Wisdom for families on divorce and growing your nonprofit
Claire Barnes  415.203.8278

Home About MeNonprofit ServicesRepresentative OrganizationsGuest SpeakerImpact of Divorce on America's Children
My BlogsPaymentI'm Still Your Grandma; I'm Still Your Grandpa

Wisdom for families on divorce and growing your nonprofit

Watch Your Step for Grandparents

by Claire Barnes on 08/22/14

One of the major parts of this relocation move has been the necessary (and pleasurable) task of hanging pictures.  My husband and I love hanging pictures and as we relived travel memories, family relationships and special mementos, we practically covered the walls in our new house. That was in late April.

And then it occurred to me last week:  a picture of my (step)grandmother is nowhere to be found in my house.  It’s like she didn’t exist!  When in fact, she was the only grandmother I ever knew.  How could I have disregarded her memory so significantly as to not even put her picture up?  And maybe it means more to me now that I am a (step)grandmother myself.

My mother’s mother died when she was a toddler, leaving behind a widower to raise six children – four boys and two girls.  To my grandfather’s credit, he kept the family all together and eventually married Jenny Ellis, a County School Superintendent in rural Nebraska.  Her sister was also a County School Superintendent.   (I wish I could have known them – they must have been awesome, pioneer women.)  Jenny and my grandfather had a son together, raising the total of the number of children in the family to seven.

Jenny was in her eighties by the time I came along.  In fact, we even lived with her for a couple of years while my parents were in the process of purchasing a house.  To me she was GRANDMA.  I helped her braid her hair because her hands were arthritic; she let me help her with the dishes; she took me to church and told me Bible stories; she helped care for me when I was sick; and she let me eat cookies for breakfast. 

After we moved into our own home, Jenny lived with us a little while before she moved into a nursing home.  I occasionally stayed home from school on those few occasions when it was better for her to not be alone.  It was when she died that all this ‘step’business came up and I came to understand she had been a replacement mother to the first six children.  I also learned that my mother’s older sister had always resented her – so much so she didn’t even come to her funeral.

I am now a step-grandmother.  When our daughter married a father with custody of his two children, I sought out the counsel of a very good friend (and therapist) who advised me that the two young children joining our family were now also our grandchildren.  They are, after all, just children and along for the ride with the adults.  That was very wise advice and my husband and I have tried to embrace them with our own grandson when we are fortunate enough to spend time with the three of them. 

It’s still hard, though.  No matter how much one tries, the blood that binds family members together can interfere with our willingness to love and appreciate those who come into our families by choosing to do so.  Because of the high divorce rate in our country, most American children will eventually acquire step-parents and step-grandparents, and become stepchildren themselves.  In fact, 33% of all Boomers over the age of 65 are now step-grandparents. http://firstthings.org/step-grandparents

Have you noticed?  Step relatives always get the bad rap in fairy tales.  Stepmothers, stepfathers, stepsisters and stepbrothers – are the cause of the difficulties for our heroes and heroines.  The human psyche struggles so much with substitutes, that having difficulty loving replacements for our blood kin has been memorialized for centuries in fables and even in the Bible.

I wish I could include in this Blog some helpful hints on how to make the Step-grandparenting role easier.  Instead, I will rely on my dear friend and British Columnist, and Agony Aunt, Suzie Hayman  to advise all of us:  i've always been so careful to make it clear that I am my stepson's stepmum, not his mother. I say that he is my son but I am not his mother. It's hard sometimes because his mother is dead and his wife considers me to be his parent. but I was overwhelmed when he told me they were expecting a child becasue he said, specifically, that I was to be a grandmum, not a stepgrandmum. and that's the trick - to be aware of the boundaries but give unconditional love.

Thank you Suzie.  I am now signing off to go hang a picture of Grandma Jenny.

What's Your Boomer EQ? Part 4

by Claire Barnes on 08/12/14

What’s Your Boomer EQ?  Part 4


Now that you Know Yourself,  can Manage Yourself, and have Motivation for healthy emotions, the next big step in building your Emotional Intelligence toolkit is Understanding Others.  I propose this stage is where Boomers, because of their life experience, could exceed where other people struggle.

Understanding others is basic to human interaction, especially when you desire to reduce stress and conflict in your life.  The simplest example I can give follows.  When I stepped out of my job in 2013, my husband was still working a high stress job in law enforcement.  The first hint of possible difficulties  occurred to me as he dashed out the door of our condo at 6:30 a.m. to catch his bus while I sipped a leisurely cup of coffee.  It was apparent an extended period of my leisure while he continued to work a job he was ready to leave could build resentment and cause serious difficulties for us as a couple.  It was absolutely necessary for us to mutually commit to a life blueprint strategizing when he could retire.

