In Training

It doesn’t come with a training manual. An online search won’t yield instructions specific to your make and model. The “it” of course is the grandparent role. There’s no Dr. Spock for Grandmas. If there were adequate training materials, there would be plenty of time to get ready. Nowadays, young couples know they’re expecting almost immediately after conception. And they share the news early. So for each of our three grandchildren, we had almost nine months to prepare. We thought hard, and decided to get ready for the big events the same way we prepared for the arrival of our own children: we would just wing it and hope for the best.

Not knowing either of my grandmothers, I had no role models. My mother’s mother died in her forties of stomach cancer, when my mother was eighteen years old. I knew her only from the stories my mother and aunt told of their wild Irish mother. Her death sucked some of the life out of her daughters; they never recovered from their early loss. My father’s mother, a rare female Irish alcoholic, died when I was an infant. Other than one black-and-white photo of her holding me, I have no proof we’d ever connected. Growing up, I made a habit of adopting people to replace my missing relatives, but I never told them of their honorary status. It was like secret love, but not the romantic kind. A kindly landlady, with fluffy white hair that surrounded her head like a halo, was my “grandma” for several years. She’d bring me ginger ale when I was home sick, seeming to know that a seven-year-old girl shouldn’t be on her own with a raging fever and a bottle full of orange-flavored aspirin gum.

I’ve had to learn to grandmother as I go. Luckily, my role as Grandma is not as critical as was my role of Mom. While “winging it” for parenting could be seen as irresponsible, for grandparenting it’s tolerable, maybe even cute.

So what have I learned over the past several years?

As with the proverbial riding a bicycle, some things come back to you instantly. Like how to hold an infant, make quiet sh-sh noises, and rock her just the right amount, to calm her to sleep. And how to distract a squirming toddler long enough to change her diaper. My fingers remember the way to make pigtails stay in place for almost a half hour.  I still read to kids with a voice that shows my excitement about story, and I sing Raffi songs, although I’m now more often off-key than on.

Some modern baby and kid things are beyond me. I just don’t get the diaper set-ups. I can’t handle the various buttons on the baby monitor. I’m so bad at assembling the spill-proof sippy cups that my daughters make sure to have those all put together before Grandma comes over. And as soon as I get the hang of a stroller, the parents decide to get a newer, better one with more bells and whistles to learn. I realize too late that I don’t know how to do some of the key functions like braking. If the toddler is allowed to watch cartoons while recovering from an illness, chances are Grandma will have to ask him which of the half dozen remotes to use, and which buttons to push.

Some things I had problems with as a Mom are just as difficult as a grandmother. I now know why I was thinner as a young mother. I can’t eat when kids are upset or demanding or whining or getting into trouble. Since all of those happened with my kids at just about every meal, I didn’t eat very much. I find myself reacting the same way when I’m taking care of the grandkids. My stomach tightens up with the slightest complaint, and I lose any semblance of appetite. I jump up to get more cheddar bunnies, more fruit leather, more dried cherries, and more water. I lunge to catch a glass of milk the preschooler balanced on her fork, then wipe up the mess resulting from my inability to react fast enough. I kiss the boo-boo the little one got as he took a tumble from his chair. I catch the toddler who tries to run around with his mouth stuffed with food. I do an end run on the tyke who thinks opening and closing the freezer door is a fun rainy-day activity. Since my grandparent shift usually involves at most one meal and one snack, I have lots of opportunity outside that period to stuff myself. I’m decidedly not thin now. Sigh.

I think if there was a training manual for Grandparents, the first chapters should focus on how to relax and enjoy getting to know these wonderful little creatures, how to be more of a help than hindrance to the kids’ parents, and how to get away with spoiling your grandchildren just a little.

Good Enough Grandma

My daughter recently shared an article on parenting called, “The Gift of the Good Enough Mother.” ( The theory isn’t new—decades ago an English pediatrician and psychoanalyst developed the notion of the best mother as being a real one who helps the child grow to independence. While the mother tends to the newborn’s every needs as much as possible, over time she gradually reduces her level of responsiveness, and even makes mistakes now and then. The child learns to adapt to a world where her every whim isn’t answered, where she has to share, where she has to wait for mom or dad’s attention. This teaches her how to cope with an imperfect world.

I love this concept because it takes some pressure off parents. Of course, you can’t slack when it comes to safety. It’s not okay to say that getting the kid into the car, but without a child restraint, was just being a “good enough parent.” And if you never pay attention to your child, and never listen to what he wants, he may grow up distrusting people. But there’s a lot of wiggle room between striving for perfection and neglecting your child. Your house doesn’t have to be spotless, you don’t need to host elaborate dinners, and you don’t need to volunteer for every school committee. You just need to figure out what works for you, your family, and your child.

In fact I like this idea so much that I think it should be extended to “Good Enough Grandparent.” I’ve come up with some examples.

A “Good Enough Grandma:”

Does a lot of babysitting, in part because she wants to help her own children, but mostly because she wants to be close to her grandchildren.

Helps out financially when she can, but enjoys seeing her children being careful about money.

Doesn’t bake cookies, for the simple reason that she can’t eat them and doesn’t want the temptation. She knows she’ll lose points for this when the grandchildren realize that grandmothers are supposed to make them treats.

