On Giants' Shoulders

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Fun of Being Grammy

You might think that the fun of being a grandmother is getting to hold a new baby. Or you might think that it's getting to buy cute little baby items. You might even think that it's getting to take all sorts of cute pictures and show them to your friends. Well, yes all of those things are sort of fun. However, it's not what I like the best about being a grandmother.

What I like the very best about being a grandmother is watching my daughter and her husband develop as parents. I'm loving watching them learn to respond to their baby and learn her preferences. I'm loving watching them talk to her in funny little made up words, and watch her respond back to them. I'm loving watching them learn that things they thought were silly and unnecessary became much more sensible and important once there was a real little person who needed them. I'm loving watch their priorities shift and less important activities fade into the background while becoming a family takes a much more important place. I'm especially loving watching my granddaughter grow strong and healthy on her mommy's milk. In short, I'm loving seeing them transition into the sorts of adults I knew they were going to be. Sometimes when your kids are teens or even young adults you wonder whether you passed on anything valuable (and certainly THEY seem to doubt that). It's really fun to see my daughter doing some things that I didn't even tell her to do, exactly the way I did it.

Eventually, I will have my very own relationship with little the Little Wum (as her parents have nicknamed her). Eventually, there will be tea parties at Grammy's and long discussions around the table. Eventually, I'll teach her how to make Grammy Rowell's filled cookies or some other long cherished family recipe. Eventually, she will have a relationship with me and her grandfather and other family members that is somewhat separate from her relationship with her parents. Eventually. But for right now that's not the case. Right now she needs her mommy and her daddy as the prime people in her life. She is secure in their arms and I love seeing her there. I'm certainly willing to be an "extra pair of arms" when needed, but if the extra arms aren't needed that's just fine too.

At the moment my relationship is still principally with her mommy and daddy. And that is as it should be. They still need support and attention just as they did before she was a part of the picture. I marvel at the fact that the young man whom we had come to cherish over the course of several years became part of our family sacramentally just last year. Now we are not only tied to him sacramentally, but biologically as well. His daughter carries his DNA, but she also carries ours. So with her birth he became even more connected to us than he already was. Since he was already incredibly special to us it makes it just so much nicer. My daughter still is the person I want to provide mothering to and I hope my son-in-law doesn't mind a little extra mothering from me as well. My granddaughter, however, has her own mother and she's doing a super job, LW doesn't need mothering from me.

I never felt when my children were little that we were taking them to see the grandparents. I always felt more that we were going to see my in-laws or my mother and the kids were going along, because, well they always went where we went. The grandparents always related to us as us, not as was the case with some of my friends, as merely the parents of their grandchildren. That was the case despite the fact that our son was the first grandchild on both sides of the family, and our children were my in-laws only grandchildren for nearly 7 years. The kids were dearly loved, incredibly included, but never the sole focus of their grandparents (or the aunt's and uncle's) attention. I want my daughter and her husband to feel that they continue to be important to us. I still want to find time to talk about books with my daughter, to talk about theology and politics with my son-in-law (even when we have a heated debate on the subject!). They are incredibly interesting, fun, and generous people and I don't want our relationship with them to take second fiddle to baby gazing (even when baby gazing is such a fascinating occupation).

We are fortunate to have had a number of years to get to know our son-in-law. Some families don't have quite that luxury. Sometimes an in-law arrives in the family in a remarkably short period of time from the standpoint of the new mother and father-in-law. If there is then a baby very soon it's hard for the focus to remain where it should be. It's far easier to have the baby become the "shared interest" and stop doing the work of really getting to know the new in-law. I think that it was somewhat more difficult for my own in-laws to get to know my brother-in-law's wife because they didn't live nearby and they only saw her a few times before the wedding. However, they really made an effort to try to do so, and I know that my mother-in-law in particular made a real effort to be sympathetic to Susan's attempts to fit into a very close knit family.

Now that the previous generation has died, I am so very glad that they made the effort to focus on the adults in the family. I am friends with both my sisters-in-law and my brother-in-law. We have differences of opinion, we don't always see the world alike, we live in different places, yet we have an essential family identity that the children of the family can easily recognize. It's particularly special for me because my own biological family is no more. My father died when I was 25, my mother died 9 years ago, and my sister died 5 years ago. Were it not for the family I married into there would be no one who really knows me, the me of my 20's, the me of my 30's, 40's, 50's. I am so glad for in-laws who felt that I was important as me, not just as the mother of their grandchildren. I had the gift of wonderful in-laws and when I see so many people who lack that gift I recognize even more how special it was.

