Grandmothers Should Be Seen and Not Heard

Author and grandmother Anne Roiphe reports that her tongue is sore from being bitten

By Anne Roiphe

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 columnist Barbara Graham.


@All - I'm surprised that more people aren't commenting on these articles, the way they did on the "old" Ok, you don't "have to," of course, but I'm wondering what the problem is? Hey, it's not even really a "new" site - just a new version of the old one!... ???...

rosered135 on 2012-09-24 00:21:05

"I think the baby might need an extra blanket."

I know this was just a random example, maybe not even anything the writer actually said or not the exact words. But it's been on my mind. Partly b/c I've been thinking about WHY a new mom might "get tears in her eyes" in response to such a simple thought, even if only just "once in a while." I imagine it's more likely to happen during a particularly stressful day. But I'm also guessing that, especially on such days, that mom might feel as if her own mom were really saying, "You don't keep your baby warm enough" which might translate (in the younger mom's mind) into, "You don't take good enough care of this baby," "I do it better than you" or the dreaded, "You're not a good mother." That might be the furthest thing from the GM's (grandmother's) mind but that may be how her daughter "hears" it.

But I've also been thinking about this b/c I've seen more than one GM, on this site, get snapped at, "jumped all over" for suggesting a 2nd blanket or a warmer one. And I've met a few who were cut out of babysitting - or worst case scenario, cut out of baby's life, altogether - b/c they thought their infant GC was cold and placed a heavier or additional blanket on them. The warm, beautiful blankets that we relished, our babies loved and we all took for granted, years ago, are now often ruled out by pediatricians and baby books as too likely to bring about the tragedy of SIDS - Sudden Infant Death Syndrome - by suffocation. I remember being astounded when my younger daughter (mother of my 2 precious grandchildren) told me that doctors and nurses, alike, had warned her NOT to use any heavy blankets on her newborn winter baby (her first child) until she was 1-year-old! Nothing but those lightweight receiving blankets or special swaddling blankets could be used. And while they recommended swaddling, and as such, the blankets could go around the back of the head, they were NEVER to be near baby's nose or mouth. In fact, once the swaddling stage was over, my daughter wouldn't place any kind of blanket further up than baby's shoulders, if that. And that was true with both babies. With the first one, she was hesitant to use a heavier blanket, even after a year had passed.

So I'm really not all that surprised at a mom who "tears up" at the suggestion of an extra blanket, even a lightweight one. Here she is, thinking that she's so wise to avoid using too many blankets, etc., and suddenly, it seems as if GM's telling her she's not using enough! Confusion! And conflict - does she listen to the doctors and concern herself with SIDS or to her mom and worry more about baby's being cold? Does she focus on preventing tragedy, no matter how rare GM thinks it is? Or on keeping her baby warm? Even though all GM meant to do was make a simple suggestion.

Actually, I think both such a mom and GM are lucky - the young mom b/c ALL the GM did was to SUGGEST and extra blanket and the GM b/c, as hard as it may be to see, ALL the mom did was get teary-eyed. Unfortunately, there are a few cases on this site where a (well-meaning, no doubt) GM brushed off the warnings about SIDS, ignored the parents' instructions and threw an extra or heavier blanket on her newborn GC (or pulled a blanket closer to their face) b/c they "looked cold." . And, sadly, as loving as those GMs are, they've either been forbidden to babysit, for a long time or, worst case scenario, cut out of their GC's life, period.

So, while I'm at it, I urge other GPs here to resist the temptation to push for more or heavier blankets, especially in the 1st year of life but even afterwards, if the parents are worried about them. I say this for the welfare of the baby, fist and foremost, of course. But also, for the peace of mind of the parents and the happiness of the GPs.

Hmmm... I have a friend, another GM, who yells at all new GMs or GMs-to-be if they even mention anything but the lightest blankets. "No blankets!" she shouts (literally). It seems rather rude and off-putting to me. But maybe she's doing them a favor. :- )

rosered135 on 2012-09-21 15:12:20

IMO, this is an excellent article! It shows the reasons parents may, sometimes, reject the unsolicited advice of grandparents (so many practices have changed and so much medical info is new, etc.) and yet, at the same time, expresses the hurt and shock grandparents often feel when a simple suggestions, such as that of an extra blanket is met with such anger and disdain.

This is just the kind of issue we often find ourselves talking about in Mothers-in-Law Anonymous, over in the Community section. And BTW, if youv'e been looking for that group, just go to the very top of this page, click on Community and then Family Matters and you'll see us. New members are welcome, too, of course. But please be patient with us as this site just transitioned from an older one and there are still a lot of kinks that are not yet ironed out.

Anyhow, I'm glad the author made the point that grandchildren are NOT our chance for a do-over, even though, yes, sometimes we may get that yearning... We had our turn and this is the parents'. I think that's especially important for "nanny grannies," like myself, to remember (or "grampies," etc.). It's so easy to lose sight of that "line" between parents and grandparents when you're taking care of the children frequently.

But I also know there are grandparents who do get a do-over - and usually it's not for any happy reason. Those are the grandparents (or, sometimes, great-grandparents, etc.) who, for whatever reason, find themselves raising their grandkids (or great-grandkids, and so on).

So these are issues we often cover in Grandparents Caring for Grandkids. And if you've been looking for that group, again, just click on Community, at the very top of the page - but this time, then click on Grandparenting and you'll see us. Again, new members are also welcome. But I make the same plea for patience as I did above.

Rosered135, moderator, MILAnonymous and Grandparents Caring for Grandkids :- )

rosered135 on 2012-09-21 11:27:29

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