by Carrie Frye | Photography by Dave Lauridsen
Sunday night viewers know Lesley Stahl as the “60 Minutes” Emmy award-winning broadcast journalist now in her 26th season at the top-rated CBS news program. She’s also a former White House correspondent for the Carter, Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations. However, it is the role of grandmother that changed her perspective and led to her to write her New York Times best-selling book, “Becoming Grandma: The Joys and Science of the New Grandparenting” last year.
Filled with an overwhelming joy and love for her first granddaughter, Jordan, Stahl approached the book with her investigative-reporting skills, looking for the answers as to why and how this role is affecting her and her fellow baby boomers.
From her CBS office in New York City, Stahl, 75, discusses her research, her hope in reaching her daughter’s generation in their consideration of their mothers and mothers-in-law, her most difficult interview and the legacy she wants to leave with her granddaughters.
ONC: Tell us about your decision to write and the journey that led to “Becoming Grandma.”
LS: It’s kind of a funny story of how I got to write the book. The publisher of Blue Rider Press used to be with Simon & Schuster, which published my first book (“Reporting Live”), and he asked me if I would write a book about “60 Minutes.” And I said to him, “I am not crazy. How can I write a book about a place where I’m actually still working (laughs) and be honest, because they’ll fire you, and if you’re not going to be honest, it would be pretty dull,” so I said, “That’s ridiculous.”
We had just had lunch, and we’re old friends. I was at his wedding, and I always ask about his kids, and I started to talk about my granddaughter at the time. And after I didn’t shut up for a long time, he said, “You know, that would make a book.” And I said, “What?” And he said, “Grandmothers, becoming a grandmother.” I thought, “Oh, no…” And he said, “Do me a favor and just sleep on it.”
And I did, and it kept coming back into my head. Then I began to really wonder if it was a book. My experience alone wouldn’t make a book. I have this ladies lunch group, and I realized three of the women in the group out of five are step-grandmothers, and they talked about their step-grandchildren in exactly the same terms that I was talking about my new grandchild. And I thought, “Well that’s interesting, I wonder what that’s about.”
Then I remembered that I had done a story about a couple of young girls who lived in a place called Grandmothers’ House in the Bronx, and I thought there are a couple of interesting avenues beyond being crazy in love with your grandchildren. I began to map out how many different chapters there could be, and I sat at my computer and got to about 10 chapters. So I thought, “There is a book here, and I’m interested in it.”
Are you surprised at how the book has been received or the audience it has reached?
I am actually not that surprised. I first thought, “Is there a book there and would I enjoy working on it for a couple of years, because books take years, and is there an audience?” And when I looked into the demographics and realized that the baby boomer women are becoming grandmothers now, there is and will continue to be a huge bulge in the population, so I thought there is a big audience out there. Interestingly, I really hoped that there would be more of an audience my daughter’s age who would want to be read it, because it is very much about the mother-daughter relationship or the mother-in-law and daughter relationship.
Were you relieved that your biochemistry findings in your research validated your own overwhelming feelings of grandmother love?
I had met Louann Brizedine long before the idea of the book came to me. I had been asked to interview her at a convention, so I read her book, “The Female Brain,” to get ready for that interview, and it just stayed with me. It is full of unbelievable factoids. She, in her book, talked about the chemistry of mothers when they have a baby, and I thought, “Wonder if she’s ever done any work on grandmothers?”
I called her, and she was so lovely and gracious. She gave me that tidbit, and I was thrilled and excited, because it was the answer. I always thought that the biochemistry would be the very last thing in the book, like finishing the quest to try and find out what is this emotion I am having and then travel, travel, travel, and put it at the end as here’s the answer. It just didn’t come together that way though, so I put it right up front. I didn’t realize that all of us go through these crazy-in-love feelings, so that was important for me to nail down.
How do you feel baby boomers are changing grandparenthood overall?
Technology and economics are really leading the way. There’s a whole explanation of how the baby boomer generation is really the only generation with a lot of money, so we have been stepping in to help with grandchildren financially, and there’s a statistic about how grandparents are spending seven times more on their grandchildren than they did just five years ago. And that’s astonishing. Seven times more.
We are doing all kinds of things that are not just buying toys and books. We are doing big-ticket items and sending them to school, paying doctor bills and all of that. That shows how economics and technology are leading the way, because if we don’t live near our grandchildren, we can see them with FaceTime and Skype. I just think baby boomers with our emphasis on staying young and healthy have more energy, and we want to be involved in our grandchildren’s lives. We’re being drawn in economically and by technology beyond just a physical need to be with our grandchildren. We have the urge to spend time with them and be involved in their lives in some way to raise them. And for a lot of us, we do have the resources, and we want to live near them. If we live near them, inevitably, both parents are going to work today, and they need really good childcare that they can trust. There’s nobody you can trust more than the grandparents, even if you don’t get along with them, you can still trust them as caretakers for the grandchildren, because they love them so much.
Our magazine’s tagline is “Navigating Your Second 50,” but I love the concept you mention in the book of “The Third 30,” so can you expand on that idea and what it means to you?
