Good Enough Grandma

My daughter recently shared an article on parenting called, “The Gift of the Good Enough Mother.” (http://seleni.org/advice-support/article/the-gift-of-the-good-enough-mother?nl=style&emc=edit_ml_20150730) 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.

Grandma Nests

You’re going to be a grandmother! You could have received the news in one of many ways. Maybe an adoption finally came through. Perhaps your son emailed an ultrasound image (good luck finding the fetus). Your child might tell you the old fashioned way: “Mom, I’m pregnant.” Or, your daughter could marry someone who has children. However it happens, your life is about to change.

I was elated at my daughters’ pregnancy announcements. A new person would be in my life. Growing up as an only child, with no dad, grandparents, or first cousins, I longed for a larger family. I’d thought I could make up for my early lean family by having a slew of my own kids. But for various reasons, my husband and I stopped at two children. Now, with each new grandchild, my tribe expands.

Seeing my daughters become mothers filled me with joy and pride, mixed with the hope that all would go well. I’d loved caring for children, and was happy to see my girls choose to have their own children.

Mothers build nests, from finding a mate to picking the perfect paint color for baby’s new room (as if the baby will actually sleep in that room rather than beside mom and dad’s bed, or in someone’s walking arms, or in a sling). Two days before I delivered my first daughter, my kitchen cupboards begged me to empty, clean, and tidy them and all their contents. I’m not the cupboard-cleaning type—I believe that closets, drawers, and cupboards close in order to hide the disasters within. My cabinet cleaning was misplaced nesting, as if the baby were going to sleep there.

I was surprised when I began to grandma-nest. I don’t know if this behavior has been observed in other species. I just know that I loved helping my daughters prepare for their little ones. Once the mom developed her baby wish list, I made liberal use of my Amazon 1-click (such a powerful feeling), and the brown delivery boxes piled up. All three grandchildren have arrived in the world replete with onesies, diapers, toys, and everything else they could possibly need. I even made baby bottom wipes from old flannel sheets (sewing the equivalent of toilet paper is a labor of love).

What I failed to plan for was the one thing women usually think of first for any event: what to wear. This is not a trivial matter. One hour with a newborn can ruin a business suit. Those favorite jeans, the ones that don’t make you look fat, will probably be too stiff for getting up and down from the floor several times in a fifteen minute period. Grandmas need grandma clothes. Some requirements:

Washable: In the space of a few babysitting hours, you’ll be peed on, spit up on, and maybe pooped on. And that’s on one of the good days. One grandson has drenched me in vomit several times. It’s good to have a full change of clothes with you, either in your car or in the baby’s house.

Comfortable: By this I don’t mean the kind of psychological comfort you feel when an outfit drapes just the right way to hide your flaws. I mean clothes that bend with you as you stoop and pick up babies, kids, and toys. I mean pants that allow you to kneel on food-covered floors, grass, dirt, and sand, and shirts that don’t bind as you desperately hold onto your two-year-old grandson’s tricycle as it’s about to careen down a hill.

Forgiving of stains: If you love your summer pastels, you might need to rethink your fashion choice. Or, you could embrace the artistic look of white pants smeared with jam handprints, marker stains, and the aforementioned poop.

Temperature adjustable: If you’re postmenopausal, you may experience the occasional hot flash. Or, if you’re like me, you have three temperature settings: hot, boiling hot, and freezing. Holding hot babies can set up and prolong a hot flash. I’ve found that layering with sweat-wicking clothes helps.

So, my Grandma outfit is pretty much the same as my work-out ensemble:

Sleeveless athletic shirt (sweat dries quickly)

Quarter-zip light athletic long-sleeve shirt (a small hot flash can be averted just with opening the zipper, and babies love to practice pulling the zipper up and down)

Hooded fleece cardigan jacket (great for wet, cold days)

Black yoga pants with pockets for tissues, snacks, little toys, baby socks, and your smart phone to text Mom and Dad things like: Is it really okay if your four year old granddaughter has five teaspoons of honey?

