So I’m sitting downstairs in the living room feeling useless while upstairs my daughter-in-law and her mother scurry about, attending to the new baby girl who has just arrived home from the hospital. I have been a grandmother for five days, and this is my first taste of Mother of the Father Syndrome.
Don’t get me wrong. I adore my daughter-in-law and I’m confident the feeling is mutual. We love taking long walks together and chatting over endless cups of mint tea. If we weren’t related by marriage, we would be good friends. I am close to her mother, too.
There is a mysterious transmission of accumulated wisdom and babycare know-how that seems to pass along bloodlines from maternal grandmothers to their adult daughters. No doubt this is biology at work, and paternal grandmothers are simply not part of that intimate loop. Still, I successfully raised a child myself and so when my daughter-in-law turns primarily to her mother for advice, I’m caught off guard. Feeling like a third wheel on a hot date is not something I anticipated.
In fact, I only realized I felt this way about two minutes ago when I poked my head in the door of the baby’s room. Mother and daughter were hovering over the wriggling infant, animatedly discussing diaper rash. Having nothing pithy to add to the conversation, I backed out of the room. They didn’t seem to notice.
[photo book max-width=150 align=right]My ego is bruised slightly, but I console myself with three thoughts. The first, which I will not admit to anyone else for fear of ruining my chances of ever being asked to take care of my granddaughter, is that my own babycare skills actually feel a tad rusty. When I briefly had the baby to myself in the hospital, I was so terrified of accidentally dropping or suffocating her that I left the door open so that if anything untoward happened the nurses would hear me shrieking.
The second thought that soothes my insecure grandmother soul is that the baby will never know — or care — which of her two grandmothers was most on the ball about diaper rash, burping, or gas.
But third, and most important, my daughter-in-law’s reliance on her mother is not a rejection of me. As the primary caretaker of the baby, at this early stage of parenthood, when her life — and body — are in a state of red alert, it is natural for her to seek refuge in her greatest comfort zone — her own mother. It's not about you, I admonish myself.
The truth is, I am lucky. Yes, I sometimes feel jealous of The Other Grandmother. Yes, I sometimes feel as though I’m back in junior high when I start obsessing that my granddaughter will love her more. Still, in our extended family, which includes step- as well as biological grandparents, everyone treats everyone else with respect. I know that this is not always the case.
Oh, the stories I hear!
I have one friend, a paternal grandmother, who has been kept at arm’s length since the day her grandson, now 2, was born. "We will tell you exactly when you can see the baby, and for how long," this woman's son told her over the phone from the hospital. The time allotted for her visits turns out to be one hour each week. She’s never been permitted to hold her grandson and has yet to spend time alone with him, although the maternal grandmother is a household fixture. My friend, who previously considered herself close to her son, is furious, confused, grief-stricken.
It kills me to reinforce stereotypes, but in families where the paternal grandmother is made to feel like chopped liver, it’s usually the daughter-in-law who calls the shots. In Eye of My Heart, the new book I edited, Claire Roberts writes: "My grandkids seem to have great affection for me. But to my son’s wife, I am the dreaded abominable mother-in-law." E-mails between Roberts and her two granddaughters, ages 10 and 13, are closely monitored by their parents and the girls undergo a debriefing worthy of the CIA whenever they've spent time with Roberts. She explains that they "understand that there's 'a situation' with Gramma and their mother — and, therefore, with their father, too.
Sometimes it’s not the daughter-in-law, but her mother who asserts herself as Number One Nana. In another essay in the book, Judith Viorst (author of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day) relates this story: "A friend of mine complains that whenever she takes her son's children on an outing, she gets a thank-you note from the other grandmother, full of appreciation for the time she has spent with the boys and services she has rendered to the family. Though these thank-you notes are gracious, oh so gracious, they leave my friend feeling peeved and patronized. For the way this woman competes, she says, "is to treat me as if I’m some sort of helpful assistant rather than someone who’s on a par with her.’”
Okay, so maybe my mother-of-the-father ego gets roughed up a little every now and then — whose doesn’t? Still, I never forget that I’m one of the lucky ones. I count my blessings daily for not being among the hapless half Margaret Mead described when she wrote: "Of all the peoples whom I have studied, from city dwellers to cliff dwellers, I always find that at least 50 percent would prefer to have at least one jungle between themselves and their mothers-in-law."
A postscript from author Barbara Graham:
I am so moved by the many thoughtful responses to my column that I must comment myself.
No question, feeling excluded does not depend on being the mother of the father. This can happen to anyone in the grandparent constellation — grandmothers, grandfathers, maternal side, paternal side, biological, or step-grandparents. These feelings are definitely not limited to a single group (nor is left-out a title that any of us is dying to claim).
In my first conversation with psychologist Mary Pipher, who wrote the introduction to Eye of My Heart, she noted that for most of us, joining the grandparent club triggers old issues we thought we’d resolved long ago. Sometimes those issues are not so serious. When you suddenly go from being the parent (even when you’ve shared your kids with a stepmother or stepfather) to one of four or six grandparents, the flashback to junior high school popularity contests seems inevitable. But the heart is a pliant muscle and, if we’re lucky, in time everyone makes room for the other members of the expanded family team — or, as we say in Yiddish, the whole mishpokeh.
This is not to say that everyone gets equal time or attention. For one thing, geographic proximity (or lack of it) makes that impossible. (My son and his family live in Italy, where my second granddaughter will be born in June.) Still, if we’re lucky, we each find our place in the family constellation and play to our strengths. At this point, I accept that my daughter-in-law will turn to her own mother when she’s concerned about the health and well-being of our granddaughter. Though occasionally I may feel slighted — after all, I did manage to raise a child without any major mishaps — when I can step back, I realize this is not about me, it is simply the natural order of things in our family. However, I can assure you that if I were not encouraged to be as involved in my granddaughter’s life as I possibly can be while living on this side of the Atlantic, I know I would suffer.
Clearly, many people who shared their stories are dealing with very serious issues.
Once when I was upset about a situation in my son’s life, a friend, who happens to be a psychologist and a meditation teacher, offered me wise counsel. She reminded me that I raised my son well. He is a sensitive, thoughtful, and kind human being. My friend suggested that, if instead judgment and fear, I conveyed to my son in words and actions my trust in his innate wisdom, it would help him find the wisdom within himself.
I have discovered that as the parent of an adult — and especially now as a grandparent — there’s little else I can do.
Barbara Graham is the editor of Eye of My Heart: 27 Writers Reveal the Hidden Pleasures and Perils of Being a Grandmother (Harper), which tells "the whole crazy, complicated truth about being a grandmother in today's world."
How well do you get along with your grandchild and other family members? Want to know if your personalities mesh?Find out here.