Lesley Stahl shares grandparenting insights in new book

Susan Whitall
The Detroit News
“Becoming Grandma: The Joys and Science of the New Grandparenting” by Lesley Stahl.

In more than four decades as a journalist, Lesley Stahl has had a few thrills.

One of a handful of women reporters working for the networks in the 1970s, she reported on Watergate, then became CBS News’ White House correspondent during the Carter, Reagan, and part of the first Bush presidency. Stahl interviewed heads of state for “Face the Nation,” and for the past 25 years has traveled around the globe filing Emmy-winning reports for “60 Minutes.”

But five years ago, when she held Jordan, her first grandchild, in her arms, those career highs melted away in seconds, replaced by a visceral, electric surge of joy. She was a grandmother.

Stahl writes about her experience but also uses her reporting skills to illuminate the highs (and some lows) of grandparenthood for others in “Becoming Grandma: The Joys and Science of the New Grandparenting” (Blue Rider Press). She will speak about the book at the Metro Detroit Book & Author Society Spring Luncheon on May 16.

“I think the intensity of that reaction may be connected to your age,” Stahl said of her instant connection with her grandchild, with a laugh. “Especially if you spent 10 years or more pining for a grandchild.”

Stahl has been married for almost 40 years to author and journalist Aaron Latham (“Urban Cowboy,” “Perfect”), and has one daughter, Taylor. And now, two grandchildren — Jordan, 5, and Chloe, 2 1/2.

Having missed much of her daughter’s childhood while on the road for “60 Minutes,” Stahl was determined not to miss anything with her grandchild.

She discovered that things had changed a lot for young parents since her daughter was born in the 1970s, and it wasn’t just about new gadgets.

“I think (the current generation) are more conscientious parents than we were,” Stahl said.

Born in 1941, she predates baby boomers by a few years but identifies with that generation.

“Somebody I quote in the book said we were so intent on getting into the workplace. I feel that their attentiveness (to their children) is a rebuke to my generation, I feel it in my gut. And I think my daughter is an infinitely better parent than I was.”

Although there were times when Stahl bridled at her daughter Taylor’s rules — no canned baby food, no “Spongebob Squarepants” (it seems, watching the beloved sponge made Jordan hyper), she learned to bite her tongue.

Lesley Stahl on the road with her daughter, Taylor, when she was a youngster.

Unlike her own mother, but like many young mothers today, Taylor assumed she would breast-feed, and used a breast pump when she went to work. Seeing her struggle, Stahl gently suggested the occasional bottle of formula, or hiring help with the housework, but after several rebuffs, she tamped down that urge to advise.

It’s important that grandparents do that, but also that young parents realize that their own parents will be different with their grandchildren, Stahl said.

This fear of controlling grandparents leads to problems. Stahl was surprised to find several women in her circles of friends who had been banished from their beloved grandchild’s life.

“I heard from a friend who was going through it,” Stahl said. “After she told me, in gasps and tears, I began to discover that it’s fairly widespread. Even if the grandparents aren’t denied complete access, a lot are rationed. It hurt me, it surprised me, and so many of the grandparents I spoke to would say, ‘I don’t know what I did.’ ”

Sometimes it’s a daughter-in-law who just can’t stand her mother-in-law, or a woman rebelling against her own mother. There are many reasons.

Stahl writes about a particularly tragic outcome of 9-11. There were many widows created on that sad day, whose husbands didn’t come home from work in the Twin Towers. Wanting a fresh start, they cut off contact with their late spouse’s parents.

“It’s for many different reasons, but the suffering that comes to the grandparents is the same,” Stahl said.

It’s a shame, she notes, because grandparents can be trusted caregivers, with the time to be able to step in and help.

“In most cases, both parents are having to work, and they’re worried about child care, which is hideously expensive, and they are desperate for somebody they really trust to take care of their children.”

And boomer parents have the money.

“Millennials were hit hard by the recession and are just beginning to recover,” she said.

Grandchildren are good for one’s health, Stahl found, observing her close friends and family. Her “60 Minutes” colleague, the late Bob Simon, suffered from depression for years, but there was an almost overnight change after the birth of his grandchild, Jack.

“Jack brought me joy, which I hadn’t experienced in a long time,” the longtime war correspondent told her.

Stahl’s own husband, Latham, found that his Parkinson’s disease symptoms lessened for some time after Jordan’s birth (the symptoms have since come back).

It isn’t just biological grandparenting that interests Stahl. She wrote about Hope Meadows, a converted military base in Illinois, where children are taken out of the foster care system to live in houses with their foster and adoptive parents, in the same “neighborhood” with unrelated older people. It was accidental, but Hope Meadows discovered that the older people jumped into the role of honorary grandparents with relish.

Stahl also writes about stepgrandparents, a phenomenon of divorce she noticed with friends such as ABC News’ Diane Sawyer. Sawyer had no kids of her own, but dotes on the grandchildren she got via her husband, late director Mike Nichols.

“They talk about their grandchildren exactly the way I did, using the same words, same emotion, same attachment,” Stahl said.

Of course, while she touts the benefits of the grandparent-grandchild bond, Stahl admits the exceptions.

“Nothing is universal in all of this. If you say all grandmothers are madly in love with their grandchildren, many are not. It’s ‘for the most part.’ ”

Susan Whitall is a Metro Detroit freelance writer.

Metro Detroit Book & Author Society Spring Luncheon

May 16

Burton Manor, 27777 Schoolcraft, Livonia

Other featured authors

Steve Hamilton: A graduate of the University of Michigan, where he won a Hopgood writing award, Hamilton has won two Edgar Awards for his mystery bestselling novels, which include a series featuring private investigator (and former Detroit cop) Alex McKnight. His latest novel is “The Second Life of Nick Mason.”

Mary Norris: The longtime New Yorker staffer (since 1978) has written for “The Talk of the Town” column on many topics, including mud wrestling and her cousin, Ohio politician Dennis Kucinich. She is also a proofreader at the magazine, which led to her new book, “Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen.”

Dorothea Benton Frank: Frank writes evocatively of her native Low Country of South Carolina, illuminating women’s issues via her storytelling, especially the trials and triumphs of women “of a certain age.” The bestselling author of 10 novels, including “Sullivan’s Island” and “Plantation,” Frank’s latest book is “All the Single Ladies.”

Book sales start at 11 a.m.; book luncheon at noon. Books will be autographed by authors after the luncheon.

Tickets are $40, available online at bookandauthor.info or by phone at (586) 685-5750.