“You wanna hear the latest?”
It’s Diana, my best friend of forty years on the phone, and I know what’s coming: a tale of a recent confrontation with her daughter or son about some heinous deed she’s committed regarding her grandchildren. It’s become the customary opening line of our conversations.
“The latest” this time turns out to be a new dictum from Diana’s son-in-law: she is no longer permitted to drive her grandchildren in her car, because they come home smelling of cigarette smoke. Diana swears up and down that she doesn’t smoke with them in the car; but kids and other living creatures tend to absorb leftover smoke, so it’s possible the odor clung to the kid, even without fresh toxins. In any case, Diana won’t be taking her grandkids on any more outings by herself.
Her son-in-law tells her, “My kid smells like a fucking ashtray.”
Neither of us can imagine speaking to our parents or in-laws in this manner. But we early baby boomers raised our kids to freely express themselves, and express themselves they do.
You might think that grandparenting is one thing that would remain pretty much constant through the years and generations. But just as parenting styles have undergone dramatic shifts over the past two decades, so has the role of grandparent. Previous generations unfurled billfolds of photos and competed over whose grandkids were the smartest, cutest, most affectionate. My grandma friends and I compete over whose kid is treating them the worst.
“You wanna hear the latest?” I’m calling Diana two weeks before Thanksgiving to tell her I’ve been deleted from my daughter’s plans, which revolve around her in-laws. After relating my tale of woe, I badger her into conceding that my Thanksgiving story is worse than hers — a crucial element in our perverted form of the Grandma Sweepstakes. I’ve only been a grandma for three years, but already I’ve violated every rule in my daughter’s book. I’ve allowed my grandson to watch television; I fed him ice cream before dinner; and I once said, “Come on, sweetie, make Grandma happy” when I wanted to take a photo of him with his baby brother.
This last transgression elicited a deadly glare from my daughter, who claimed I was “laying a guilt trip” on the child. Later she explained that she assumes the way I treat her children is the way I treated her. However, nothing could be further from the truth.
My biggest flaw as a mother was the sin of omission — I neglected my kids. I never asked them to do anything to make me happy; when I wanted to be happy, I took myself away from them. But here I am, finally grown up, ready to lavish love and attention on these new little munchkins — and I’m up against a major obstacle: their mother.
Sometimes I think she’s getting revenge for my less-than-adequate mothering, reveling in her newfound power over me. But Diana was a diligent mother who attended all school plays; baked cookies for the neighborhood kids; and sewed hand-made Halloween costumes. She tells me stories of similarly “good” mothers who are now experiencing the same tyranny. And I have a circle of grandma friends, all of whom walk on eggshells lest they jeopardize their visiting privileges.
In the years between young adulthood and parenthood, our children put us through separation rituals, confronting us with everything we’ve done wrong as parents, and we apologized or defended ourselves. During those years, we suffered, desperate to repair old wounds and improve our relationships. Now, those relationships are secondary: we just want to stay on their good side in order to be allowed access to our grandchildren. We fear ending up estranged; each of us knows someone like my sister, whose relationship with her daughter was so damaged that she was cut off from her three grandchildren for nearly a decade.
One of the underlying factors in this struggle is the enormous difference between our own lives as mothers and those of our adult daughters. Most of us had kids young — I was 19 when I had my first — and were only half-formed ourselves. We’d get together in the afternoons, throw all the kids into a room full of toys, and assemble in the kitchen to smoke, drink coffee and bitch about our husbands. At home, I’d deposit the kids in the playpen, turn on the television, and go about my business cleaning, cooking, or talking on the phone. When I happened to be in the mood, I occasionally played with them.
Our daughters, for the most part, have waited until they were in their thirties to have children. They planned, anticipated, and read all the books. They were ready to devote their lives to conscientious child rearing, and practice the new “attachment parenting.” When my grandson wakes up in the morning, his father accompanies him to the living room — which is completely overtaken by toys — and plays with him for an hour or so while my daughter nurses the baby, takes a shower and gets dressed. After he goes to work, she is with the children all day long, except for brief respites provided by her part-time nanny. She does not own a playpen and my grandchildren have never watched television (except for the night of my TV sin, which has yet to be forgiven). The adults can’t even play their own music: Raffi is on the stereo or car CD night and day.
We grandmas can’t help but notice that these children are being raised in a more conscious way than our own, and we applaud this. But we also roll our eyes and laugh about some of our children’s parenting methods. Sometimes we tell each other that our grandchildren are being spoiled. Secretly, though, we can’t help but feel guilty that we were so much less involved with our own children’s development. Indeed, it astonishes us that they turned into such aware, confident parents.
Previous generations of mothers looked to their own mothers for advice and counsel. This generation has no use for ours. Our advice to prop the bottle or put him in the swing horrifies them. When we baby-sit, we’re given detailed instructions to do everything by the book. I don’t argue; I only get to see the kids every three months or so, and I just want to enjoy them.
In the realm of the heart, grandparenting remains the same: we love our grandchildren fiercely. I for one was astonished and delighted to discover that there’s something like a grandmaternal instinct coded into our genes; for at least a decade, during which I was recovering from motherhood, I had no interest in children, even felt hostile and annoyed by their presence in restaurants or friends’ homes. Now that I am a grandmother, I start up conversations with mothers in the street and chat on supermarket lines with toddlers. And yes, at every opportunity, I unfurl my purse-sized photo album and brag about how smart, cute and affectionate my grandchildren are. To look at me at those times, you’d think I was just like my own grandmother. You’d think that everything is as it should be, that all is well with the world. And for a few moments, I even believe it myself.