“We’re playing huckle-buckle-beanstalk!” My six-year-old beamed at me, bouncing on the balls of her feet. My younger daughter skipped around the living room. In the kitchen, my mother pulled a small, plastic princess doll out of the sugar canister and dusted off the toy. “I found her!” she called out, laughing. I stood in the doorway smiling, even though I’d never heard of the game before. My mother walked over to greet me, shrugging her shoulders. “It’s a silly game my sisters and I used to play,” she said. “I don’t remember why we named it that.”
My parents recently bought a house in our neighborhood to be close to me, my husband, and our two daughters, their only grandchildren. No longer serving in the “sandwich generation” role of caring for their own aging parents, my parents are exercising their freedom by spending their golden years close to my girls. They’re part of a growing trend. As Harriet Edleson writes in The New York Times, geographic distance is a major factor in family relationships these days. “With families increasingly far-flung,” she writes, “those who want to establish or maintain a bond may have to go where their grandchildren are.”
What has surprised me the most in this new season of life—more than calling my parents “neighbors”—is how my relationship with them has been transformed. They’re not my parents anymore. They’re now my kids’ grandparents.
Five years ago, my mother was in the delivery room for the birth of my first child, and a few years after that, my parents drove up from New Jersey in the middle of the night to babysit her when her younger sister was born. The moments that changed my life forever and shaped my family also changed and shaped my parents, as well. Now they’re living next door, and while everything isn’t perfect, the relational benefits are reciprocal. My parents regularly help us with childcare, while we helped them after my father’s hip replacement surgery. Now my parents are the ones I turn to for advice about so many things, from diapers to discipline, because they, too, are invested in my children. They’re among the few people I can talk openly with about my hopes and fears for my kids.
The funny thing is, I never expected it to be this way. Except for some rocky patches in my teen years—and, really, my husband may be the only person who never had those—my parents and I had a pretty good relationship while I was growing up. I did, however, feel like the weird one—the dreamy one, the introvert, the runner, the one who earned a degree in women’s studies instead of something, say, marketable. None of that has changed, but I no longer feel the pressure to conform to their ideals for me, and they no longer bear the responsibility of raising me. Despite our differences, we all turned out okay. And despite years of wondering if I’d really been left by the fairies, a changeling child who seemed such an oddball in my family, I automatically have something in common with my parents now: my children.
Technically, my parents are the same people who raised me, but they’ve changed with the introduction of a new generation. They’re more relaxed, more smiley, more goofy. They’re freer and more fun because they’re not the ones raising the kids. They get to be more themselves, just as I get to be more myself. My parents weren’t bad parents when they were raising me, but by virtue of being on the frontlines of parenting, they were chronically stressed and often exasperated. How could I, as a child or teenager, have realized how often they were winging it? Faced with financial pressures, the weight of developing our characters, and maintaining their own relationships, it’s no wonder that I didn’t see my parents the way my children see them now.
I recognize that many grandparents still face those same stressors my parents experienced in their youth, except those struggles are compounded by age and sometimes illness or disability. When grandparents stand in for parents, it’s a difficult situation that requires support of all sorts. (Although even that context is not necessarily without benefits, too.) My healthy, intact multi-generational family lives a privileged existence for which I’m grateful. And while I think it’s better for all of us that my parents don’t live next door, I’m thankful they’re in the same neighborhood. I like the feeling of running by, of my girls pointing out Nanny and Poppy’s house from the playground. Their home makes the whole place feel more like home.
When it comes to family, we all have our own story. But whatever baggage we may have with our own parents, whatever regrets we may share, we all get a fresh chance with our children. Each new generation represents an opportunity to break generational curses and to share our stories. And whether the grandparents live near or far, whether those relationships are healthy or dysfunctional, our membership in the church offers us opportunities for redeeming our families. Sunday mornings show us an intergenerational fellowship where the only bloodlines that matter are Christ’s, and God’s children of all ages interact as brothers and sisters. None us have the perfect parents, and none of us are the perfect parents, but we share the same Father who redeems us all—even through the small things, like a game of huckle-buckle beanstalk.
I didn’t grow up playing the game, but I doubt it’s the last time my parents will surprise me. I know this much is true: I’m not the child I was. I’m a mother now. And my parents aren’t the people they were either. They’re grandparents now. As I stand in the doorway of my parents’ house—not my childhood home, but the only one my girls will remember—I see the ways that grace transforms us. I’m observing an old game but hearing a new story. I’m the bridge between these generations. But what holds us all together are grace and hope, the redemptive work of God acting upon my family.
Erin Wyble Newcomb teaches English and women’s studies at SUNY New Paltz and writes frequently for Christ and Pop Culture on themes of faith and family. She lives in the Hudson Valley with her husband and two daughters.