I cannot believe I am having this conversation again. It’s my mother, calling to say that she will be postponing her visit to see her grandson for the fourth time.
“I very much wanted to come but I have to go to a conference in Heidelberg,” she said in her accented English. “I won’t have any money afterwards so I’ll plan to come in a few months instead. And how is your baby?”
You mean your grandson, I think. “He’s doing great. He’s crawling everywhere now and yesterday he pulled a cookbook off the bookshelf. He: ”
“Oh, that reminds me of something that Tsetse did,” she breaks in excitedly. And she’s off on a story about one of her cats.
At this point she hasn’t met her grandson yet and he’s nine months old. Rafael’s got two tiny front teeth, which gleam when he grins. Before bed he crawls over to the desk chair in his footie pajamas and laughs with delight as he grips the rungs and stands. He tracks our cat Lola through the house, cackling as he follows her determined retreat only to be distracted by, oh . . . a New Yorker. Perfect for chewing and tearing.
What’s not for a grandparent to love?
Yet my mother is not interested. She wasn’t interested during the early days of the pregnancy, when I curled up in bed, elated by the precious life I was carrying and also awash in worry; longing for a mother of my own to reassure me. She wasn’t interested in the first ultrasound, the first kick, or the induction that led to thirty hours of labor and a C-section. After my husband and I called from the hospital, she did send flowers, which was very sweet. Then I didn’t hear from her again until I called her a few weeks later.
I thought I’d made some peace with my mother, by which I mean that I’ve learned to temper my expectations. But becoming a parent myself means having to ask for something: for her to be a grandparent. So far, she’s made it clear that she’s unable to do this. And I evidently have not reached the zen state that I hope to someday achieve. The truth is, I want more for my son.
My husband and I cope with the disappointment by laughing at the can-you-believe-it stories. Like the Christmas gift she sent her grandson – the only gift she’s ever given him – which was built up with major anticipation. “I’m waiting until Christmas to give Rafael something really special,” she stated on more than one occasion. When the gift turned out to be a cloth book about a cartoon tiger, she emphasized that she chose it for zoological accuracy. “The orange means that it’s a Bengali tiger, not a Siberian tiger.”
At first my father seemed like he would be the same as my mother. I didn’t hear much from him during the pregnancy, and he also was not interested in all the major milestones as the baby developed. In the last couple of weeks of my pregnancy, though, he began calling constantly to find out if I’d given birth. Each time I would patiently explain that I would call him and let him know. He visited us in the hospital, and although I could barely get out of bed, and looked like the Michelin Man after the prolonged labor and drugs, he didn’t ask how I was doing – instead saying, “I thought about getting you flowers, but you know, maybe next time.”
My father is a painfully awkward man who often dwells on the family he cut off in India and is no longer in contact with, and his own failed marriage. After Rafael’s birth, he became intensely interested in his grandson – perhaps seeing him as a new start. And yet, being my father, he was unable to relate to the baby as a brand-new life with his own needs.
My dad came to our place in Cambridge to visit a couple of days after we brought Rafael home. I was trying to breastfeed when he arrived a half-hour early. He rang the doorbell over and over for about five minutes straight until my husband had changed out of his pajamas and gone downstairs. When my father came upstairs, he wanted to hold his grandson, and then was disappointed that the little guy fell asleep. “He won’t play?” he asked.
“No, he’s just a week old,” I explained, thinking, Is this for real? I mean, he’s had children of his own!
My father then settled onto the sofa like a bronze statue and waited. And waited. And waited. Around him, my husband and I did dishes, cleaned up, tried to make chit-chat. My father? Not a chit-chatter. It was a beautiful July day. Birds trilled by the windows, the sun slipped in through the skylights, outside we could hear the leaves rustle and then . . .
“Wahhhhhhaaaaahhhh” came the littlest, newest voice in the house. Before he left, my dad wanted to hold Rafael one more time.
Why is he still crying?” my father asked.“Why is he still crying?” my father asked.
“That’s how he communicates,” we explained.
“Don’t be a crybaby,” my father said to him.
“He’s not a crybaby!” I said fiercely. “He’s a baby who is crying.”
A short while later my father was gone and two weeks later we were gone too, moving 3,000 miles across the country to Los Angeles. The sun: one hundred times hotter, the weather: infinitely warmer, the city: refreshingly grandparent-free.
I have to admit that I have considered cutting my parents off completely, which is perhaps a cowardly way out of dealing with their difficulties. But I could never do that to my son. I’ve never met any of my father’s large family – aunts, uncles, and cousins are unknown and his parents are now gone. I don’t want my son to think that it’s possible to walk away from family. What I’ve realized since assuming the amazing responsibility of being a parent is that Rafael should have the freedom to define his relationships with his grandparents, and not have me define them for him.
My husband and I know that we’ll provide a loving, nurturing family for our son to grow and thrive in. We know that we won’t criticize my parents in front of him – instead, we’ll try to focus on their strengths. Grandpa knows a lot about current events; Grandma is a talented artist. My son could have a very different relationship with them as a child, a teenager, and a young man than he does now. My responsibility in this case is not to limit him in an effort to protect him from being disappointed, but to give him the opportunity to experience what good they have to offer and to understand the many complex ways that people choose to live and love.