Children in most tribal cultures learn that their “grandmothers” include not only the mothers of their parents, but a wide circle of women who are to be honored for their experience, respected, consulted, trusted, cared for, and listened to when they tell stories, because their stories matter to the whole tribe. They are often considered to have a special connection to guiding spirits, and powers that come only with age.
Children in mainstream North American culture may still see vestiges of these attitudes toward female elders; some grow up using “Grandma” as a title for women who are not blood kin; some spend their early years at the homes of grandmothers who are among their first teachers. Statistically, though, the greater proportion of North American children grow up with only intermittent contact with grandmothers, or any elders. Three-generation households are unusual; households with two working parents, or a single working parent who time-shares parenting with another working parent are common. Children have their own complicated schedules, so those who do spend time with grandmothers enjoy a blessing no longer to be taken for granted.
The title of one of the 27 lively essays on grandmothering in Eye of My Heart: 27 Writers Reveal the Hidden Pleasures and Perils of Being a Grandmother hints at the kinds of adaptation incumbent on grandmothers now: “Facebook Grandma” by Rona Maynard tells a story of accommodation to the lives of a son raising a child with a wife from whom he is separated, and the child who travels between them. They are “a modern family pulling together for Colsen’s sake.” Every few weeks they get together to play board games or mini-golf. In between times they connect online. “Oh, the discoveries I’ve made!” she writes. “Who knew there were such things as virtual food fights? Or that Facebook, like Monopoly, has rules?” But Maynard also recognizes that in the process of inventing herself as the grandma Colsen needs she has had to clarify and claim her own boundaries and consider how to reconfigure a personal life still rich with other obligations and pleasures. She has no interest in doting: “For the record, I’d rather eat a bucketful of Legos than give in to a tantrum in the toy department.” Unconditional love, she learns, survives best when the sentimentalities are sidestepped and one’s own needs not ignored. As the airlines advise, she has learned to “put on her own mask first” before attempting to help the child. It’s a way of making sure she’s there for the long haul.
In “Ten Straight Days,” Beverly Donofrio similarly addresses the competing claims of family and of her own spirit that longs for a life of quiet and solitude. Delightful in both its wry humor and the edgy affection it articulates, Donofrio’s essay chronicles the exhausting business of caring for a two-year-old for ten days that seem longer and more fraught with emotional complexity as they go by. “Is it possible to be snappish and still filled with unconditional love?” she asks at the end of one strenuous excursion. As a more recent month-long visit draws to a close she admits, “I forgive myself for dying to get back home to the monastery . . . where it is so silent and I am so solitary that I go days without hearing or uttering a word.” The small attentions she gives her grandson — holding the twigs he collects, waiting the half hour it takes to make his slow way through a cup of ice cream, pushing the stroller he resists while guiding his wobbly steps — come to seem very much like other salutary disciplines one accepts because they are what life gives us for our learning. She is, like so many in her generation, reinventing the role in the terms demanded by a fluid culture.
Recalling similarly hard-won lessons in grandmothering, Marita Golden shares her conviction that “babies are…assigned to break through our knee-jerk habits of resistance and to remind us that love is the real reason we’re here.” Love, of course, is the theme that recurs, recast and reframed, in every essay. Grandmothers love unconditionally. They love with a new-found freedom from parental anxiety and guilt. The love they feel is “suspiciously viral,” as Lynne Sharon Schwartz writes in “Now You See Me, Now You Don’t”; it is “relentless, forceful, all-consuming.” “In the end, blood counts,” Beverly Lowry acknowledges in her essay “What Counts,” “But not as much as love.” Some of these writers compare that love to the all-consuming passions of youth, when one waits for and feeds on one look from the beloved, and flies, giddy with the pleasure of being called, to his or her side upon the least provocation. Some approach their new roles with a cautious mix of amazement and apprehension: “In the early days,” Barbara Graham recalls in the introduction, “I felt as though I were auditioning for the role of grandmother. Did I hold Isabelle properly? Was I capable of changing her diaper?” Grandmother love, it seems, requires its own kind of humility, extending even to relinquishing Dr. Spock’s advice and deferring to the orthodoxies of a new generation of parenting guides.
For some, that postnatal audition takes place in a climate of painful confusions. A daughter-in-law allows only grudging access; a grandchild has to be rescued from a mentally ill mother; a grandmother concludes that she must, to keep peace, be “seen and not heard,” though she is convinced that TV and video are turning the precious child’s brain cells “into bird feed.” No family is immune to pain or power politics. Judith Viorst’s amusing account of “competitive grandmothering” in “The Rivals” enables us to laugh, even though most of us who have shared a child’s love know at least the flickers of jealousy it can occasion.
Blended and broken families are well-represented in this rich gathering of stories for our time. The darker dimensions of scattered, extended family life are fully acknowledged, and even the ways birth always brings us to new terms with death. A grandchild’s birth reminds us of our own mortality, and this, too, is a gift. As Barbara Graham puts it, “I am not unsettled by it. Rather, I rest in something deeper than my own life, the great womb of time where all things come and go.” Realistic and gutsy, these essays offer encouragement and instruction to those of us who have stepped into new roles as elders. They are as rich with laughter as with sobering insights about the way we live now. Though the voices vary widely, these well-edited pieces are all vigorous, readable, and skillful, offering crisp, surprising sentences worth underlining, and passages to reread for encouragement or reminding as one navigates one’s own journey through parenting to grandparenting. These include some simple, hard truths, like Molly Giles’ recollection of the moment at the end of a day with her three-year-old: “But enough is enough. I am restless and hungry, and I want a drink. I look at my watch.” Marcie Fitzgerald’s poignant moment of reflection on the task of parenting a grandchild whose parents are at least temporarily out of the picture also acknowledges the ways family keeps generating new challenges: “It is a fine line we walk, desperate to head off problems before they grow insurmountable, but also wary of courting negative self-fulfilling prophecies. Can Carl and I parent perfectly enough — setting those damn limits, following through?”
Those of us who inhabit circles of women where such conversations can be shared are fortunate indeed. For those who don’t have close communities to help them negotiate the new roles of midlife and beyond, these essays will be a particularly welcome resource, to be returned to frequently as grandchildren arrive in delivery rooms and later on the doorstep, expecting care and cookies. There is no one way to take on this assignment; there are as many ways to grandmother as to mother. Others’ expectations, judgments, stereotypes and social norms will still impinge on the spaces we claim for our own lives, but in those spaces, there is room enough to open our embrace and make a safe harbor where other people’s children can be at home for a time, secure in a love that, whatever shape it takes, is like no other.