For the Love of Grandparents

The support to young parents from their parents can mean the world, but everyone’s situation is so different.

I remember complaining about my mother-in-law when my baby was maybe 1 month old. My own mother stayed for a few days after the birth and traveled back home, while my husband’s mother lives locally and visited when she could. Mere weeks into the baby haze, I had zero confidence in my mothering. And then his mom showed up. I had a bona fide expert on mothering in my apartment and requested none of her advice.

When she’d hold the baby, I’d watch the clock like a hawk, counting the seconds to the end of my baby’s 45-minute wake time. Have you heard about wake times? If not, let me tell you, because back then, at 2 a.m. I read an article on my phone. It talked about naps and included a chart about wake times that I started using as my bible.

The chart showed me a right way to get my baby to sleep. I wanted desperately to do something right, so I followed the chart. My mother-in-law wasn’t sending me “you’re right” vibes when I followed the chart. I could see it in her eyes when I came to get the baby; she wanted to keep holding that baby. She did not revere the wake-time chart. From my perspective, she was going home at 6 p.m. to a full night’s rest while I continued to get sucked dry by a nocturnal gremlin. I knew I should have let her just hold the baby, and still, I came in at the 45-minute mark and took back my baby. The exchange felt as intense in my hormone-soaked mind as it sounds.

On the phone with a college friend and veteran mom, I recounted my twisty feelings during the grandparent visit. “I felt like everything I did was wrong, and she didn’t respect my schedule,” I said with emphasis. My friend said this: “You’re in a really weird stage with grandparents. Everyone is focused on this one glorious baby who does nothing and says nothing. It’s too much pressure.”

Oh, wise Alana. I will forever be calling you.

That whole drama had nothing to do with my mother-in-law and everything to do with my life-quaking transition to parenthood. Adding a first baby to the family changes every close relationship in your life, which is a disruptive, confusing experience.

Now I, and my whole family, know that I should have just let my mother-in-law hold the baby. Ten years later, we have three kids who sleep through the night. Each addition to the family needed its own space for the weirdness of transition, and yet the grandparents continued to visit. Grace be upon them.

In the toddler years, I wanted my husband’s mother to move within walking distance. That time in our lives was labor intensive. I needed more labor, and I wanted it for free. I wanted to sleep in, and I wanted a break, and grandparents were either the curse or the key. I’d see friends whose parents did live in town, who helped within the young family’s weekly rhythms, and I could cry with jealousy. Three under 6 was so much work to share among just two people—one of whom worked out of the house 50 hours a week.

I’d see friends who were parentless parents and wonder how you go through parenthood being the oldest generation. I’d see friends juggling caregiving for small children and at the same time caregiving for aging parents, amazed by their stamina and use of resources. We know families with young grandparents who care full time so my peers can work full time. A family at school is from the Midwest, but I see the grandma from Ohio four times as much as my mom who lives in state. This friend and her husband regularly book trips away from the kids while I beg for one night every other year on my anniversary. A lot of parents have never had a night away. Some of us get money from our parents, others get none, or are covering our parents’ expenses in addition to our own. None of it is equal or fair. Grace be with us.

What’s universal is how grandparents breed big feelings in parents. Whether we can admit it or not, we really care about our parents (in both their presence and their absence). It matters how they can or can’t care for us and our children. Whether we’ve got them or not, the precious resource of grandparents is noticed, and felt, by us all. Our relationships with our parents are usually the longest ones we know. Those roots dig way down underneath our skin to the pits of our beings, making the good and the bad with those people sprout up bigger than everything else. We play cool until we can’t. We want what we don’t have. We may be blind to what we do have. Like when all I needed was someone to hold the baby, but hadn’t been a mother long enough to realize it.

My mother-in-law’s gift is cooking. Ready to be jealous? When she comes over, she brings a home-cooked meal. She comes up with the idea, shops for the ingredients, and prepares everything. She moves all the food prep off from my plate and puts it onto hers, and I couldn’t be more grateful. She doesn’t cook for a big family anymore, but she genuinely loves it and is great at it. She volunteers to serve us and we’re all happy in the end.

There are other parts of grandparenting that she won’t do, and she’s clear with us. She’s great at saying no, so we can always ask and trust her honest answer. Her nos still trigger those calls to my college friends. I can talk and talk about my big feelings, comparing what I have, lamenting as needed. Like we all do, right?

After a decade of parenting, what I lean on today more than 2 a.m. research are these four keys to grandparent success: clear boundaries, awareness of deep roots, space for feelings, and then thanksgiving.

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