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A Grandmother’s Lament. Where do I fit in?

It’s a muggy August evening and we’re just finishing dinner at a rented beach house. Our group consists of my husband and myself, my son and his wife – and the object of everyone’s breathless attention, a three-week-old baby girl. Their first child, our first grandchild. We’re all as lovesick and swoony as a pack of teenage girls.

Our primary activity during the week away could be called pass the baby. Except for a few hours at night when, miraculously, everyone in the house is asleep at the same time, she is constantly cradled.

“I think we hold our daughter more than any baby outside of Bali,” my daughter-in-law jokes. In Bali, as in many traditional cultures, babies are held 24/7 by a rotation of grandmothers, aunts, cousins and siblings, in addition to the new parents. My son and daughter-in-law witnessed this firsthand during the few months they spent there; clearly they were impressed.

Although I spent hours rocking and holding my son – and only child – I put him down to sleep in his crib. That was what we did back in the 1970s. Still, my granddaughter is irresistible, and I too am swept up by the feverish desire to cuddle her every chance I get. So I don’t think twice when, after cleaning up the kitchen the first night, I ask my son if I can take a turn with our prize bundle.

“I’m holding her now,” he says, gripping her to his chest. “She’s my daughter.”

A small moment, really – insignificant in the scheme of things. But a wake-up call for me.

Sometimes this works, other times not so much. I have been a grandmother for three weeks, yet I’m still shaky on protocol. What do my son and daughter-in-law want from me? How involved do I want to be? How involved can I be, considering that I work and lead a busy life? What’s more, I wonder if the new parents are interested in advice and wisdom gleaned from my years of childrearing – or would that be too threatening? And this: As the mother of the father, am I expected to take a back seat to the maternal grandmother?- a situation that strikes me as awful but common among many of my grandmother friends. Mostly, I feel as if I’m stumbling blind, trying to figure out the new rules without being overly pushy and intrusive.

The one thing I know for sure is that I love my granddaughter fiercely and I will do almost anything to be near her. I apologize to my son for having crossed the line by asking to hold her when she was nestled contentedly in his arms. I won’t make the same blunder again.

Interestingly, though, twenty minutes after he told me to back off, my son and his wife decide that they’d like to sit outside and enjoy a glass of wine. “Do you mind holding her?” he asks.

“Oh. Okay, sure,” I say, trying to sound casual.

Aha! I realize. So this is how it works. No matter how much we love the new baby, no matter how deep the feelings run when our child has a child of his own, grandparents are back-up, part of a support team of secondary players – sort of like relief pitchers in baseball who sit on the bench until the coach sends them into the game.

Still, when you’ve been a parent as long as I have – even after your children are grown – the habit of taking charge is so ingrained, so conditioned (for good reason, when children are young), it takes considerable time and mindfulness – and inevitable missteps – to let go of the control reflex when a grandchild comes along. (Sometimes, you even forget that this new one is actually not your baby.)

Yet, let go I must. I must also stop offering unsolicited opinions and suggestions. Coming from me, a comment such as, “It’s kind of chilly. Don’t you think the baby could use a blanket?” is not necessarily helpful, even when it’s freezing and the baby is turning blue.

In Eye of My Heart: 27 Writers Reveal the Hidden Pleasures and Perils of Being A Grandmother, a new collection of essays that I edited and which touches on some of the myriad complications between grandparents and their adult children, Anne Roiphe explains: “When I say ‘I think the bath is too hot,’ I simply mean that the water may be too warm for the baby. But my daughters might hear me say, ‘You can’t get the bath temperature right. What’s the matter with you?’ Their distress is an expression of their fear that they might be doing something wrong when they want so urgently to do everything right. From me, my daughters want support, admiration, encouragement – and that is all they want. They have books, the Internet, and friends for everything else.”

At times I find myself wishing that there were courses for prospective grandparents, the way there are for parents-to-be. Instead of breathing exercises and baby care sessions, there would be deprogramming programs that train new grandparents to seal their lips. While we’re at it, a crash course in how to operate the latest strollers, car seats and other fancy new equipment that didn’t exist when we were raising our kids wouldn’t hurt either.

The week at the beach becomes my training ground. I do the shopping, cook the meals, fetch diapers and wipes, and hold the towel at the ready for the baby when her parents are done bathing her in a large lobster pot in the kitchen sink. I refrain from picking her up – or doing anything else for her – unless specifically asked. Fortunately, my son and daughter-in-law like to take long walks and sit out under the stars, and during those intervals my pearl of a granddaughter is mine.

I don’t know why this age-old dance between new parents and their parents has caught me so off guard. God knows, I was as possessive of my son as a tiger is of her newborn cubs whenever my own mother blew into town. Maybe the fact that I’ve always been so much closer to my son than I ever was to my mother led to me believe that this chapter would be different too.

My own baby care skills feel a bit rusty. When I am able to stand back and not take playing second fiddle personally, I am awed and amazed by my son and daughter-in-law, who are so competent and confident, so in tune with their baby’s needs. How did they get this way? Is this biology at work? Is it also biology at work (or, rather, not at work) that my own baby care skills feel a bit rusty and that I’m secretly terrified of accidentally killing my darling granddaughter?

Even so, there are times when only Nonna (my grandmother name, which sounds hipper to my ear than Nana or Grandma) will do. I seem to have a narcoleptic effect on the baby, and so during our week at the beach I am frequently called upon to rock her to sleep, especially when she fusses. I am thrilled to be of use. Still, I must continually bite my tongue to avoid volunteering my services before I’m officially asked by the powers that be.

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