Melissa is a retired writer and the mother of A Better Life therapist, Ariel Stern, LPC. Ariel has a special interest on the impact of babies on the family and supports many couples through managing the challenges of parenthood. She writes about parenthood and has asked her mother to join her. You can read more of their blogs by clicking the “Ariel Stern” category on the blog page.
I didn’t have what you would call a model grandmother.
Here is what I remember about her:
She ate salami, watched baseball on tv and swore fluently. She visited infrequently, even though she lived less than 30 miles away, and when she did come over, our house seemed to stiffen its spine.
When I conjure her image, I am not in the scene. I see her sitting on our nubbly blue living room couch, holding a cigarette between long fingers tipped in ruby red polish. She is drinking from a stemmed glass with an olive in it, laughing at jokes I do not get and am not supposed to.
For her, being a grandmother was an occasional, somewhat pleasant distraction. I assume she loved me, but she didn’t give a little girl much reason to love her back.
So two years ago, when my daughter, Ariel, had a baby, and she asked what I wanted my granddaughter to call me, “Nana” was not even a remote consideration. (I’ll write more in a later blog about the curious name problem that we boomer grandparents have.)
I planned to be a much different kind of grandmother than Nana. I was already ahead of the game because I don’t smoke, can’t maintain a manicure for more than two hours and hate martinis.
From the moment I learned that Ariel was pregnant, I planned to help her and my son-in-law, Jesse, as much as possible. I planned to take time off from my job as a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer whenever I could. I planned to pick the baby up at the end of the day from the daycare center they had chosen a few blocks from my office. I planned to spend weekends and holidays with them, cook for them, change diapers, teach the baby to speak French, sing Baby Beluga to her and swaddle her with love.
All this, and maintain my career, get exercise, keep my refrigerator stocked, do laundry, run the dogs and spend quality time with my husband.
We all have our delusions.
Mine, as my children love to remind me, is that there are not 75 hours in a day.
I discovered quickly that my granddaughter, Reese, would give me more joy than I ever could have imagined. Believe me, I know that sounds sappy. But it’s like acknowledging that air conditioning is cool, Ryan Gosling is hot and golden retriever puppies are cute.
The love I felt for this baby overwhelmed me.
When she was three months old, I took a leave of absence from the Inquirer, and soon after, retired to take care of her full-time.
Trading in my career for more time with my family was the right choice for me.
Not everyone would be happy doing what I’m doing. That should be obvious.
Still, I feel the need to make the point because I learned that no matter how old we get, no matter how wise and accomplished, lots of women still have trouble accepting one another’s differences.
When Ariel was born in 1984, the mommy wars raged. Career women were pilloried for their selfishness while stay-at-home mothers were either considered anachronisms or granted sainthood. (Unless they were poor. Then, if they didn’t work full-time, they were deemed parasites of the state.)
We’ve made progress. Not nearly enough, though.
Whatever choices you make – you still are bound to get bitch-slapped.
A few months after Reese was born, the New York Times ran an article about Boomers retiring to Manhattan to take care of their grandchildren.
The story was interesting, the response, fascinating.
The website published 240 comments from readers, most of them bitterly critical. Many focused on the elitism inherent in anyone having the financial means to give up their job and live in one of the most expensive cities in the world. Many others could have been written by my Nana.
Here are a few excerpts:
“It just seems patently unfair to ask parents, who presumably have worked hard all their lives and have made innumerable sacrifices, to now give up their valuable remaining time of mobility and mental health to engage in such grueling and thankless work.”
“I moved from Kentucky to North Carolina to be close to both of my children, but baby-sitting is NOT why I came here. As for the children: I raised mine, and they can raise theirs. I’m 66, still work full-time from home, and I have my own life.”
“I remember when my children were teenagers and a few of their friends got pregnant and had to move back in or stay for an extended period of time with their parents. I told them then and I meant it, “Do not think that I will take on the responsibility of raising my grandchildren.” I meant it then and I mean it even more now. I have a life. I have limitations. I have a full-time job. I am not anyone’s nanny.”