As the plan developed, my ‘work’ energy shifted focus to developing and implementing our retirement relocation plan.  The driving element for the plan to work was acute attention to financial details.  I lived and breathed personal budgets and spreadsheets, much like I had when I was running a nonprofit.  My husband, who admittedly has no affinity for numbers, needed the same information I had in order to be empowered about the direction we were headed.

Choosing the right time to review complex financial details so he could internalize them required a delicate wisdom and respect for his work schedule.  It’s accurate to say we did not have our budget discussions M-F, after 5 p.m.; rather, Saturday or Sundays over coffee or breakfast were the designated times when we would both be fresh and could garner enthusiasm for our future.  Another retired couple I know have a weekly date to review calendars and other activities relevant to them both.  This ‘Tuesdays with Tootie’ date to communicate, puts a fun spin on a necessary tool for successful couples – picking a time to talk about delicate subjects reducing the risk of misunderstandings, arguments or fighting.

Here are three necessary skills which, when developed, will enrich your ability to understanding others:

  1. Nonverbal communication.  I wrote extensively about the value of non-language communication in an April, 2012 HuffPost blog titled The Power of Silence.   The human species developed without the use of verbal language and although we have evolved to become heavily dependent on verbal or written linguistics to express ourselves, we have never lost the aptitude to communicate silently.  Nonverbal cues are usually involuntary -- a smile, a shrug, a grimace, a frown, a high five – generally occur without planning.  They just happen.  Staying tuned in to nonverbal cues when you are having a complex exchange with another human being can help you facilitate the communication.  Is their body ‘open’ or ‘closed’ to your ideas?  Is the other person nodding in agreement or frowning when you express yourself.  Pay attention to nonverbals and shift your expressions accordingly.

  2. Empathy  This is a huge communication topic in our current societal discourse.  From international relationships to personal ones, finding a way to empathize during conflict with others is absolutely necessary for progress in resolving disagreements.  The innate wisdom in ‘standing in another’s shoes’ AND expressing an understanding of how another feels, goes a long way in diffusing struggles.  Importantly, empathy results in a ‘zero sum’ outcome.  Translation:  when empathy is used, no one loses and everybody wins.  This idea is foreign in our culture which places a high value on winning.  Putting our self-interests aside in order to find a solution agreeable to everyone is both challenging and necessary to facilitate harmony in our relationships.

  3. Listening  I have to admit……I have to work at being a good listener.  But I’m trying.  Listening and acknowledging what another communicates can only help when there is conflict.  Listening requires one to be nonjudgmental, reflective and willing to problem solve AFTER someone has expressed his or her point of view.  In Tina Fey’s book, Bossypants, she talks at length about her experience in improv.  She writes the first rule is improv is to agree with the speaker who precedes you.  This hint is valuable on the stage and off.  If you want to make a point, start by agreeing with the other person, then proceed with expressing your point of view.

And remember, as you evolve to a fully accomplished master of EQ, you are modeling healthy behavior for your children and grandchildren.  What a wonderful family legacy.

What's Your Boomer EQ? Part 3

by Claire Barnes on 08/05/14

Motivation!    Part 3 of learning successful Emotional Intelligence (EQ) skills is affirming your motivation for healthy emotions.  Motivation is what causes us to act.

Having accomplished Part 1, Know Yourself (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/claire-n-barnes-ma/whats-your-boomer-eq-part_b_5617070.html ) and Part 2, Manage Yourself (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/claire-n-barnes-ma/whats-your-boomer-eq-part_b_5638172.html?utm_hp_ref=retirement ), it’s time to determine if you are motivated to develop better relationships with others.

A nonprofit organization I volunteered for had a Board President who was a retired statistician.  He prided himself in his autocratic leadership style, and whenever he would rub people the wrong way (which was quite frequently), he would say, ‘But I’m a statistician.’  Translation – don’t blame me if I can’t relate to others; I work with numbers!  Unfortunately, the organization lost volunteers who were turned off by the Board President’s (lack of) leadership style.

Making a case for maintaining behavior which causes difficulties suggests there is a payoff for that behavior.  In the case of the statistician, his payoff was never having to expend energy to learn to get along with others AND he ran off volunteers who might disagree with him.

