I am often asked how being a grandma differs from being a mother.. I have been a mother 35 years and a grandma 20 months, so I can’t yet do justice to this question. In May 2007 I became a grandmother for the first time; now I have 3 grandchildren. I was 27 when Anne was born; I was 61 when Michael was born.
As a grandma, I know what I am doing with babies and toddlers, and I have absolutely no conflicts about it. I know how quickly babyhood passes so I cherished every minute of Michael’s infancy without being eager for him to sit up, crawl, walk before he is ready. Now that he is an incredibly active 20-month-old, Anne and I joke about how we could have slowed him down. He is exploding into language, and the miracle seems even more astonishing.
When I am with him in my daughter’s apartment, I can focus entirely on him. I don’t have errands to run, bills to pay, laundry to do, cars to bring to the mechanic, careers to lament. Anne has made it clear I am not her maid, and I am very good at taking her at her word. This is exactly where I want to be; this is exactly what I want to be doing. I had expected to go back to work part-time a few months after Anne was born; deciding to stay home full-time was a complicated, conflicted decision.
Of course, loving the baby is the simple part of grandmothering. Learning to mother Anne, the new mother, is far more complex. We are both strong, opinionated women who have frequently disagreed over the last 35 years. It seems miraculous how well we are doing now. To my great joy, Anne is mothering Michael essentially the way I mothered my two younger daughters, when I was confident enough to honor my heart and my instincts and not let experts persuade me to impose unrealistic expectations on the baby. I couldn’t be prouder of her.
I have learned to respect and follow her decisions on pacifiers and regular naps, even if they require a few minutes of tears. I am excessively tolerant to toddler messes, but I am learning more orderly ways. Taking care of Michael enables me to time travel. Anne lives in the exactly same Chelsea co-opapartment complex where I raised here and her two younger sisters from 1974 to 1981, Because it is the best deal in Manhattan (ten year waiting list, income limits, lottery to get on waiting list), none of my friends have ever left.
I am a cautionary tale and am supposedly the only one who left a three-bedroom apartment without undertaker assistance. “Look at her,” they warn people lured by the siren call of the suburbs. “She was the sanest women in Chelsea. She left the city, she developed bipolar disorder, her marriage ended in divorce.” Most of Anne’s childhood friends live here as well. You used to be able to put your children on the waiting list. These kids have returned from all over the world when offered an apartment.
Sitting in the same playground, with my mommy friends now grandma friends, watching Michael pull hair and eat sand like his mom, looking at the Empire State Building from their windows that I used to see from our windows–I am supremely blessed. So many happy memories cascade back.
I am reconsidering my choices on combining work and mothering, so I can be supportive of my daughters’ different choices. I can’t pretend mothering was always the most fulfilling job I ever had. I have to confront my own ambivalences. If I had had a job I loved, which I had undergone rigorous training to prepare for, if my mom had been available to babysit, I suspect that, like Anne, I would have tried to work part-time.
My second daughter Michelle has a 4-month-old girl and my third daughter Rose has a three-week-old girl. Already I am making different mistakes. The lessons I learned from Anne do not necessarily help. I am still a very inexperienced grandmother without my mom to teach me how. My mother was fantasically lucky. She was the grandmother of 11 before her mother died. I admit it had never occurred to me until my mom’s rapid decline that she would not be alive to help me avoid similar mistakes with my new mothers as I did with my new teenagers.
Michelle has just returned to work; my granddaughter Emma is in an excellent day care center a block away from where her mother works. Michelle can visit, breastfeedindg Emma. during her lunch hour. Michelle would tell you in considerable detail how I have not been as supportive of her decision as she needed me to be. After lots of honest discussions, after learning how happy Emma is in the center, I am doing much better,
I was extremely fortunate that I had the option of staying home from 1973 to 1987, when my youngest turned 5. By being frugal, we were able to live on one income. That is not truly an option for any of my daughters, whether they live in Manhattan or near Boston. I am sad that I will not be able to offer my Boston daughters the hands-on practical help I can offer their Manhattan sister.
Fortunately my daughters were raised to tell me when and how I am making mistakes. Most of the mistakes are with them, not with my grandchildren.