Oh, Grow Up!

That was my visceral (and ever so mature) reaction to “Who Are You Calling Grandma?,” a fluff piece in the New York Times about how baby boomer grandparents, especially celebs, are rejecting traditional grandmonikers for hipper titles. Apparently Gwyneth Paltrow’s mother, the actress Blythe Danner, lobbied for Woof (unsuccessfully; Lalo won out), while Goldie Hawn’s son saved the day by coming up with Glam-Ma.

Gag-worthy, but less so than Hawn’s comment about the day her first grandchild arrived. She was thrilled, yes, “but was I really a ‘grandmother?’” It’s a word, she said, with “connotations of old age and decrepitude.” Or Paltrow’s blunt take on Blythe’s behalf: “My mom’s hot and she didn’t want to be called Grandma.” 

It’s easy to be snarky about stars, though, and they have plenty of company. “It turns out most baby boomers I know felt the same way—love the idea, hate the name; we are such a herd,” says Lin Wellford (aka Mimi), coauthor with her daughter Skye Pifer of The New Grandparents Name Book (2009). At least these boomers aren’t rejecting grandparenthood itself, even though pushing a stroller or wiping a snotty little nose might make them look you-know-what. Yet they’re running that risk, even in the pages of People magazine. It’s just the traditional names, apparently, that make them feel old. 

What’s depressing is that it hasn’t occurred to them how much more fun it would be to grab Grandma (or Grandpa) proudly, to shout it from the rooftops—to own it, as they say—and in so doing, subvert the conventional notion of how grannies look and act. Now that would be liberating, infinitely more so than taking short-term shelter behind Woof and Woofster (or Sonoma and Napa, a suggestion from the name book “for a more sophisticated set”). 

My partner, Bob, and I became grandparents (Bobbo and Gran) a year ago. When I ran this name stuff past him, he took issue, maintaining that our generation is redefining the grandparent gig and that I was missing its progressive aspect. “We don’t want to think of ourselves the way we think of grandparents, as aged and infirm. I didn’t want the word that for my whole life has meant old: Granddad,” he explained. “I’m not an old guy with grey hair.” (He’s 65 and bald.) 

Media coverage makes this point too: that baby boomers want their grandkids to see them as rock-and-roll-loving, Wii-playing buddies, not as fuddy-duddies, and that casual names are more conducive to this less formal relationship. Well, yeah, except it’s not the kids who require persuasion. They’ll play ball with Gramps as readily as with Sonoma. Names aren’t what matter to them.

Back to Bob. When I countered that being called Granddad would only make him feel old if he allowed it to, if he bought into the ageist thinking that it would make him old in the eyes of others, he shook his head. “It makes me old in my eyes,” he said. “Discomfort with the word is one thing,” he went on, “but it’s also discomfort with how society portrays people of a certain age.” 

Bingo. We’re overjoyed to be grandparents, but we’re horrified by the way society—of which we are part—treats grandparents. Of course it’s perfectly fine to go by Lalo or Mimi, and it’s the diapered set who come up with most nicknames anyhow. But what bears hard scrutiny is our visceral rejection of their more traditional counterparts and the self-loathing in which it’s rooted. Spurning Grandma on principle is the equivalent of lying about our age, an act of denial that entraps and corrodes and eventually sneaks up and bites us. Until then, we’re stranded somewhere between vanity and delusion.