That refrain, “I have a life,” made me want to scream.
Of course you do! Even Jon Snow, who knows nothing, knows that. As he noted last week, we are all breathing.
So what if a bunch of grandmothers are quitting their jobs to take care of their kids’ kids? Were they preaching that everyone should follow their lead? Drafting legislation demanding it?
They were not.
But I get it. Behind the indignation lurks the ghost of June Cleaver. The anger is misplaced, though.
Having kids gives most women so much in common.
Our aching hopes for our babies’ health and future, our frustrations and fears about the obstacles they face, our exhaustion and sleep deprivation and our nagging suspicion that we are not doing a good enough job.
Ariel is writing a blog to help mothers and their partners, husbands, companions, and whatever, feel less alone as they try their best to raise their children.
I am so proud of her for her ability to articulate feelings, share her own attempts to be a good mother and counsel her clients who are struggling. And I am ridiculously lucky to be able to spend this phase of my life helping her with the juggling act while giving my undivided attention to Reese and her new baby brother, Wynn.
That was a luxury I largely forfeited when my own babies were growing up.
I would have been an abysmal full-time mother. I had ambition. I wanted and needed a career. And as much as I adored my three kids, and made enough mistakes raising them to give them plenty of material for a gripping memoir – and years of psychotherapy – I would really have screwed them up if I had stayed home.
Ariel has asked me to write a companion blog to offer my perspective on parenting as someone who has muddled through for more than 30 years.
It is nearly impossible to address any of these issues without wading into the brackish waters where the personal and political meet.
I’m willing to try, though. All I ask is, don’t judge.
My daughter was destined to become a therapist. When she was in elementary school and she heard me and my husband arguing, she would insist that we sit down with her.
“Now Mommy,” she would say. “You should listen to what Daddy is saying.”
“And Daddy,” she would scold, “Let her finish making her point.”
She honed that natural talent by earning a master’s degree in her field, working with a broad range of people, and reading extensively.
In other words, she’s a pro, looking forward with hope. While I’m a veteran, looking back with amazement.
My own parents died before my children got to know them. I would have loved to have had them around to see their grand babies grow up. To help me put all my worries and mistakes in perspective. To share my pride in all the kids’ successes.
And, let’s be honest, to babysit.
I know I would not have taken all of the advice they would have given me, but at least I would have known it was offered with love.
Unlike the gym teacher who will warn you that if you don’t send your 10-year-old to military school, the kid’s destined for juvie.
Or the relative who will announce that if you want to stop a toddler from dawdling at the zoo, you have to smack the crap out of her.
Or the neighbor who will caution you on a sweltering afternoon in July, that if you don’t put socks on your baby, he’ll get colic.
If you’re reading this blog, I can promise you that any insights I offer will be shared with as much compassion, wisdom and honesty possible.
Be forewarned, however. My experience as a mother is bound to be more cautionary than prescriptive.
In all humility, I offer this example.
Once, while I was busy talking on the phone in the kitchen, one of my children, who was then about three years old, started tugging on my shirt.
“Mommy,” she said.
“Just a minute, sweetie.” We were living in ancient times, before the advent of cell phones. I was tethered in place by the curly cord.
“Mommy!” she said, more urgently.
“Hold on, sweetie. I’ll be right with you.”
“MOMMY!!” she shouted.
I ignored her, then heard her bare feet patter out of the room.
A few minutes later, after finishing my call in peace, I congratulated myself for successfully teaching my child a lesson in patience. I was about to go looking for her when she ran back into the kitchen.
She hugged my knees and looked up at me with an expression I could not quite read.
Remorse? Mischief? Abject adoration?
“What’s up sweetheart?” I asked.
“I just pooped on the floor like a dog!”
Remember. Don’t judge.