Grandparents - still an integral part of the family
When Joan Robertson's 22-year-old son gets married, he wants to have five children. He looks forward to playing with them at home and to taking them on frequent visits to his mother's - just as he used to visit his grandparents when he was growing up.Skip to next paragraph
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Her son's plans for his future family's togetherness bring a welcome personal touch to Dr. Robertson's academic research. ''Some days I think, 'I'm only 49, and I'm not ready to be a grandparent yet.' Other days I think, 'Wouldn't it be wonderful!' ''
Her own lighthearted ambivalence is an echo of the comments Dr. Robertson often hears in the interviews she conducts with grandparents, parents, and grandchildren. But the more families she talks with, the more convinced she becomes that relationships between the generations are thriving.
''There's been what I would call a lot of creative debate about whether or not the family is a strong institution in the United States today,'' says the University of Wisconsin professor. ''There's also been a lot of discussion about the extent to which the nuclear family - mother, father, and immediate children - is separated from the extended family of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. But from my own research, I know that there's high evidence of intergenerational continuity going on.''
As membership in grandparents-rights groups has steadily grown over the past year, so has interest in keeping family relationships intact in the face of the nation's staggering divorce rate. While some grandparents are lobbying US senators and state representatives for the legislated right to visit the offspring of their divorced children, other concerned individuals are pooling their talents to document what's happening and to find creative solutions to some challenging situations.
''We're just now trying to map the territory,'' says Theresa Levitin, a health scientist-administrator with the National Institutes of Health. ''The first phase of divorce research was from the point of view of the couple involved. Then it shifted to the perspective of the effects of divorce on children. Now the final generation - grandparents - is being discovered.''
One pioneer in this new field of study is Frank Furstenberg, a family sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania who has documented the increased emotional dependence of grandchildren on grandparents at the time of a divorce. To hear him describe the state of today's extended family is to be encouraged about its future.
''We worry about the stability and viability of family relationships, and that apprehension leads to over-exaggerated statements about the disappearence of extended family ties,'' Dr. Furstenberg says. ''But periodically we rediscover that an extended family does exist in American society, although it may appear somewhat different from the classical image. Overall, things aren't quite as bad as they appear to be when it comes to the extended family.''