Grandma, what a big schedule you have

Grandparenting looks a lot different than it used to.

For starters, it does pilates. And jets across the country for business trips. And runs the House of Representatives, thank you very much.

About 78 million Americans are grandparents, and roughly 39 million of them are Baby Boomers -- a group not known for sitting idle as life marches by. As a whole, grandparents today are healthier, wealthier and more active than in any previous generation. They date. They volunteer. They run corporations -- and marathons.

So where do the grandkids fit in?

"When it comes to a sense of who they are, grandparent is one piece -- and a very important one -- but not the end-all and be-all," said Dale Grubb, a psychology professor at Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea, Ohio. "They have other things to attend to."

There is, of course, no such thing as a "typical" grandparent -- some are in their 40s, some are in their 90s; some are raising their grandchildren, some see them once a year; some are divorced or widowed, some are celebrating decades-long marriages. But for many modern grandparents, the quest to "have it all" -- formerly the domain of women's libbers and working moms -- is a new state of mind.

And they appear to be managing quite successfully.

In the case of Cliff Pierce, a 63-year-old retired Chicago public school teacher, he has weekly yoga and pilates classes to attend to, thrice-weekly racquetball dates, frequent rounds of golf and the occasional Cubs, White Sox or Bulls game.

But every Monday, without fail, you'll find him with his granddaughters, Georgia, 2 1/2, and Lila, 3 months, at their home in Chicago's Bucktown neighborhood.

"About the time Georgia was born, I was retiring," said Pierce. "I felt like it was a great opportunity to get closer with my granddaughter but also help my relationship with my daughter-in-law as well. That's been a real plus."

Pierce reads to the girls and takes them to the zoo, the park, the Kohl Children's Museum. "I feel very comfortable taking care of them," he said. "It just gives me a lot of pleasure to be around and see them grow."

Kathryn Pierce, Cliff's daughter-in-law, is grateful for the help. The 39-year-old stay-at-home mom is well versed in the complexities of modern grandparenting, so she is loath to take her father-in-law for granted. Kathryn's mother, 65-year-old Jill Appell, is a full-time farmer in central Illinois as well as the president of the National Pork Producers Council, a job that requires frequent travel.

"It's definitely a lot of scheduling," Kathryn Pierce said. "If my husband and I are looking for a weekend with just the baby or something, I call her up and say, `What does May look like? What does June look like?' She's not one of those grandmas who's always home."

And that's becoming more the norm, according to Christine Crosby, founder and publisher of Grand, a national magazine based in Palm Coast, Fla., that focuses on grandparenting.

"This generation is in the prime of their health and longevity," Crosby said. "But that also comes with a new attitude. They're not at the end of life by any stretch. They're continuing on.

"I don't think they love their grandchildren any less or any more," she added. "It's just going to take a different shape."

Grubb, who teaches classes on aging and adult development, said studies conducted in the late '90s and early 2000s show that while the amount of contact time between grandparents and their grandchildren has decreased slightly, the quality of the relationships -- as judged by both grandparents and grandchildren -- has changed very little. The relationships continue to be viewed by both parties as mutually affectionate and supportive.

"This bodes well for the grandparent/grandchild relationship. It means the expectations for grandparenthood have changed," Grubb said. "The notion that grandparenthood would consist of being home, waiting for the grandchildren to come by, is not there."

And the studies indicate that the quality of time may be more important than the quantity.

"This generation of grandchildren doesn't believe in the 'Beverly Hillbilly' grandmother image," Crosby said. "They're taking them on trips, spending money on them in the American Girl store, taking them to museums."

Or teaching them to use a backhoe, as Appell does with little Georgia Pierce. "They plant strawberry plants, cook, do Play Doh -- country stuff," Kathryn Pierce said of her daughter's visits to Grandma's farm. "Romping around a cornfield is a big change. We live in (Chicago)."

Of course, the "have it all" model of grandparenting requires a lot of effort from all parties involved -- meticulous scheduling, frequent communicating and, perhaps most important, lots of understanding.

D'one Wagner and her husband, Jeremy, grew up in South Dakota, and both sets of parents still live there (next door to each other, in fact). So taking their 4-month-old daughter, Mackenzie, to visit her grandparents is relatively easy. Assuming they can catch them at home.

Jeremy's father is a health-care consultant whose job requires a lot of travel. Jeremy's mother is the vice president of a bank. During their off time, they take trips to Australia, Alaska and the like. They also have another son in Phoenix and a daughter in Washington, D.C., so their calendars are booked pretty solid.

"It's definitely not 'Let's go to Grandma's' and they're waiting on the porch," said 29-year-old D'one, who lives in Chicago's Lake View neighborhood. "It's 'Where can we nail you down and when?'"

But the Wagners are an innovative clan, and they don't let things like distance and packed schedules stand in the way of family fun. They've designated July 4 as the family holiday, acknowledging that there's too much competition for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Every three years they plan a WAVE (Wagner Adventure Vacation Extravaganza) to a new destination such as Hawaii or the Caribbean. Jeremy's father bought each of his children a Webcam for video conferencing.

"They're very, very busy, but they sacrifice a lot and juggle their schedules a lot to see their grandchildren," D'one said.

And that's the secret to success, said Crosby (who is, herself, a great-grandmother).

"We all have the same amount of time," Crosby said. "Busy people are just more organized. They schedule their time and get more done. A friend of mine who's a real estate executive schedules every Thursday to take her grandchildren to the museum or the science center. She's a top real estate executive, but on Thursdays she just doesn't schedule any appointments, and off they go."

Of course, boundless energy also helps.

Rita Dempsey, 60, works Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays as a nurse at Loyola. She also cares for her husband, Thomas, who is recovering from his second rotator cuff surgery.

But every Tuesday and Friday she baby-sits her grandson Ezekiel, who's almost 4, and granddaughter Hazel, who's almost 2, while her daughter Rita Bramble works as a high school librarian. She also hosts frequent "cousin nights" at her Northwest Side Chicago home -- slumber parties for all her grandchildren, "so they're able to grow up together," she said.

"Taking care of these kids is life-giving," Dempsey said. "I can forget about all the sorrow in the world. Not that I don't want to be aware of it, but I don't think of any of that when I'm with the kids."

Dempsey considers the time she spends with her grandchildren sacrosanct.

"I'd never give up those days," she said. "It would be great if all children had parents to love them, of course, but also older people. Other people to affirm their goodness.

"Just another person who loves them unconditionally."