When my daughter's first baby had colic and woke every 20 minutes, I suggested that she be left to cry a little while before being picked up. My daughter glared at me, a thousand daggers. "You would suggest that," she said, and burst into tears herself. I could see that my daughter was at her wits' end and could tolerate no suggestions at this tender, early stage of motherhood. She needed me to say, "You're doing everything right," which she was, essentially — or would be soon enough. I regretted my remark for the entire hour-long subway ride from her home back to my apartment.
Some days, it seemed fine to say, "I think the baby might need an extra blanket," but every once in a while even such a mild, meant-to-be-helpful comment would cause my daughter to get tears in her eyes. Those tears would make me want to cry, and there we were: two tearful grown women and one slightly chilled infant.
Can You Talk?
Open lines of communication are fine in theory, and frankness and honesty are virtues most of the time. But if you happen to be a grandparent who hopes to be invited to the school play, the piano recital or the birthday party, you had better seal your lips. Not speaking your mind is the number-one commandment for would-be beloved grandparents. No one is as sensitive as a young parent or more apt to snap your head off if you criticize, offer help when not asked, or comment ever-so-gently on anything from food choices to bedtimes, from discipline to reading habits. I am tempted to break this commandment all the time. I see clearly what is not so obvious to my children. I am calm when they are rattled. I am clear when they change their minds, muddle, weaken, spoil their offspring. Ah, my poor tongue is sore from being bitten.
I've managed not to say, "Why is your daughter wearing that dress to her birthday party when I have given her a far more beautiful one?" Or, "It's time to get that child to give up her really revolting blanket. It smells so bad that I have to open all the windows after each visit." In time the blanket will go, and it doesn't matter what dress is worn to the party. I don't want to risk hurting my children, who hear my voice in a special way. A friend or neighbor can say almost anything without raising hackles. I can say almost nothing without causing pain. When I say, "I think the bath is too hot," I simply mean that the water may be too warm for the baby. But my daughters might hear me say, "You can't get the bath temperature right, what's the matter with you?" From me, my daughters want support, admiration, encouragement — and that is all they want. They have books, the internet and friends for everything else.
Finding Your Way
My own mother died when my first child was barely 2. I have no model for how I should be in this wonderful but sometimes strange role. I often think of my mother and how much she would have enjoyed being a grandmother. I resolve to do it right, as best I can, in her memory.
One day, my daughter snatched a packet of raisins out of my hand just as I was offering some to her child. "That is a choking hazard," she snapped. Raisins were once a staple snack and none of my children ever choked. I said so. My daughter turned away from me and her disapproval swept me out into a sea of despond. Things have changed since my grown children were babies; the dos and don'ts have altered. I am tempted to leave the child seat in the car empty and hold the wriggling baby on my lap. After all, my children never saw a car seat and still made it to Freshman Week. But when I raised this, I was greeted with such deep disapproval you might have thought I'd suggested throwing the baby out the sixth-floor window. So now I buckle the protesting toddler into the seat and say nothing about what a peaceful drive we might have if car seats had never been invented.
[photo anne max-width=150 align=left]A Difference in Kind
Although the love of a grandparent is not weak or humble or without its own obsessions, it is not the same as parental love. The difference, I believe, comes from the degree of identification with the child. As the grandmother I do not feel every twitch, disappointment or restraint on freedom as a rip in my soul, but I notice my daughters respond as if they themselves are the ones who want a third helping of ice cream or who desperately need to stay up another half-hour past a frequently unenforced bedtime. It's easy enough to be stern when the baby is not your baby, so close to your heart, a baby whose every breath is your breath. Love my grandchildren as I may, I still love my own children more, and I can't sleep when they get mad at me.
My concern is always split between my child and her child. "Your mother is tired," I want to say to a grandchild. "She doesn't want to play that game again. Let her sit in peace." Out of my love for my grandchild, I want to say to my daughter, "Enough TV and video. That child's brain cells are about to turn into bird feed. If she's watching that model show at age 10, what is she going to be doing at 15?" But then I can't help thinking about what's best for my daughter, who needs a rest from the constant requests, needs, questions. "You should go away for a few days," I want to say, "buy the cupcakes for the class party, go out to a movie."
On the other hand, I can see the child's view too: My mother was too busy to make my cupcakes. My mother went away for four whole days and I wasn't sure she would return. I haven't seen her all day and now she is going out again. Both views knock against each other in my heart and create a certain acid burning that is not relieved by over-the-counter medication. I have learned that it is best to smile at both parent and child, offer to make the cupcakes myself, but never to judge or come out on one side or the other.
You could argue that as a grandparent I have a responsibility to say what I think, while my children should feel free to disregard my comments — but it isn't so simple. The pride and hope and vulnerability of a young parent is so enormous, her confidence so easily shaken (I remember), that critical words can be heard as an attack on her very soul. Challenge her competence and you strike at her heart.
Decisions as Rebuttals
Most children when they become parents try to outdo their parents. My mother never let me have a dog, so my child will have a dog before she can say 'bowwow'. My mother and father took long vacations every year without me, so I will never leave my children even for a weekend. My parents were lunatics about saving money, so I will buy anything that is shiny and plastic and lights up. This natural response is hard on grandparents. We suddenly see what our children objected to in their own childhoods by what choices they make for their children. You never let me play football, so I am going to enter my son in the junior football league at age 4. You were a vegetarian and a health nut; we go to McDonald's every Sunday. There's no point in arguing about these choices or commenting on them. If we interfere, we will surely get an earful of complaints about what we did wrong. No parent is perfect. Almost all children wish that something were different about their childhoods. It was boring in the suburbs. It was terrible in the city. As grandparents, we can only watch and hope that our children's choices will prove in the end to be like ours — a mixed bag of good and bad.
I look at my grown children pushing their strollers, picking up their children at school, arranging lessons, buying clothes — and I remember doing all those things myself. I know that this is their time; mine is over. That makes me sad sometimes. I wouldn't mind if a baby were delivered to my apartment door with a note, "Take care of me," pinned to a diaper. I wouldn't mind starting all over again. But that isn't going to happen.
Wonderful as it is, being a grandparent doesn't provide you a second chance to do everything over again. It does allow you to play in the fields of the next generation — to enjoy the laughter, the games, the physical contact, the accomplishments of children you love beyond reason. Being a grandparent allows you to appreciate your own children in a new way: Look what they do, look what they've produced. It gives us, as we age, a glimpse of the future and promises us a presence — if only through our DNA — in years to come.
This article is adapted from Anne Roiphe's essay in Eye of My Heart: 27 Writers Reveal the Hidden Pleasures and Perils of Being a Grandmother (Harper), edited by Grandparents.com columnist Barbara Graham.
How well do you get along with your grandchild and other family members? Want to know if your personalities mesh?Find out here.