Women now in their 60s, women who had careers and kids, can be forgiven for feeling like they grew up with Anna Quindlen even if, like me, we never met her. That’s because we read “Life in the 30s,” the column she began writing for this newspaper in 1986.
Like many of us, she graduated from college into a world where young women faced a bewildering array of options and then, as parents and spouses, discovered the women’s movement’s unfinished business. Her home-front stories were our stories.
As Ms. Quindlen went on to publish novels, collections and children’s stories, book tour audiences continually asked whether she would write “Life in the 40s” or “Life in the 50s.” Her new book, “Nanaville,” is about becoming a grandmother. She calls it her “Life in the 60s.”
Ms. Quindlen, who has three children, was 63 when Arthur, her first grandchild, was born; he’s about to turn 3 and has a brand-new sister, Ivy. Ms. Quindlen goes by Nana. I have a 2-year-old granddaughter who calls me Bubbe.
One recent afternoon, we settled on the sofa in her Upper West Side living room to talk about grandparenting. I’ve edited and condensed our conversation.
Span: Some people yearn for grandchildren; I was never one of them. I wasn’t holding my breath. Were you?
Quindlen: No. In fact, the idea of being a grandmother seemed distant and foreign, like something that would happen to someone much older than I would ever be. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to have children, for years.
Span: You invent a category in your book for people with ambivalence about this role: the Nonos.
Quindlen: I’ve heard any number of people say they don’t feel old enough to be a grandparent. The interesting thing is that our sense of the age of grandparents is completely flawed. Before I wrote this book, if you’d asked me what the median age of a grandparent is in this country, I would have said maybe 65. I would have been off by about 15 years. [Ms. Quindlen’s own mother died when her eldest — Anna — was just 19 and never became a grandmother.]
I also encounter people who can’t really admit it, but they didn’t love being a mother. They found it exhausting, and now that they’re not doing it any more, they find that somewhat liberating. One woman said to me, “I’m happy to see the grandchildren, but I don’t want to be left with them.”
Span: But you’re no Nono.
Quindlen: No, I really liked being a mother. My least favorite part of being a mother was having them leave. Weaning was definitely bad. All-day school was not on my hit parade. So revisiting all of that, finding out that Frog and Toad are still friends, is delightful.
Span: We all read so much, were so prepared — or thought we were — to be parents. I don’t know that people prepare for grandparenting. We think we know how, because we’ve done it already.
Quindlen: The curious thing is that I had all these friends who I know were mothering by the seat of their pants, just like I was. I remember thumbing maniacally through the index of Dr. Spock, looking things up.
Suddenly, they become grandmothers and they’re the Delphic oracle. I don’t understand how all of us who knew, in our hearts, that we didn’t know anything, now feel like we know everything.
Admittedly, we do have experience. But the idea that we’ll be instant experts as grandmothers is kind of ridiculous, and not useful.
My light-bulb moment [after a disagreement with Arthur’s parents about child care] was when a friend asked me, “Did they ask you?” That stuck in my mind and will be there forever.
Because too much of what poisons this relationship is a grandmother or grandfather who is dictating to you what you should and shouldn’t do.
Span: But a lot does feel familiar. I was laughing about the time you were “reading” Arthur a favorite book, but you didn’t have your glasses handy. And it didn’t matter; you could recite “Good Night, Moon” from memory.
Quindlen: Certain books have instantly come back to me. But there are also books where I’ve forgotten something — like, “Babar.” On page two, Babar’s mother is murdered by hunters. How did I forget that? I was appalled.
Span: How often do you see Arthur?
Quindlen: I get to pick him up at preschool once or twice a week, which is so much fun. We have great conversations on the street. We had a very extensive discussion on West End Avenue last week, identifying who has a penis and who has a vagina. Arthur has quite a loud voice, so we were not only having a conversation, we were entertaining many passers-by.
Span: One thing you enjoy — I do, too — is watching your kid, whose um … propensities you remember very well, turn into this calm, inventive grown-up.
Quindlen: One of my favorite parts is watching Quin be a father. He was somebody who said he never wanted to have children.
Span: Why not?
Quindlen: I think he thought it was a really, really hard job and he might not be cut out for it. He was right about the first, and clearly wrong about the second. He’s really good at it. He’s so patient. And so there. It’s thrilling to watch.
Span: I keep pondering what makes this role so magical, given that we’ve done this stuff before.
Quindlen: There’s definitely the sense of the continuation of the line. I look at Arthur sometimes and think, somewhere in there is my mother, who’s been dead now for almost 50 years. This is the closest we get to immortality, right?
But the other thing I find so powerful, that I didn’t realize until he was born, is that I’d have this profound sense of connection that I had with my own children — but without that ego involvement.
I’d like to be able to say that I saw my children as they were. But the truth is that over and over, I saw them as a reflection of myself. How does it make me feel about myself that this kid is smart or this kid is flagging? It became self-referential in a way that you knew wasn’t right, but was almost inevitable.
I don’t feel any of that with my grandchildren. I don’t look at Arthur and say, “Oh goody, he’s toilet-trained.” I wish I could have been that way with my kids.
Span: I don’t know if you can be.
My granddaughter is going to pre-K this fall, so her parents had to look into various programs, schedule those visits. I remember it as a very angsty time. But this round, I was so not involved.
I skipped that whole six months of nail-biting. “I know you’ll make a good decision. Just tell me where to pick her up and I’ll be there.”
Quindlen: It’s one of the great things about being a grandmother, the full heart without the crazy ego.