In their self-titled album, Crosby, Stills, Nash sang “Helplessly Hoping,” which was written by Steven Stills about his relationship with the folk singer Judy Collins. There is a refrain or chorus in that song that I always related to family.

  • They are one-person
  • There are two alone
  • They are three together
  • They are (four) for each other

When does a family become its unit? You can call it a squad or a team, but the meaning differs. Members speak their code and have their inside jokes. They also have each other’s backs, no matter what it might seem like to outsiders. 

It is good if the unit has an even number of members. Like the lyrics above, there is a difference between being “together” and being “for each other.” This difference implies a team, a loyalty that extends beyond the physical. It involves a bond and a kinship that is unspoken and yet unshakeable. In the unlikely event that relationships become lopsided loyalty-wise, it is easier to peel off one member from a threesome than from a foursome. So, every member maintains an ally when they need one. 

Those families that can form this kind of bond are lucky. They become separate entities impenetrable by outsiders, whether those individuals are extended family, grandparents, cousins, or any variation. There are many great quotes about family by many distinguished writers and thinkers. But I always go back to the CSN quote. I most associate it with the kind of nuclear family, even though it was not intended as a quote about family. 

Handle with Care

Other grandmothers often share that this relationship excludes them, no matter how close they are to their kids’ families. 

“When they include me on one of their little adventures, it is special,” says Bonnie, one of my grandmother’s friends.

Knowing when to lean in and when to keep some distance, both emotionally and physically, takes work. What I find most important is to observe and listen to pick up clues. As tempting as it is to ask questions, sometimes there are better approaches than this. Even if you are close with your children and independent of their families, recognizing and respecting their family’s independence and individuality is a crucial grandparent skill.

That is what I think of when referring to this tight unit. This is a “ride-or-die” relationship that, in its purest and most complete form, excludes others. It also supports my experience as my parents learned that one parent can care for two or more children, but one child cannot care for one parent. When the inevitable comes for our parents, there is no substitute for a sibling. That person has been there for all the ups and downs a family typically experiences. Although I am different from my brother in experiences, attitudes, and beliefs, he and I had no problem agreeing on how to care for each of our parents when the time came. 

Little Rituals

It’s also the little rituals that make the week special. My son and his family of four have such traditions. For example, in observance of their Judaism, they always light their Friday night Shabbat candles with their children participating and singing their unique Shabbat prayers. After the blessings over the challah, a braided egg-based bread, the children dip their (often germy) little fingers into a glass of wine for a tiny taste. This makes them part of the blessing of the wine. 

My daughter and son-in-law mark the end of their week with a movie night with their girls. No one else is included, thank you. This is their time to relax together. On their weekend outings to picturesque towns in our Mid-Atlantic location, they love to explore and discover as a unit.

Family Ties In Literature

Playwright and novelist Dodie Smith described a family in her play “Dear Octopus” as, 

“The family – that dear octopus from whose tentacles we never quite escape, nor, in our inmost hearts, ever quite wish to.”

In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, JK Rowling described the family as Family is a life jacket in the stormy sea of life.”

Novelist Jodi Picoult describes it this way: “It’s not gender that makes a family; it’s love. You don’t need a mother and a father; you don’t necessarily even need two parents. You just need someone who’s got your back.”

Beyond the poetic love notes and the sweet Hallmark card descriptions of family life, Oscar Wilde describes the antidote: “After a good dinner, one can forgive anybody, even one’s relations.”

Who can argue with Oscar Wilde?

The Grandparent Trap

So, we work hard to raise our kids to be responsible and intelligent adults. We want them to create their own lives, maybe even their families. We treasure the arrival of our grandchildren as the gifts we get for surviving our own nuclear families and even the families from which we have emerged decades before. We remember our little moments, the funny phrases we created, the silly things we did, and the rituals we performed. We performed these as if they were talismans that ward off any chance of something evil invading our space. 

The real family is birthing itself as you watch the grandchildren grow and the tight bonds form. It is natural, hopefully inevitable, and a testament to what came before in all the families we emerged from. 

But nothing prepares us for the moment, as grandparents, when we realize you are outsiders in some essential way. 

Please don’t feel sad, nostalgic, or excluded; we must tell ourselves. Instead, feel joy and accomplishment.