“Grandma, what planet are you from?” my granddaughter asked. Startled, it took me a second to remember she wasn’t a jaded teenager insulting an uncool old lady. She was barely three years old, and she waited patiently for my answer. We were sitting at her dining room table as she picked at her lunch and I spooned oatmeal into her brother baby’s open mouth.

I kept a straight face with difficulty, and said, “I’m from Earth, Honey. Same as you.”

She’d begun the conversation with asking me the names of the planets. I tried desperately to remember the one that wasn’t a planet anymore. I couldn’t even recall how many planets were now officially in our solar system. I was pretty sure of a few that were still legitimate.

“Well, we’re here on Earth,” I said. “And there’s Venus, and Saturn.”

“There’s Mars,” she said before I could name any more. She had four fingers up in the air. Perhaps she was counting as we listed names. I hadn’t thought to count. Not that it would help me, given that I didn’t know the target number. Is Uranus still a planet? I thought. Not sure, I decided not to mention it.

Her question caused me to wonder when and how we develop a sense of Place, of Where We Are From. If asked, my granddaughter could tell us the name of her street and that “Northwest” came after that. But I don’t think she understood what city she lives in, or that one set of grandparents live several miles away in the same city while her other grandparents have to travel 1000 miles to see her. I wonder when she will grasp this concept—that she lives in a section of a city of a certain size, in a particular part of the United States. When will she understand that some of her relatives live in, or came from, other states, other countries, other continents? And how will she define herself and what she calls home?

I grew up in an Irish-American working class section of Boston, Massachusetts. Although it’s been over forty years since I left Boston, when I visit it feels like I’m coming home. Maybe it’s the local dialect, in which an “r” is pronounced like “ah.” I understand Bostonian speech. Or perhaps the geography grounds me. By the time I was seven years old, I was riding the streetcar to downtown Boston. I knew my way around. It could be the cuisine—fried clam rolls, frappes that are really milkshakes, any kind of Dunkin’ Donuts, cranberry muffins, Boston baked beans that no one made from scratch. I eat none of these things now, but thinking of them makes me want my tribal foods. It could be the visuals: dark red brick buildings, tiny cobblestone streets, Boston Common, historic little buildings next to modern business towers. I still think these are all cute. And the smells: Italian food in the North End, foggy air thick with Atlantic ocean salt, Legal Seafood’s fish and chips, the Charles River stench on a hot summer day, Fenway Park peanuts.

What sights and sounds and smells, I wonder, are my grandchildren experiencing now that will help ground them in their homes? And when will my granddaughter decide that her decidedly uncool Grandma just might be an alien?

Running Interference

“It’s the job of grandmothers to interfere,” said Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham on the first episode of Downton Abbey season 4.

On the contrary, I think that too much meddling could enrage your children, in-laws, and grandchildren. Interfere too often, and your input will fall on deaf ears. But the greatest risk of intruding is that you could be wrong. Yes, wrong, Grandma! We made mistakes with our own children, and if we’re not careful, we’ll repeat those mistakes and more with our grandchildren. Even things we did “right,” like following Dr. Spock’s advice or doing something accepted as good parenting to our generation, might now be proven dangerous or just not helpful.

Some examples:

  • Putting a baby to sleep on his stomach used to be advised to prevent aspiration if that baby spit up in his sleep. Today, pediatricians say to put baby to sleep on his back, to avoid sudden infant death syndrome or suffocation. Since the American Academy of Pediatrics started recommending back-sleeping in 1992, the incidence of infants dying suddenly in their sleep has been cut in half. That means thousands of babies saved.
  • Co-sleeping was a cool, hippy-like thing to do in the 70s. It kept baby close to mom, and aided breastfeeding on demand. But today, the American Academy of Pediatrics advises against baby sleeping in the same bed as her parents, because of risk of suffocation.
  • Juice used to be a healthy thing to give babies and children. Now it’s practically evil. The obesity researcher in me applauds this change because juice provides calories and sugars without filling you up. The grandmother in me wants to get points from the grandchildren for giving them a sweet drink.

Being a good grandparent means learning new things, and changing your child-rearing habits if you’re entrusted with babysitting. To do this, you have to add “student” to your many roles. You’re now parent, mother- or father-in-law, grandparent, and trainee. You have to learn what your children want from you as grandparent, and you must follow their wishes. Of course, there may need to be some leeway. There are a lot of things I can’t do as well as my daughters. They’re wonderful mothers, and I can only hope to be a suitable stand-in when they’re away. Then there are some things I won’t do, like ride with the grandchildren on a Ferris wheel.

One of the greatest challenges in becoming a grandparent-student is that your teachers are your children and their spouses or partners. Your kids have to be comfortable in telling you what they want, and repeating it. One week, the naptime ritual will involve A, B, and C; the next week it might be A, B, and Z. Your grandchild will also test you, to see if you’ll be more lenient than mom and dad.

“Mommy leaves the door open a little,” my almost 3-year-old granddaughter told me one day. Luckily, Mom had told me differently.

“That’s only at night, Sweet Pea. For nap, Mommy wants the door closed.” My granddaughter’s little face fell.

“But I can leave the curtains open a little so it’s not so dark. How’s that?”

“Okay.” She looked content. I wasn’t sure if leaving the curtains open was legit. Eventually, she wore me down to the point that naptime with Grandma meant the door open, lights on, and curtains open.

You weren’t a perfect parent, and you won’t be a perfect grandparent. You’ll make mistakes. You’ll forget how to do things. I’ve spilled precious breast milk from bottles that I assembled wrong. A diaper fastened too loosely rewarded me with significant spillage into my lap. A walk to the bakery with my granddaughter without a stroller meant I carried her most of the two-mile hilly trip. My reward was a sore back for several days.

To return to the Dowager’s statement—is it really our jobs to interfere? There have been times when I’ve suggested something based on my experience as a mom and doctor. Usually I use technical language, like “It wouldn’t hurt to call the pediatrician.” My best input is in reassuring the parents, telling them that they are doing a splendid job, and that we also struggled with issues around sleep, eating, sharing, and tantrums. (And some of that even involved the children.) Parenting is hard work, probably the most difficult thing humans do, and all we can do is our best while loving our children and grandchildren unconditionally.