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.

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