That concept came to me from Linda Fried, who is the dean of the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia (University.) I had met her at a conference at the Milken Institute, which runs a program for the next chapter, what you do when you retire. She talked about how many people in public health are working on this idea of what do you do when you retire and you still have another third of your life ahead of you. So when I got back to New York, I arranged to interview her for the book. She introduced the 30-30-30 idea to me. My ears popped up, and I thought, “That’s new and interesting and newsworthy.” She became a big part of the book. Instead of ending on the biochemistry, I decided to end on that concept. If you are thinking in terms of what am I going to do after I retire, being with grandchildren is the best part of that, I think, and giving your time, energy and wisdom to them is a pretty good project.
Since you’ve interviewed countless world leaders throughout your amazing career, it truly resonated with me that making a phone call to your son-in-law’s mother was the hardest interview you knew you had to do. Can you talk about the call and what made it so hard for you?
Unbelievable. We really hadn’t been friends until then, and I actually didn’t know how to write about our relationship. I had a lot of trouble with it. My boss asked me about it, because he had read the book for me and gave me some of his wisdom, and he said, “ You don’t talk much about the other grandparents.” I said, “I don’t know how to.” And he gave me the idea of interviewing her, which turned out to be brilliant but so emotional. And then we became friends, and she even gave me a book party. We are such good friends now. Clearing the air and actually talking about it, I never would have thought to do that, never in a million years, if I hadn’t been writing the book and had it suggested to me. It just broke everything open. It turned out to be not only good for the book but also good for the grandchildren, good for the family, good for her and good for me.
Can you offer any advice to help other families bridge that gap with the in-laws in their own lives?
Just talk about it. It never entered my mind to do it, and I am sure there will be situations where it doesn’t work out and a conversation could turn out to be bad, but I think if you can try it delicately, it’s worth it. If there is tension, and there can be a lot of tension in this (in-law) relationship, sometimes there’s a jealousy in this relationship between two sets of grandparents, and sometimes, there are four sets of grandparents. A lot happened in that conversation. I just think we understood each other on a different level, in other words, walking in each other’s shoes, and we hadn’t even thought to do that before.
In “Becoming Grandma,” you explore some amazing concepts like the Hope Meadows community in Illinois, a planned intergenerational community containing foster and adoptive parents, children and older adults that works to support each others’ needs, utilizing the older adults as surrogate grandparents helping with childcare and more. Do you see these types of communities becoming more prevalent?
That concept is spreading. There’s one in Oregon, one in Massachusetts, one in New Orleans and one they are trying to start in Washington, D.C. Each one of them has a slightly different emphasis. There are all kinds of programs I didn’t get into that I researched. There are programs where retired people can help with childcare, help with reading to kids, help with parenting, and just doing it in your community. There are programs within the schools that provide the opportunity for baby boomers to become surrogate grandparents.
I saw a program where an elementary school brings the students to an assisted living community for an afterschool program, and the kids and the residents play and spend their afternoons together. The reason is the bulge in population of the people older than 65 and their health. They’re in good health. It is a wonderful thing for everybody, all three generations. It’s uplifting and improves health, and, obviously, the children benefit from it, because children need grandparents. If they don’t have or get to see their own grandparents, surrogates, as programs like Hope Meadows demonstrate, are wonderful. Parents need help with childcare, so it is a win-win-win, all the way around. I loved Hope Meadows. I was just blown away.
Over the course of the book, were you still writing when your second granddaughter Chloe was born?
Yes! I agreed to write the book and was taking notes on everything. My daughter was trying to tell me she was pregnant, and I just wrote the whole thing down. She was saying, “Jordan is going to have a baby sister.” I was able to record what Jordan was saying about the new baby coming. All of that happened in the course of me researching and writing the book, so I think there is a sort of presence to it, almost like a diary in a way.
How do you keep that balance of being fair when there are two grandchildren now?
You think it is going to be hard, but it’s not. First of all, they get along pretty well. They are very different, but you find that you just adore them both, and it is so very interesting. I only had one child, so I never went through the idea that you’re going to love two different people at the same level but maybe differently.
Is there something you never thought you would do that you’ve done, like crawling inside the fort in the bedroom or turning your New York apartment into a toy land when you put the child-size kitchen together for Chloe?
It’s still there (laughs). Everyone loves it, and we have a little dollhouse in the back. I always wanted to be a grandmother, even when it was quite too early to want it. And I’m just not disappointed. Often you have your dream, and it disappoints you, but this one is not disappointing.
Any vacation plans for this summer when you are off from “60 Minutes” with Jordan and Chloe?
We always spend July together every year. We always go to Nantucket. I haven’t seen them in awhile. So, for the weekend, I’m getting on an airplane and going to see them. My husband can’t go because he is having deep brain stimulation for his Parkinson’s, his last one of the three procedures and won’t be able to travel yet. I just miss them too much, so I’m going to go see them for the weekend, for two days. I know it’s nutty, but I have enough miles that I can do it.
You mentioned the healing power of grandchildren and how it seemed to help with the progression of your husband’s Parkinson’s disease. Did you still find that to be the case?
I can only tell you that Parkinson’s progresses inevitably, and you can do everything possible to make the quality of life good. The boxing program he participates in does that, and the deep brain stimulation is going to do that, and it has already had a huge impact. None of it slows the progression of the disease, but being with his grandchildren gives him so much joy and happiness.
Lastly, what do you want Chloe and Jordan to think of when they think of you?
I want them to subconsciously know that there is someone in this world who loves them more than they love anybody else, except their mother (laughs). I think children need to know that there are people who just love them and think they are the most special, beautiful, smart, nice, kind, fabulous person who ever lived, and I want them to feel that. I want them to feel that they are loved.