Review: Lesley Stahl Discusses What's So Grand About Becoming Grandma
Don’t be fooled by the idyllic cover of 60 Minutes star Lesley Stahl’s new book, Becoming Grandma: The Joys and Science of the New Grandparenting.
“[My granddaughters] usually love to be read to, except on this particular day,” Stahl told a crowd gathered at Ann Arbor’s Michigan Theater to see her on Monday evening. “Eventually—this was so unbelievably frustrating—we put an iPhone inside the book I was holding and put on Frozen.”
Stahl’s talk, co-sponsored by the Ann Arbor District Library and Michigan Radio, focused on what she learned while researching her book; the sexism she faced early in her television journalism career; and answering questions from the audience.
But she kicked things off with a joke. “Someone asked me the other day, ‘Who watches 60 Minutes?’ I said ‘Who?’ ‘Old people and their parents.’”
Stahl quickly pointed out, though, that just as Baby Boomers have influenced every facet of American culture, as they’ve marched through each stage of life, they’ve also altered our sense of how we must look and act as we age.
“Grannies don’t have permed gray hair anymore,” said Stahl. “We’re all blonde. And we’re going to the gym three or four times a week.”
And unlike previous generations, aging people may now reasonably expect to live another 30 years beyond retirement.
“One person said, the first 30 years of life are focused on education,” said Stahl. “The next 30 years are about having a family and making money. And the last 30, we don’t really have a plan for. … The best way to spend this bonus time is not sitting at home watching television and being bored. It’s spending time with our grandchildren.”
Stahl argued, in fact, that science has demonstrated that involved grandparents reap significant health benefits, and that not spending time with grandchildren actually disrupted the natural order. The earliest human families had a mother and a father that hunted and gathered food during the day, while grandparents cared for babies; and a similar structure carried over into pre-urban agricultural societies.
“Now we have the nuclear family, but it’s not natural to not be a part of our grandchildren’s lives,” said Stahl, noting that just as a woman's brain is re-wired after giving birth, a grandmother's brain is also re-wired. “When we don’t see them—even when it’s just been 3 hours—we crave them.”
Stahl said her book was inspired by the euphoric feeling—“like falling in love”—that washed over her when she first held her baby granddaughter. “It’s different from the love you have for your own children,” said Stahl. “You’re distracted by worry, and an overwhelming sense of responsibility. … When you’re a grandparent, we don’t have that. We love that child completely, without any distraction.”
This is why, Stahl said, “no matter how strict we were as parents—sit up straight, do your homework, eat your vegetables—we flip from being a disciplinarian to a mushball.”
Grandparents also now spend more on their grandchildren than any previous generation has. “Grandparents today are spending seven times more than grandparents did just 10 years ago,” Stahl said, citing big ticket costs like health care and daycare (and in her case, a piano).
Regarding her early work as a journalist, Stahl told the story of the Senate hearings on Watergate, which were broadcast daily on all three networks; Stahl was asked to be part of a panel of analysts that would discuss, each night, what had happened at the hearings that day, but her fellow male panelists talked over her and never let her speak. Her boss, after receiving viewer complaints—accusations that the men were being rude to Stahl—finally told the male reporters that they had to let her speak, or the whole thing would be shut down.
The moderator of the broadcast that followed threw out a question regarding the gossip surrounding a D.C. figure, and Stahl sat back, deciding she’d let the men deal with the gossip question.
“They sit there, and there’s dead silence,” said Stahl. “It was excruciating. Then Daniel Schorr jumps in and says, ‘You asked for gossip—well, we have a woman here.’ I was so angry. I started talking, but nothing sensible came out of this mouth.”
This related to Stahl’s analysis about working mothers of her generation struggling to work out a work/life balance. “We were just struggling to get into the workplace,” said Stahl. “We wanted to prove we could do the job as well as men, and that led to us trying to be like men. Men didn’t breastfeed, so we didn’t breastfeed, either.”
Stahl is still working, of course, and while her granddaughters aren’t particularly impressed that Grandma’s on TV—“They think you’re all on TV. To them, it’s just what grandmas do,” said Stahl—the oldest was at least wowed when Grandma got to meet Taylor Swift.
And Stahl explained that although 60 Minutes may appear to be still heavily skewed toward men, by way of the show’s correspondents, “Many of the producers are women. When I go to work, it doesn’t feel like a male enclave…Women do pretty well in journalism…I never felt like I was not one of the group. It’s a wonderful place to work. I love what I do, and they haven’t asked me to leave yet.”
Jenn McKee is a former staff arts reporter for The Ann Arbor News, where she primarily covered theater and film events, and also wrote general features and occasional articles on books and music.