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.

Planets

“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.