Begs the parents for a set of rules (naptime, bottle, feeding, schedules, anything), and then texts the parents repeatedly for clarification.

Agrees to a babysitting schedule that works for her, and rearranges her other activities only for babysitting emergencies.

Learns and re-learns lullabies and toddler songs, but doesn’t worry about her off-key renditions.

Wriggles around the “no food in the living room” regulation. Who says the kids can’t eat right at the border between the dining room and living room, on a towel spread out to mimic a picnic?

Neglects to have the kids use the potty as often as she should, then shrugs her shoulders as she tells Mom that the toddler had a little accident that day.

Sometimes forgets to implement the behavioral techniques Mom and Dad use. So instead of asking a shrieking kid if he’s upset, telling him to take a few breaths to calm down, and asking if he want a hug, Grandma says, “Don’t yell at me, you’re hurting my ears.”

Says “no” to finger painting when Mom or Dad will be home soon, because she doesn’t feel like cleaning up a huge mess when she’s about to go off duty.

Says “yes” to blowing bubbles even though she knows she and the kids will be completely covered with slimy, liquid soap and there isn’t enough time for a bath before dinner.

Doesn’t learn to knit just to prove she’s a caring grandmother. This is similar to the cookie issue above. While there’s no health reason to prevent her from knitting, the talent and patience needed are beyond her abilities.

Doesn’t let sneezing, coughing kids share drinks and food with her. This probably has no effect on transmission of viruses, because she’s getting super-exposed from wiping their noses and breathing the air they just coughed into. But it makes her feel better.

When you think of it, being a “Good Enough Grandma” is beneficial for the grandchildren’s parents. While they know you made mistakes in parenting them (and only their therapists understand the magnitude of damage), they probably don’t realize how you screwed up in their toddler years. Now they can see it first-hand, and can rest assured that their parenting abilities are so much better.

Vitamin G

Vitamin G: this newly discovered miracle can improve your life. Other vitamins have risen and fallen in popularity. Vitamins A, B, C, D, and E all failed to match their once-touted benefits. While they are necessary for life, high doses haven’t been shown to improve health more than the minimum nutritional requirements.

So why push yet another one? Never heard of vitamin G you say? No, the “G” doesn’t stand for “Grandma.” Vitamin G is what I’m calling green space, nature, trees, bushes, plants. As it turns out, these are all really good for you, and we have the science to prove it.

When I was a busy mom, working full-time as a physician and researcher, my only time to exercise was at 5 a.m. Not feeling safe outdoors alone at that hour, I opted for the treadmill route. It got the job done, but wasn’t particularly pleasurable. After the kids were grown, I moved my exercise program outdoors. I began to drag my husband out of the house for walks, and later added walking with neighborhood friends. I’ve discovered the pleasure and peace of outdoor walking, especially in natural areas. In the Pacific Northwest, we are blessed with moderate climates that allow walks in parks and trails year-round. The favorable weather conditions also mean beautiful neighborhood gardens. My eyes are drawn to the greenest areas—a tree canopy on an old street, the bushes on a local bike path, a neighbor’s plantings, everything in an old-growth forest. I now feel deprived if I haven’t had my daily dose of green.

I’ll admit I’m not always thinking of the health benefits as I walk. If I’m with my husband or friend, I’m concentrating on the conversation. On a difficult path, I’m wondering if I’ll fall head first down that cliff. If I’m alone in a deserted area, I’m worried about safety. On what I call a “zen walk,” alone on a safe pedestrian path, I’m trying not to think of anything, trying to remain in the present. But through all of these experiences, I feel the restorative powers of green. My racing thoughts slow down, my heart rate feels more regular, the tension in my shoulders dissipates.

Recently, a rigorous clinical trial found that a 90 minute walk in nature significantly decreased the participants’ levels of brooding. The study assigned 19 individuals randomly to walk in nature, and 19 to walk near urban traffic. The participants also underwent brain scans, and the researchers were able to see less activity in the rumination centers of the brain after the nature walk, but no change after the urban-setting walk. Earlier, these and other researchers discovered that exposure to nature lowers anxiety, improves mood, enhances thinking skills, and has benefits on measurable health parameters like blood pressure, heart rate, and blood indicators of stress.

Of course, these benefits depend on taking precautions to lower adverse experiences. The restorative power of a walk in nature will be ruined if you fall and break an ankle. Similarly, a bee sting from sniffing a neighbor’s lavender bush could lessen your outdoor joy. So think about what you’re doing and where, and take steps to lower your risk. Protect yourself against climate, use sunscreen, take water with you, and have a phone for emergencies. Women and other vulnerable populations attend to risks of assault, and may feel more comfortable walking with companions, or in well-lit, populated, open areas. Dog walking can benefit both the animal and the owner’s sense of safety. And please vigilantly watch for motor vehicles as you travel to and from your areas of nature. I guarantee you those drivers aren’t sharing your zen thoughts as they speed through the crosswalk you thought gave you priority.

If you’re not able to walk outdoors, you can still enjoy the pleasures of nature in other ways, such as indoor or outdoor gardening, visiting an arboretum or plant store, or just sitting in a park, forest, or nature preserve. In her young wisdom, Anne Frank said it best: “The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quiet, alone with the heavens, nature and God.”