We all know people who are self-sacrificing for their friends and relatives.  Often, these individuals sacrifice their resources at the expense of themselves – finances, housing, emotional energy – and then complain about it later.  I call this rescuing behavior the ‘martyr of the year’ syndrome. The obvious payoff for this behavior is finding glory in self-sacrifice – even if it causes personal suffering.

Enough already.  Let’s examine Motivation for healthy behavior.

When I was facilitating a group of parents who were in the middle of separating from their spouses, I asked them:  What is the payoff for healthier behavior in the midst of difficulties?   Here are some of their answers:

  1. You eat and sleep better

  2. Your self-esteem improves

  3. You are not distracted from work or from parenting

  4. You model healthier behavior for your children

  5. Your improve your physical health

  6. You maintain your sense of humor

  7. You become adaptable to new situations

  8. You reduce risk for substance abuse.

Remember, items on this list were articulated by adults in the middle of a crisis.  Even through the emotional confusion created by divorce or separation, they could identify motivating factors which would stimulate their desire to change unhealthy behaviors. 

Every item on the list is applicable to Boomers.  Improved health, emotional stability, willingness to risk new experiences, and overall well-being must be priorities for individuals who have spent a lifetime caring for the well-being of others.

Become your own cheerleader.  Get Motivated!

What's Your Boomer EQ? Part 2

by Claire Barnes on 07/31/14

On July 24, 2014, I posted Part 1 of this five part series, an online tutorial on the value of Emotional Intelligence (EQ).  I propose Boomers can be effective users of EQ given their life experience and knowledge gleaned after years of interactions with others. 

Enough struggling! 

Having lived through raising families, challenging careers, complex economies, divorces – remarriages – divorces, health difficulties, and so on, 50+ Boomers merit harmony in their lives.

The working definition of EQ has been simplified somewhat to inspire a lay reader.  EQ is the value of people understanding themselves and how they react in situations, then using that understanding to improve their relationships with others.   Recognizing that EQ raises the performance levels of people when their relationships are successful, Emotional Intelligence has been adapted for use by educational systems, social services, counselors and therapists, the military and governmental agencies.

EQ is accessible to anyone. 

Part 1:  Know Yourself was explained in detail here:  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/claire-n-barnes-ma/whats-your-boomer-eq-part_b_5617070.html. 

Part 2:  Manage Yourself   Manage Yourself encourages managing upsetting feelings so they don’t manage you. 

Here are some effective strategies:

  • The Six Second Pause  Contemporary brain science suggests that when confronted with a difficult situation, our emotions kick in immediately. (Ref:  http://www.6seconds.org/2004/02/05/why-six-seconds-about-our-intriguing-name/ .)   Often compared to the fight/flight response, humans are designed to respond in order to keep themselves safe.   Like a runner who jumps the starting gun in a footrace, our emotions jump out ahead of our intellect or ability to reason.  Someone cuts you off in traffic…..flip ‘em the middle finger.  An ex-partner sends you an angry email……you quickly send an equally angry response in BOLD ALL CAPS.  Someone cuts in front of you in the market check-out line……you create a scene in the store.


    It takes six seconds for our intellect to catch up with our emotions.  By counting to six, you buy time to use your ability to reason and react without raising your blood pressure.  Try it.  Giving yourself time to calm down will take that knot out of your gut.


  • Do It Differently  This advice seems so simple, but after 50+ years of behavior imprinting on your brain, it’s often a struggle to find alternatives to typical situations.  Here’s a personal example.  My husband and I lived in San Francisco for eighteen years.  He hates (HATES!) to parallel park and the anticipation of doing so can be upsetting to him.  His alternatives were: take the bus; I would drive; go to his destination when he could anticipate there would be other parking.  There is always an alternative option and if you put your mind to it, you can find one.


  • Is it a Big Deal?   My (third) husband and I will celebrate our eighteenth anniversary soon.  I have evolved in life to realize that irritating topics and annoyances which bothered me twenty-five or thirty years ago, are really no big deal today.  Also, I don’t have the need to be right when we disagree.  Harmony in more important in our home than winning arguments over prickly irritations.  When I literally feel my ego driving my position in a disagreement, I often acknowledge ‘it’s no big deal’ if we have different viewpoints.  This is critical as we are spending more time together in retirement. 


Time to revisit the friend I referenced in Part 1 of this series.  Susan is a mature, accomplished retiree who divorced her ex over twenty years ago.  She still becomes upset and anxious if she has to see her ex at family gatherings or other social occasions.  She used to avoid these situations whenever possible disappointing her adult children and grandchildren.

