitimate desires with the very real needs of the two generations behind them. Changing family roles will also mean finding new ways to support grandparents who must take responsibility for grandchildren.

Perhaps more than ever, children and their parents need grandparents. Not just as caregivers and nurturers, but as the glue that binds young and old, offering perspectives on the past and guidance for the future.

Kornhaber sees older women as "incredibly powerful peacemakers, in their ability not to react and not to judge but to be forgiving and loving." He calls grandmothers "the heart of the extended family" and the "emotional leaders" of the family.

"Grandmothers," he adds, "seem to know things they never learned."

That may be as good a way as any to sum up the love many family members hope to convey in the Mother's Day cards and gifts they're sending to honor grandmothers on Sunday.

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