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.