 But over the years, she has learned to Manage Herself by: 

  1. Taking a friend along for unconditional moral support

  2. Explaining to her adult children she still has hurt feelings associated with the divorce and soliciting their understanding if she leaves early (or arrives later) to limit contact with her ex

  3. Keeping a journal to memorialize her growth in interacting with her ex. 

The last strategy – a journal – led Susan to grow in her ability to be around her ex.  She changed……he didn’t.  Her anxieties diminished and she was able to enjoy her children and grandchildren even in his presence.

Part 3 Motivation for healthy feelings will be the topic for next week.  In the meantime, practice counting to six and managing upsetting emotions.  You deserve peace and tranquility in your life

What's your Boomer EQ? Part 1

by Claire Barnes on 07/24/14

Those of us Boomers who have reached the post-50 phase of life have done so anticipating a gentle transition to a reduced work schedule, retirement, travel, hobbies and quality relationships with family and friends.  However, as a dear friend and colleague once counseled me, our own expectations can be the cause of our biggest disappointments, it can come as a big surprise if any our anticipated dreams do not materialize.

As Executive Director of Kids’ Turn (San Francisco), I developed a curriculum based on Emotional Intelligence (EQ) designed to help separating parents and the children navigate the conflict when a  family reorganizes.  I left that position in 2013 to focus on a major life transition (see Retirement Relocation Is Not for Sissies here:  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/claire-n-barnes-ma/retirement-relocation-is-not-for-sissies_b_5381146.html ).  As my husband and I work together to craft a new life in a new community, I am encountering more Boomers.  I’ve come to realize the Emotional Intelligence skills we taught Bay Area families have a solid application for those of us traversing life changes for which we have no roadmap.

Our retirement is not that of our parents. We are living longer and are healthier than our parents; many of us contribute resources to adult children, grandchildren and even to our aged parents.  Our vitality and intellectual curiosity stimulates new ideas for avocations or even employment.  All of these experiences broaden our opportunities for new situations and relationships with the people who are in them.

The expression, ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ predicts our newer relationships will develop the same way all our others did – that we will repeatedly seek out familiar settings and personality types -- even the toxic ones.  I am suggesting that Emotional Intelligence (EQ) can be a useful guide to finding fresh ways to navigate new friendships and circumstances.  The results can be validating, empowering and even life changing.  To that point, I am providing an EQ roadmap for Boomers in a series of five blogs. 

Emotional Intelligence (EQ) was developed in the 1990’s, and simply articulates the value of people understanding themselves and how they react in situations, then using that understanding to improve their relationships with others. Simple, right? Not always. 

Step #1:  Know Yourself  The first step in EQ is to ‘know yourself’.  Boomers might have an advantage here as we have lived long enough to develop consistency in the way we react to situations.  Our children are hurting…….we jump into fix things.  A partner/friend is angry with us……we become argumentative or withdraw until the storm blows over.  Someone cuts in front of us in the grocery check-out……we become angry and create a scene.  A loved one criticizes…….we are hurt and retreat to lick invisible wounds.  For most life episodes, you can predict how you might react based on your own life history and the memory imprint in your brain.

This would be powerful knowledge if all our reactions were favorable. Unfortunately, negative life episodes are part of the equation and may have left us wounded and anxious.  It is the unfavorable feelings that create anxious energy and can inhibit our spontaneous willingness to move forward with a new adventure.  Rather than embracing a new possibility, we become stuck in old habits.

Here’s an example:  A friend of mine, long divorced, gets upset whenever there is a family gathering and she has to encounter her ex-husband.  She divorced her husband over twenty years ago and they both moved on with their lives.  Unencumbered by an unhappy marriage, her career soared and she is now comfortably retired.  Her ex-husband married a younger woman and started a second family.  There are still family events where she is expected to attend (wants to attend), but sadness and tearful episodes in anticipation of seeing her ex impede her enjoyment of celebrations. 

What to do?  We will examine solutions for my friend in the next blog:  Manage Yourself.

In the meantime, the next time you anticipate or are having a Boomer life experience and negative feelings return for a visit, record the feelings.  Write them down somewhere using your own words (ex:  sad, worried, frustrated, gloomy, rejected, angry, miserable ).  Naming strong feelings often diminishes their impact.  Don’t spend energy on extensive self-examination to figure out WHY you feel that way. The fact is, you are having the feeling and it is part of who you are.  The trick will be how to effectively manage the feeling so it doesn’t manage you.