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The Real Cost of My Grandma’s “Free” Babysitting

I always get the same question when I tell people who watches my kids.

Your grandmother?” they ask. And then, “Wow. How old is she?”

She’ll be 83 this month — young for a great-grandmother, it’s commonly observed. Yes, I reply, there are lots of downsides to having kids early in life, but one perk is if three generations do it consecutively, you just might get a great grand-nanny out of the deal. Of course, you’d have to have a grandmother like mine, a healthy, irrepressibly maternal widow who lives nearby.

In a world of glam-mas who want to live it up in their golden years, my grandmother, hailing from northern Italy, is a real-deal, old-world Nonna (or Nonny, as she prefers to be called). She’s always stirring a steaming pot or mopping her floors clean enough to eat off of, or handing the kids a cookie with a wink and a whisper of “Quick, before Mommy sees!”

Family is made of strings, tugging you here and there, tying you up when you want to be free. But the strings are also an anchor, rooting me when things get tough.

Yes, thanks to a unique combination of circumstances and one very energetic octogenarian, I have found the holy grail of babysitters for my three kids. She’s bilingual and boasts decades of experience. She loves and protects my children as much as I do, and she cooks for them far better than I ever could. And, maybe best of all, she works for free.

Both my children and I derive endless benefits from having Nonny as a babysitter: I get time to work, the chance to have an occasional date with my husband, and heaven-sent help when I’m sick; the kids get bear hugs, homemade lasagna, and Italian lullabies at bedtime, among other things. To a large extent, my grandmother’s influence has shaped who my children are: on my son’s first day of preschool, instead of the teddy bear all the other kids hugged, he clutched a vial of holy water in the shape of the Virgin Mary that my grandmother had given him. The kids know about World War II, not just in a remote, theoretical sense, but also through my grandmother’s eyes, hiding from the fascists in an abandoned farmhouse. The stories, the songs, the prayers — these are priceless.

But if all of this sounds too good to be true, that’s because it is. Nonny’s help, like most help from most families, is free in the monetary sense only. Because along with all the wonderful things we get from grandmother, we also get what Nonny calls  “opinions,” and I call “criticism.” Loud, persistent criticism.

It started the day I brought home my son from the hospital eight years ago. Nonny was waiting in my kitchen stirring homemade chicken soup, “to bring in your milk,” she explained. It was a big help — unlike the other ways she tried to assist with breastfeeding. She offered criticism about everything, from my positioning (“No wonder he’s not eating!”) to my breasts (“That’s all the milk you got?”) to the lactation consultant I hired to fix it (“You gonna ask a stranger how to breastfeed? Ask me! I was like a cow!”).

That commentary was just a warm-up for what I’d hear a few months later, when my husband and I, ravaged by sleep deprivation and upon the recommendation of our pediatrician, decided to sleep-train our son.

“What’s a matter with you?” Nonny shouted when she heard the first wail emanating from the nursery. “This is child abuse! Don’t you love your baby?”

As the first of my friends to have children, I had no mommy network to help me keep perspective. After three days, Nonny’s flood of guilt destroyed my already shaky resolve, and I gave up on sleep training. My baby went back to being rocked and bounced and lulled to sleep … and waking as soon as he was put down. I was infuriated.

“You’re interfering!” I’d protest.

“I’m helping!” she’d retort.

For my son’s first few years, we arrived at the same impasse on a near-daily basis. When he got a cold, it was because I didn’t put a hat on him (in 60-degree weather). I was wrong to let him breastfeed so long (14 months) and cruel to take away the bottle so soon (at 2 ½).

It felt as if we were speaking two different languages, which, of course, we sometimes were. Even when we were speaking the same language, we were shouting it to each other across a massive generation gap that muffled our meaning. Because, while I’ve always been tied to traditions, I was also forging my own path forward, as every new parent must — stumbling into unfamiliar terrain, making mistakes and discoveries all the time. Just as she did as a young woman so many years ago, I was fond of reminding her.

“Yes, and my Nonna helped me!’ she argued, “because I didn’t know what the heck I was doin’ either!”

My son is now 8 years old (still, incidentally, a lousy sleeper) and has two sisters, 6 years old and 13 months old. Over the past 8 years, I’ve matured into a seasoned, (if still bewildered) mama with a wide support network of other mothers. This network has saved not just my parenting, but also my relationship with my grandmother; once her opinions stopped being the only ones I had access to, I found I was able to value them again — and I do, because when all is said and done, the woman has raised three generations of children and has some serious kid mojo.

I’ve come to find that we see eye-to-eye on most parenting issues, and when we don’t, well, I’ve learned how to navigate those choppy waters. By the time I had my second child, I knew not to invite Nonny over until we’d gotten the hang of nursing. By my third, I knew to keep her away during sleep training. She’s grown too, become more open-minded, largely as a result of watching me make decisions differently from how she would with positive (or at least not disastrous) results.

Sure, I sometimes daydream of a more conventional sitter, and now that I have three kids, including a fast and reckless toddler, sometimes I hire one, a young woman who can play tag with the kids in the playground. This affords my grandmother a well-deserved break — even if she protests she doesn’t need it — and I enjoy having no strings attached. But in the final analysis, the strings aren’t all bad. Family is made of strings, tugging you here and there, getting tangled and tying you up when you want to be free. But the strings are also an anchor, rooting me when things get tough, and I’ve learned to be grateful for them too.

So when I tell people that my grandmother watches my kids, and they gush, “That’s amazing!” I don’t offer qualifications. I just agree.

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