Say the word "grandmother" and the image of Emmy-winning actress, designer, author and artist Jane Seymour isn't exactly what springs to mind. But the glamorous 63-year-old wears the label proudly: She's now "Oma" to four young grandchildren — two of whom live nearby and routinely spend a day or two a week at her home. "My favorite days are when they come over — there's so much I want to give them, so much to share," says Seymour, who admits to having been baffled when friends used to wax on about the joys of grandchildren. Then she acquired a few herself and eagerly joined the club.
"It's a whole new form of love," she marvels.
It's a whole new form of grandparenting, too, thanks to the boomers. That 76 million-strong cohort has redefined just about everything it has touched, from childhood and adolescence to careerism and parenting — and now, grandparenting as well.
Boomer women in particular, who came of age during the feminist movement, have tended to shrug off traditional roles, opting instead to "have it all" — balancing jobs, hobbies and a supermom style of parenting that would have exhausted their own full-time mothers. So it's no surprise that, as their children have kids, these new grandmas are remaking the role in ways that differ dramatically from the nanas, nonnas, bubbes, amas and abuelas of yesteryear.
Not for them the wrinkles and rocking chairs of grandmothers past. Today's grandma is more likely to practice yoga than play canasta, and to disguise her gray hair with artful highlights, not blue-tinted rinse.
Many boomers have made a concerted effort to narrow the generation gap between themselves and their children, and that same impulse is very much in evidence when they talk about the experience of having grandchildren. "Boomers' engagement with grandchildren is much more intense than in the past generations," says Jasmin Tahmaseb McConatha, professor of psychology at West Chester University of Pennsylvania. "We want to share things with our grandkids, have discussions. Our parents and grandparents didn't crave the same kind of intimacy and connection."
Letty Cottin Pogrebin, author of Getting Over Getting Older and a cofounder of Ms. magazine, agrees. She recalls her grandmother as a remote figure who spent all of her time cooking, cleaning and taking care of others. "She never sat on the floor with me in blue jeans the way I do with my grandkids or paddled me across a lake in a canoe, telling me about herself or her views of the world," Pogrebin says.
A New Vitality
Even if her grandmother had wanted to go canoeing, chances are she wouldn't have lived long enough or had the requisite stamina. Thanks to advances in health and safety, women have added about 25 years to their life expectancy over the last century — from 56.8 in 1914 to around 81 today — resulting in an ever-expanding middle age.
"Because today's boomer grandmothers feel younger, healthier and more active than in the past, their engagement with their grandchildren is akin to the way kids used to describe the fun they'd have with a really cool aunt," says Stephanie Coontz, an expert in family studies at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. "I'm reminded of the character Auntie Mame, who was perceived as weird and humorous, because what grandmother figure would do such bold things? But today's women, with their confidence and independence, have made the once-unimaginable the norm."