As I told my son-in-law quite some time ago, I want to be the sort of mother-in-law that I had. I want to support him in his decisions, I want to hear his opinions, I want to be interested in who he is as a person. That's the gift I want to give him, but it is also the gift that I want to give my daughter because I don't want her to feel that she has to have divided loyalties. I want her to know that we love him as part of our family as well. I always felt at least as much a member of the Swift family as I did of my own. I actually joked that I married into the family I should have been born into because I truly felt so much at home there. I hope Jim can always feel like he is comfortable with us in that way.

I've thought a lot about what a good grandparent is over the course of the last year. I'm watching a lot of my generation make the transition from parent to grandparent and I've watched the results of some good and bad patterns. I'm considering writing something for grandmothers of breastfed babies this fall because one of the problems I've seen as I work with nursing moms is the conflict that many of them are having either with their mothers or their mothers-in-law.

In Vermont today something on the order of 85% of babies start out their lives as breastfeeding babies. This is an enormous change from a generation ago. It makes passing on motherly wisdom a difficult task for the grandmothers of this era. The rules appear to have all changed and the grandmothers are unsure of their role as a result. When they were raising their babies most of them were using bottles, keeping babies on schedules, giving bottles of water, feeding solids by 3 months at the latest, and putting their babies to sleep in their own cribs, in their own rooms, on their tummies. Now their daughters are being advised to breastfeed on demand, to not give water, to delay solids until 6 months and to put their babies to sleep on their backs in the same room as their parents. Now most of this (other than the sleeping on their backs) is no big piece of news to me. The current advice is very consistent with what I was taught in La Leche League 30 years ago. So for me there is not such a big transition. I'm simply (like generation upon generation of grandmothers before the beginning of the 20th century) seeing my daughter mother her baby in the same fashion she was mothered. However, for the majority of current grandmothers this is not the case. Everything seems to have been turned on its head and it makes them feel rather adrift about how to be helpful and included. They've been anticipating babysitting and feeding a bottle to the baby and often they are not happy when they find that the young couple prefers to pack the baby along with them. They feel like they have no place in the process. What I hope to do is to show them where they do fit in the process, how important their support is for their grandchild to get adequate amounts of milk and appropriate parenting. They are important in the process, they are just important in different ways than they anticipated. They too need to learn that their relationship with their grandchild will be separate and special eventually, but that right now their grandchild principally needs its parents.

Today I was in a discussion with a number of other breastfeeding advocates. We were talking about working moms and transitioning babies to spending time with caregivers other than their mom. I asked what the best way was to transition a baby who was nursing on demand onto a schedule for the caregiver. It seemed like a logical question, but imagine my surprise when my co-leader in LLL said that even bottle babies should be getting cue based feeding, not be fed on a schedule. Even I as a long time breastfeeding/natural feeding advocate had thought that somehow the "rules" were different for bottle babies. I'm still learning too! So I entirely sympathize with a grandma who starts much further back on the learning curve.

The reason for all these changes in the "rules" have to do with research and what's called evidenced based medicine. In part because of the work of La Leche League and other breastfeeding advocates the importance of human milk and biological mothering has become much more recognized as the norm. It's going to take awhile for the culture to catch up. Social policy will need to change, people's expectations are going to be rocked occasionally. Laws are already being written to reflect this new, but old, way of doing things, but in families it can cause a bit of an upheaval. I honestly believe that the grandmothers who didn't nurse their own babies need the support of the grandmothers who did. We have both the experience of having nursed our babies like their daughters and the experience of having parented in the same era they did. We know what it's like to confront moms who get their information off the internet instead of out of Dr. Spock. We know how different it is to use a forehead or ear thermometer instead of the mercury rectal ones of our era. We do in fact have shared wisdom to impart to these young parents. Any of us can in fact assure them that baby acne does go away, that even clean babies occasionally get diaper rash, and that evening fussiness sometimes just has to be endured. The grandmothers who bottle fed don't automatically become non-givers of wisdom, but they will be better able to sift through what is truly wise from what was simply the practice of another era if they begin to understand what biological mothering is all about. Or so I hope at least. I really want them to experience becoming a grandmother as the fun thing it is rather than being the source of conflict that some of them are finding it to be.

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