Grandchildren as Reminders of a Generation Gap

One of the meanings of grandchildren that arose spontaneously in interviews was the sense that grandchildren were different from the grandparents. Generations diverged in the ways they thought and lived as a result of experiencing different conditions and historical events. To some of the old people we interviewed, grandchildren represented a younger group of Japanese whose lifestyles and values were what the grandparents were not. One grandmother whose teenage granddaughter lived nearby had grown up during the depression and the long years of Japanese military involvement in asia and the Pacific. She commented on her granddaughter's requests for money: “Girls these days are into being stylish. Our granddaughter wants a lot of material things.” A woman in her nineties expressed gratitude for care by her daughter, son, and daughter-in-law: “they are all good children, and that's something to be thankful for. Children these days are not like this. There are a lot of bad kids. I've had hard times but also have much to be thankful for. My daughter-in-law is a big help, but not the grandkids.”

Another woman expressed her sense of difference at a more personal level. She had been widowed in middle age and continued to live alone in her own house for many years. When she became older, her son and family felt it would be better to combine their households before there was a crisis. Her grandchildren were teenagers when they moved in together. She remembers that when they had breakfast together, the grandchildren would finish quickly so they could be off to school. “so i'd be there eating slowly by myself. When i was [living] alone, i only needed to think about myself and do things at my own pace.” Over the course of our interviews, including those with this woman, we often heard complaints or observations about generational differences in food tastes, in choices of television shows, and in ideas about free time. It seems That even when relationships with their grandchildren were good, that gap was felt by the oldest generation and sometimes by the women in the middle generation, who had a hard time cooking meals that made everyone happy. The grandchildren served as a reminder to their grandparents that the world had changed around them.

Emotional Bonds

For many of the elderly people with whom we spoke, grandchildren and great-grandchildren were a great source of pleasure and, conversely, a source of worry. Grandparents expressed pride in their grandchildren's accomplishments and sometimes in their mere existence. A few felt strongly supported through the emotional ties they had with grandchildren. The lack of such bonds was a source of disappointment and loneliness to others.

During a follow-up interview that took place at a nursing home, we asked a mentally alert older woman about her family. She had two children, a son who was her primary caregiver and a daughter living a distance away but still within the greater tokyo area. The interviewer asked, “Does your daughter come to see you here?” She replied, “they haven't told her i'm here.” The son, with whom she had been living and who was present during the interview, explained, “we haven't had any contact with her for years.” The interviewer continued, “How many grandchildren do you have?” The question was met with silence.

However, even when there was little contact, grandchildren were a source of worry and pride. One example is an elderly rural couple who complained that their grandchildren rarely came and only put in appearances at holidays. Nonetheless, they were pleased that their two grandsons had graduated from college and worried about one who had apparently not passed the national civil service exam he had taken. They proudly took out pictures to show us of a granddaughter, taken at the entrance ceremony to the police academy, where she had recently been accepted. When at one point they had needed a facility for respite care, the couple thought about the nursing home where another granddaughter worked, but their son was concerned about possible conflicts and gossip in their small city and asked his parents to choose another place. The elderly man expressed a wish that he would see the family more. The old couple could depend on their children when they needed instrumental help, but the grandchildren rarely came. I jotted down in my fieldnotes, “they seem lonely, separately.”

Another elderly couple told us of their concerns for their teenage granddaughter. She had experienced a difficult life due to domestic violence, her Father's death, and her mother's difficult economic circumstances. The granddaughter was not doing well in school, and the grandparents continued to try to encourage her as they feared for her future.

In stark contrast were the grandparents whose grandchildren brought them great joy, even at a distance. One woman exclaimed, “i'm thankful i'm well taken care of.” She said over and over in each interview how grateful she was for those who cared for her. At one point the interviewer asked her, “is there anything you are not thankful for?” She responded, “nothing. I'm happy if someone comes, especially the grandchildren [who] are so cute [mago wa kawaii]!

In another situation in which an elderly woman had few physical limitations but moderate dementia, we asked her what made her happy. She replied, “i like day care. The best part is talking with friends there.” The daughter-inlaw expounded, “But she tells the grandkids that she likes to stay at home, so she's not consistent.” In the past, the family had frequently traveled together so that grandparents and grandchildren felt a bond. Now that she was older, she no longer wanted to travel, but her grandchildren made time to be with her. The daughter-in-law described, “the oldest [grandson] lives separately but is not married. He comes about once a month. The other two [grandson and granddaughter] live here. They all go out to dinner together about once a month. The boys each take one of Grandma's arms and walk her, so she likes to go out with them.”

Another grandmother told us of her poor relationship with her caregiving husband (Long 2011). In talking about what gave her pleasure, she spoke of how she loved musicals and reported that her daughter occasionally took her out to see them even after she had her strokes. She mentioned how much she enjoyed going to day care. But what seemed to give her the most pleasure was having her young grandchildren, two young sons of her daughter, come over. She was severely disabled and spent much of her day in bed when at home, but the boys would get into bed and play with her, and the physical contact with them was a main source of pleasure in her life. They asked her how she was feeling, she told us, and wondered when she would get better. Her pleasure may have been magnified by the fact that the grandchildren did not have a close relationship with her husband, who said in a separate interview, “the grandkids are everything to her. I can't do anything with them, except give them a little spending money [okozukai] now and then.” He expressed that he did not like being with old people and clearly wished to deny his own aging. To him, the grandchildren may have represented what he could no longer be. He also saw close family ties as related to gendered kinship roles, of which he wanted no part. In one family, the grandmother and granddaughter had especially close ties. They knew each other well and, according to the family, had much in common; for example, they all agreed that both were strong-willed. The grandmother and mother had each been widowed early. The granddaughter had spent summer vacations with her grandmother in her home in the countryside, playing with her grandmother at the beach, getting to know her cousins, and had even brought a friend when she was in high school. Like her grandmother, the granddaughter decided to become a nurse, discussing her career plans with her grandmother before enrolling. When the grandmother could no longer manage on her own in the countryside and moved in with her daughter, the granddaughter was still living at home. As mentioned above, she used her nursing skills to assist her mother in her grandmother's care until she moved out at age thirty to get married. Even after that, she continued to visit her grandmother at least once a month. When we asked the grandmother in an interview what had been the best time in her life, she answered, “when my granddaughter was born.”

The grandmother had grandchildren through her other daughter as well, and although they lived further away, she saw them and actively kept up with their lives.

She told us that her sixth great-grandchild was about to be born. We also learned from a photograph that the previous winter her two daughters had taken her to Hawaii (with her wheelchair) to visit the older daughter's youngest child, who was married to an american. The worst thing for her, she expressed, was that her husband was not here to see all of the healthy grandchildren. Right after her husband died [she was a young mother at the time] was the saddest time in her life, but now she was happy. “i am happiest when the family is together and laughing.” In July, her day-care center celebrated the tanabata (star Festival) holiday by having all of the participants write a wish to hang on the specially erected tree in the nursing home. She had written, “Mago no egao o kansha shite iru.” (i'm grateful for my grandchildren's happy faces.)

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