Walking shoes, preferably waterproof (toddlers aim toward puddles like magnetic attraction—nice to keep your own feet dry even if you can’t protect theirs)

Finally, grandma nesting includes setting up your own home for visiting grandkids, with things like childproofing, plastic dishes free of nasty chemicals, booster seats, and port-a-cribs. On one visit, my granddaughter pointed out the most critical thing for a grandma nest: “Grandma, you need more toys here.” Back to Amazon 1-click.

The New Art of Diapering

Remember when diapers were just diapers? When my daughters were babies, in the late 70s to early 80s, there were cloth diapers (most people bought the more expensive “prefolds”), and two brands of disposable diapers—Pampers and Huggies. We primarily used cloth diapers. We used disposable diapers occasionally when traveling, and they always leaked. My husband and I had done some babysitting for our nieces and nephew, and I’d babysat a little as a teenager. So we knew how to fasten cloth diapers, preferably without causing lasting injury from a diaper pin.

On top of the cloth diapers we put plastic covers that did a lovely job keeping the wet and mess contained rather than spilling onto our laps, the furniture, or the carpets. What we didn’t know beforehand was that our babies would have sensitive skin and frequent diaper rashes. When they had flare-ups, we had to leave off the plastic cover. This required either changing diapers several times an hour, or wallowing in the mess that otherwise resulted. So we changed and we changed and we changed.

Fast forward to today, when a diaper is not just a diaper. Now we have a System. There are one-size diapers that, contrary to their name, adjust to your baby’s size as she grows from birth to potty training. They can fasten with either Velcro or snaps. There are all-in-one, pocket, and hybrid systems. Materials can include cotton, hemp, cotton fleece, cotton terry or bamboo. The challenge is that each system has different components that are assembled differently. My daughters seemed to like the pocket variety.

One day when my husband and I were sitting, and the baby was taking a nice long nap, we noticed a pile of clean diapers in a basket on the dining room table. Thinking we could be Helpful Grandparents, we emptied the basket and began the task of choosing which pad goes into which diaper and how. No problem, I thought, I’d watched my daughter do this a dozen times. I’d even “helped” a little by stuffing when she said to stuff.

But left on our own, we were quickly overwhelmed. Was that pad with a snap supposed to be snapped before inserting? Does the resulting fold go toward baby’s butt or away? What were these little fabric squares for? And there were clearly more insert pads than diapers. Were some supposed to have two? We struggled through a dozen diapers. When our daughter came home from work, she thanked us for our efforts. But after this, she laid all the items out in a row, with inserts next to the right diapers. Seeing how we were supposed to fold and stuff, I doubt we got any of the diapers correctly assembled.

Then, there are the tricks for applying the System to the target, that is, the baby. Luckily, the old tricks of distracting a baby and toddler so you can diaper them still work. Things like singing baby songs and handing them a book or toy to distract them. (Grandparents – never give a child your smartphone when you diaper. First of all, the parents may frown upon or forbid such access. But even more critical, you’ll never be able to diaper again without that smartphone drug.) But think of it from the baby’s perspective. When a grandparent is diapering, the babe is not looking up at his beautiful mom or handsome dad. From his viewpoint, he sees chicken necks, sagging jowls, and a scowl as grandma struggles to understand The System.

The System has to go on the baby in a certain way in order to reduce the chance of leakage. Even with much study, reinforcement, re-learning, and hands-on training, I got leakage. It didn’t really faze me so much—all the modern diapers leak so much less than the ones I used on my babies. But I didn’t want to disappoint the mom. If she comes home from work, she wants to sweep the babe into her arms, and it would be nice if that hug didn’t come with urine soaking onto her good work clothes. Plus modern parents who can afford The System are used to diapers working so well that they usually don’t have to wash ten baby outfits a day and a few of their own. They’re spoiled with perfection.

Now the burning question is – when it’s time for grandma or grandpa to wear diapers, will there be a System?

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.