Emotional Health · Family & Friends

Unconditional Love: A Wise Grandmother’s Advice


Jane Isay loves her grandchildren and they love her. All four of them were at a reading I attended recently of her new book Unconditional Love: A Guide to Navigating the Joys and Challenges of Being a Grandparent Today. She loves her role as a grandparent, one that she sees as unique and special, if handled with care. She loves her two grown sons, and she is very wise about how to manage tri-generational ups and downs.

Though not a professional psychologist, Isay brings breadth and depth to her subject, gleaned from her decades of experience as a book editor with a special expertise in psychology. She edited such famous and influential authors as Mary Pipher, whose book Reviving Ophelia  is a classic.

Most important, Isay is the kind of person who reflects on her experiences with a keen understanding of their emotional dynamics. Unconditional Love, (her fourth book on family issues) is well researched, based on hundreds of interviews (as well as on her own life), and has great  lessons of the joys and pitfalls of grandparenting.

Unconditional Love explores the ways in which the role of the grandparent differs from that of the parents. Though both generations experience boundless love toward the children, parents are fettered by the demands of the daily effort  to shape them into civilized human beings. They also have the burdens that come when people start out as symbiotically attached, and must gradually evolve, separate, and part. In no other relationship are we asked to fall in love with the express purpose of gradually giving up the loved one.

Grandparents have the advantage of generational distance. They are a step removed from this dynamic from the start, and while they are no less devoted to the children, they do not have to suffer the ambivalence and conflict that parents experience as the children go through endless cycles of drawing you in and pushing you away.

In her book, Isay makes the point that being a grandparent is a tricky process nonetheless, but if you navigate it right, the joys are bountiful. She is particularly illuminating about the critical early months when your child becomes a parent for the first time. Unconditional Love provides tips and tools designed to help you empathize with the new parents’ experiences of fear, insecurity, and bewilderment. More important, while the book shows grandparents the ways in which they can be helpful and supportive, it also explains why some of their attempts backfire.

For example, why in the world would a daughter object to her mother cleaning up the dishes in the sink while the infant is being breastfed? The grandmother thinks she is doing something kind and helpful that her daughter will no doubt appreciate. Isay explains that the insecure new parent sometimes takes this kind of “intervention” as an implicit criticism — “you can’t keep your house together” — at a time when she feels deeply sensitive.

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  • Andrea March 22, 2018 at 9:01 am

    Thank you Cecilia for bringing the role of grandparent to our attention. This is indeed a delicate balance! The importance of boundaries is paramount to a successful relationship with your children and THEIR children!