'Parentless Parents': Q&A With Author Allison Gilbert
It's a growing demographic, and one that's underexplored, says Allison Gilbert, author of "Parentless Parents: How the Loss of Our Mothers and Fathers Impacts the Way We Raise Our Children." A parentless parent herself, Gilbert says she was surprised no one was writing about the phenomenon or doing the requisite research.
So, Gilbert, who lives in New York with her husband, Mark, and her children, Jake, 10, and Lexi, 8, took it upon herself to explore this emergent population. ParentDish recently spoke with her about her new book. An edited version of the conversation follows.
ParentDish: What are some of the unique challenges for a parentless parent?
Allison Gilbert: I'll give an example from my own life. When my husband's parents talk about, "Oh, your dad used to do X, Y and Z when he was a kid," or, "I remember when your dad used to do that," my kids don't have that (from my side of the family). So, as their mom, I'm less complete to them because they can hear those stories about my husband from his parents and they get to see my husband being a son (but) they don't get to see me doing those things. I'm much more one-dimensional to them.
PD: That's tough. Are there positive aspects about being a parentless parent?
AG: There are so many things that are life affirming. If you approach this in a proactive way, there are so many things you can do to keep the memory of your parents alive in very fun, creative, age-appropriate ways. When you close that last page of my book, you're not sad that you've read this book. You're actually feeling empowered and supported and you come away with great ideas.
PD: So, it's not all doom and gloom?
AG: The most important takeaway I can give to anyone who is thinking about reading the book, (is that) there is so much empowering information in here. It's not doom and gloom, it's not "woe is me." But, more than that, your children can actually benefit because you've actually been through this experience; you've learned life lessons you can actually use for your own parenting and children.
PD: Such as?
AG: Parents who have been through this loss have a very fine appreciation for what's a small problem and what's a big problem. When your kids are going through ups and downs -- "You're going to get a bad grade. That boy is going to break up with you. You're not going to make the baseball team" -- I really think that going through this experience allows you to have perspective, and that can help you help your kids also gain perspective. A parent who has gone through some negative experiences can let kids pull back the curtain and see the other side perhaps more readily.
PD: You wrote a chapter about keeping the memory of your parents alive. Any examples?
AG: My father was an architect and he was involved with building the corporate offices of the New York Giants. And my son is a huge football fan. I called the Giants corporate offices, explained who I was and what my dad did and asked if I could bring my kids on a tour of the corporate offices. We got one better and went to Giants Stadium before a game and got to be on the field during warm up. My son was in heaven.
PD: How old was he when you did this?
AG: Jake was 9 1/2. I guarantee you he knows his grandfather was an architect, he knows that one of his clients was the Giants, and, for the rest of his life, he will remember that it was his grandpa who paved the way for him to have this incredibly memorable and important experience. It made my father become more real to them.
PD: Wow. That's fantastic.
AG: My mom worked in a typical office, but I did the same thing with my kids for her. I wanted them to meet her coworkers. I wanted them to see the view outside Grandma's window. I think those kinds of trips and experiences are really possible. These types of field trips have the ability to make people more real, who perhaps your children have never met.
PD: What about introducing surrogate grandparents?
AG: One of the wonderful lessons that I have come away with is that there is such a thing as redefining family. That just because your immediate family is now different than what it once was, and that the two people who you would want most to share in your children's milestones and actually applaud at your child's dance recital or cheer at your son's basketball game, they are not ever going to be replaced. But you can develop relationships with people who can fill the gap. Certainly never completely, but you can move in that direction.
PD: How does one go about finding such surrogates?
AG: There's a matter of extending yourself and realizing that these relationships aren't going to just show up. You actually have to be proactive and seek them out and be receptive to them when they materialize, because people don't know if you want that from them. If you are open and receptive, these are relationships you can gain not just for yourself, but for your kids.
Watch the "Parentless Parents" book trailer.
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