Grandmothering–the Dark Side

Keeping still is hard to do!
Keeping still is hard to do!

We celebrated Mother’s Day over an early dinner with my two daughters and my “son-in-love” and a grandson, recently turned 13 months old and walking. The charming and classy hillside restaurant we’d chosen, Shadowbrook, proved great for our whole family.

Baby Isaac had refused to go down and stay down for his typical early afternoon nap, worrying both parents. The best part of my daughter’s Mother’s Day turned out to be his new-found ability to keep slumbering when lifted out of his car seat. In fact, Jennifer carried him, prone, down 96 steps to the restaurant door and once seated, got to enjoy adult conversation and shrimp wrapped with bacon while baby slept on.

Next year I’ll quiz my daughter Jenny about whether she’d rather picnic instead. Though we all loved the food and found many places to entertain baby when he was fully awake (like the bright-colored fish zipping up and down in the aquarium), I’d rather she not spend Mother’s Day stressed about how her son will do in the restaurant. I’d rather she not be like me in this way—the anxiety that often festered in me as a mother of unpredictable young kids.

Last time I wrote about being a grandmother and recounted the rhapsodies of this new role and how it lifts me up to forgotten, pleasures. But it also undoes me. From the get-go, I’ve felt so protective of Baby. Not only of whether Isaac is warm enough or fed enough, but also of the well-being of Mom. It’s like an old haunting has returned, my old sense of impotence.

I’m again a teetering freshman heading into finals week. The tension extends even to the baby’s dad. After Ozan returned from overseas, relief rolled in. I felt washed clean, elated as a backpacker who’d been traipsing dirty trails for a dozen days, now cleansed of a day’s sweat under a shower and released from a thirty-pound pack.

In these thirteen months of newly experiencing my role as grandmother, hearing my daughter’s stories has dredged up my own past—the exhaustion and bewilderment brought on by an infant or a sick toddler. Such remembering fuels my offers to help, but regret also steps in. I picture myself as a young mother—at my best and at my worst—and then self-evaluation follows fast. Stabs of guilt pierce and multiply. When I cared for young ones, I was on a quest to become some vague ideal of a mother, while I aimed to not be like my own mom. From her, I often felt the lash of her tongue. From her, the words I love you did not feel genuine because I felt I could not satisfy her. Did I escape becoming her?

I often suspect that I did not do it as well as my daughter Jenny. Did I get silently irritated when my baby threw a tantrum? Did Jenny or Sheri feel my frustration even when I was silent? Did my vocal anger harm our relationships for life? Sometimes I left off tidying and sweeping to play with baby—something I have reason to believe my own mother did not do—but did I do it enough?

Recently on the return trip from my daughter’s, I recalled Isaac screaming at her and arching his back. The strong and riveting scene took me back in time and called forth comparisons. In my daughter I saw no frustration or bewilderment bursting out and I marveled at her gentle words. “You’re so tired. You need to sleep,” she intoned with sympathy. Admiration welled up and, on return to home and computer, I typed an e-mail to her:

I think when I was in those situations as a mother of young children I sometimes felt, “I’ve done something wrong to cause this.  I should be able to stop this, somehow, but I don’t know how.” 

That is a bad and powerless way of thinking. 

Or, “What’s wrong with this child? She’s so mad at me and it’s so unreasonable.  How much more am I going to have to endure this?”

The knowledge you’ve gained and applied within your heart and actions—“Baby needs to be sleeping”—is a much more helpful way to interpret his tantrum. There’s less personalizing and anxiety than what went on within me. 

Watching you these last months, I often wish I’d been a better mother to my young ones and I am also stirred to amazement. I am grateful at the grace God has shown towards you and Sheri. You are so much more than the sum total of the parenting efforts of Collin and I. And here is where I credit prayer and raising you within a community of faith. You’ve become young adults who are kind and compassionate as well as responsible and diligent and for this I am so thankful.

In response, my daughter e-mailed these reflections:

It’s easier to be gentle when I’ve gotten help and am not overwhelmed myself — so thank you for helping enable me to be a kinder parent by giving me a break! Also, I want you to know I think you did a great job teaching me and Sheri that we as humans have physical limits, and that we need to respect and be compassionate about those limits.

I remember you bringing snack for me after school when I was four or five and saying it was to ward off a blood-sugar low, or how you insisted we go to bed and finish things in the morning if need be—rather than try to stay up too late. And how you didn’t push me past the limit of how long I could be out shopping! I know two close friends who didn’t get those kinds of lessons in their families. I’m grateful I did. Those lessons were foundational for my attitude of compassion and acceptance toward the body’s needs. Without that, I certainly wouldn’t deal well with Isaac’s upsets.

Ah, what a daughter. But back to the mish-mash of the grand-parenting experience for me. I don’t want, of course, to lean on my daughter often for reassurance when stabs of memory produce shame. Here’s where my journal—whether electronic or on paper—help. A time writing or silence or conversation with a close friend allows the little darts of pain or shame to bubble up. Then they can be addressed. I also ask God’s help to call to mind my mother strong points. They are there, like the time I spent two hours reading picture books to Jenny.

Does my child remember that or the times I failed to stop and listen or play? I also wonder, was I loving and gentle enough? I’ve decided that I cannot know. In fact, we don’t really need to and that my quest to absolve myself from the past is a doomed way of trying to gain reassurance.

(I must made an aside here: I’m assuming that for concrete wrongs—a spanking in anger, a failure to feed or meet another need—parents need to ask forgiveness. Clear failures that must be dealt with.) But, as in my case, complex emotions can spur a look backwards. Perhaps it’s an attempt to assure myself that I earned my child’s love. That I have not failed as a parent and therefore my life has meaning or worth. Or, perhaps, that my child will be there for me in the future. None of these add up.

Much as I wanted to do so, I could not daily and hourly find and show love in my days of intensive mothering. Nor could any human. Human fallibility remains despite reading a shelf of books on parenting or digging deep with a counselor.

Fortunately, our kind God can make good things out of our mistakes and weaknesses. Parenting done perfectly? No, but mine has been enough for God to use. It’s not necessary to know I’ve done enough or done it well enough. That’s one more way of trying to buy security.

Besides, true love—whether from God or a child—is given, not earned. We all have flaws. When we encounter love, it’s not due to a stellar record, but a gift of grace. So when baby Isaac reaches out his fingers to discover the feel of a purple stalk of blossoms, I can remember that the Maker of those flowers extends that same delight to my own person.