I became a grandmother when I was 31 years old. That was not the typical age for beginning this new role. Please, don’t start counting on your fingers trying to decide what age I was when I first gave birth (age 24), for I transitioned to this new status so early because I adopted my sister’s four children when I was 21 years old. Ten years later, the oldest child gave birth when she was 17 years old.
Yes, I was essentially 14 years older than my oldest child, which caused no end to conflicts between us when she became a teenager and I was only 27 years old. She did not think me old enough to tell her what to do. She was probably right, as I was still learning how to parent five children, having given birth to my biological child three years after I adopted the first four. So, to say that I was unprepared for the usual expectations of grandmothers is an understatement.
Usually, grandmothers come to stay with the new parents for a few days or weeks, to help with the new responsibilities, to teach them how to take care of the new baby, and to give them opportunities to sleep while the infant sleeps. It is an interesting time as two generations, often with very different ideas about how to raise and care for children, live under one roof and try, for the sake of the new addition, to reconcile their various child-rearing techniques without causing a permanent rift in family relationships.
But, in my unusual case, the new baby moved into my home, as his mother was still in high school, and I required her to finish high school, so that she could one day provide for them both. I worked, so the baby was in day care most of the day. Being a teenager, she came home and wanted to be on the phone with her friends or to visit friends, believing that when I arrived home from work, I would care for the child, as any “usual” grandmother would.
I had to remind her that being the grandmother did not make me an instant babysitter, and that I had my own child-caring duties, as well as needing to rest my body after 8 to 12 hours of working to provide for us all. But I did help her as much as I could, so she could do her homework and chores pertaining to motherhood. I also took care of him when she traveled with the school band, for she played the clarinet, but not for her to go out with her boyfriend or friends. That did not endear her to me!
She and I were different, in that she was very popular and received many invitations to parties, as her presence seemed to guarantee the success or failure of her friends’ parties. As an introvert raising an extrovert, I did not understand the desire to party every Friday and Saturday night, so my answer was nearly always a resounding “No” to requests to babysit that sweet little boy.
At a recent Thanksgiving Day meal at her house, she told my other children, in front of me, mind you, that she used to sneak out the window after the baby went to sleep and go to her parties, and then sneak back in. I told her that she was lucky that I never caught her.
I loved him, don’t get me wrong, but caring for an infant and toddler is a lot of work, and when you also were taking care of four other children who needed your attention and to have fun with you on the weekends, there had to be boundaries set that maximized time and minimized tears. She must have told me at least once a weekend that I did not act like a “real” grandmother, as she had friends whose mothers and fathers took care of their grandchildren, allowing their daughters the freedom I would not give her, without any whining or complaining. I would tell her that I was not a typical grandmother.
I was not typical in two other ways. First, I never learned to cook. When my grandchildren would come to stay with me, they loved being able to eat all the cookies and ice cream they wanted, before being sent home bouncing off the walls due to a sugar high. I thought that they never noticed that the cookies were not homemade. But, one day, the same daughter a lot of years later, told me that she went to her daughter’s school on a day when the children talked about their grandparents. I had to work and could not get away, so my daughter represented me.
When it was her time, my oldest granddaughter stood up to tell the class something about her grandmother, and she said, with much pride, I am told, “At my granny’s house, the cookies come out of a bag!” My daughter, who is a great cook and caters parties today, was so mortified, but I was happy that my granddaughter was still proud of me, as if cookies out of a bag were the best cookies in the world! My grandchildren knew that when they came to my house, it was frozen food and bags of cookies, and they loved it!
Second, I started college at age 36 and finished at age 54 with my PhD, so for nearly all of my oldest grandchildren’s lives, I was in college. Between work and college, I did not see them as often as I liked, but I always asked them about their grades, expecting them to earn the highest grades. To motivate them to get As and Bs, I would show them my “report cards,” with only As mostly but a few Bs. I would tell them when I made the Dean’s List. For me, I wanted them to see that I did not ask anything of them that I was not prepared to do myself.
Once, my youngest daughter told me that when she went to her son’s school for a teacher-parent conference, the teacher asked my grandson if his good grades were because his mother was so smart. She said that she had puffed out her chest and was preparing to smile and accept the accolades from her son when he said, “No, Maa’m. It’s from my grandmother!” My daughter was not amused, believe me!
Being an atypical grandmother has comes with many regrets. I moved away from my adult kids and grandchildren to accept jobs in Illinois and California, so I missed so much of their childhood and teen years. Today, I live about an hour’s drive from three of my grandchildren, and two of them, twin girls, are age 7 today. I plan to call them and wish them a happy birthday.
I am lucky to remember grandchildren’s birthdays, as Douglas and I have 18 of them together, with 15 from me, and, as of last Wednesday, six great-grandchildren, all from me, so I have to keep my calendar updated. I am called Granny, Grandma Gina, Granny Gina, Nana Gina, and Maw (don’t ask!).
Psalm 127:3 states, “Children are a gift from the Lord; they are a reward from him.” Well, grandchildren are even more of a reward. Their unconditional love for their grandparents is like nothing I have ever experienced. They think of you as the “good guys,” and they accept and love you as you are. I always tell people a phrase I heard someone say one day, “If I had known how much I would love my grandchildren, I would have had them first!”
Our grandchildren range from age 34 to 3, and I am blessed to be able to text with them as much as I want, and to tell them of God’s love for them. We do not see them as often as we would like, as the majority of them and all of the great-grands live a 4-hour drive away. That’s why we moved from California, to be closer to our grandchildren adn children.
We have invited them to come see us when we are in Europe, and my oldest grandchild (You know, the one I would not keep as an infant!) plans to meet us and travel part of the way with us. He and I call ourselves the “Traveling Twins,” as he has caught the traveling bug from me and I never know where he is in the world. Now that I think about it, grandmothers do motivate their grandchildren to follow in their footsteps. Maybe with him, I just might be more typical than I think I am.