Grandmothers Are the Support Cast, Not the Star

This guest post is by Kathleen Stassen Berger, a professor at Bronx Community College, City University of New York, where she has taught psychology for forty years. In addition to her new book, Grandmothering: Building Strong Ties with Every Generation, Dr. Berger is the author of the leading textbooks in human development, used by college students in 50 states, 12 countries, in five languages. She is also the mother of four and the grandmother of three. She is featured in the above photo with her grandson.

Newborns open a floodgate of emotions, deluging parents and grandparents in adoration and terror, love and resentment. The oxytocin and other hormones that trigger birth and lactation can arouse extreme emotions in birthing women. Euphoria after birth is common; so is depression.

That explains why a usually thoughtful woman (me) telephoned someone at 3 am to announce a birth (the sleepy person who answered said “congratulations” but she might have said “are you out of your mind?”). That also explains published accounts of usually loving women who think of smothering their bawling baby.

Hormones affect everyone. Moreover, emotions are viral and cultural mandates are powerful, so a mother’s irrational reactions reverberate in the father, the grandmother, and others. Adoration and terror clash, not only within each person but between people. One grandmother, (Janet, from Chicken Soup for the Soul) who thought she never wanted grandchildren, wrote when that grandchild was born:

“’Let Grandma hold her!’ I shouted, almost knocking my poor son-in-law off his feet as I snatched my new granddaughter out of his arms. Over the next few days, I fought like a dragon to hold her, feed her, change her.”

Fortunately, that snatching dragon lady lived a thousand miles away, so distance prevented her from grabbing the baby away from the parents. But her impulse is understandable — and dangerous. If left unchecked, it clashes with the emotions of the mother and father, who also want to hold, feed, and change their baby. Worse, if a grandmother acts as if she knows best how to care for an infant, the parents have only two choices: doubt their ability to be a parent or lock the grandmother out.

The latter is not uncommon. Parents are called “gatekeepers” because access to the grandchildren must go through them and grandmothers who are shut out suffer insomnia, heart disease, depression. The former choice is even worse. Parents need to feel competent to love and care for their children, day after day, year after year. If they do not, their anxiety and erratic caregiving harm the children.

Then what is a grandmother to do?

  • Remember the early days of motherhood. Many new mothers fear that they did something wrong, and are buffeted by conflicting advice from those who should know. New parents need reassurance far more than another opinion or someone who takes over.
  • Figure out what the mother needs and provide it. Usually, it is NOT direct baby care. Perhaps laundry, cleaning, shopping, cooking. Even asking what is needed might be a bothersome question. Instead of asking “what do you need?” say “I am going to the drug store. Anything I can pick up for you?” Instead of asking for specifics, say “Is it okay if I sweep the floor?” or “I want to make dinner for you. Any special requests?” And if the answer is no, don’t insist, just make a variety of simple, tasty, nourishing foods.
  • Don’t hover. Some mothers want to be alone with their baby, some new couples want to “cocoon” without anyone else. The grandmother’s wish to be near the baby is understandable, even laudable, but even a quiet presence can be disquieting.
  • Compliment the baby and the parents. Don’t gush, and remember that misinterpretations are common. “What a strong cry” may be interpreted as “you aren’t giving him what he needs,” “what a cute nose” may mean “his Dad’s nose is too big,” “she sleeps so peacefully” may be “watch out for crib death.” Complements that are direct and specific are best, such as “you are so good at understanding the baby. You knew right away that the whimper meant hunger.”
  • Help the parents get some sleep, as well as time together. Perhaps take the baby out for a long walk (the cloth infant carriers can be used for newborns, follow the instructions). Don’t worry about illness as new babies inherit their mother’s immunity. By the time their own immunizations are in place, infants love going out, so strolling around the park for an hour can be a godsend for the parents.
  • Remember the entire family. If there are older children, take them on “an adventure” to a museum, or zoo, or new playground. Take pictures and write anecdotes, send that to other relatives especially other grandparents.

None of this is to deprive the grandmother of the joy of a new baby: the smell, the skin, the open and wondering eyes of an infant, are among the best experiences of life. But each new person needs dedicated caregivers for twenty years or more; the goal is devoted, happy parents and a supportive, not interfering, grandmother.

Read more about the author on her website

1 thought on “Grandmothers Are the Support Cast, Not the Star”

  1. This is ALL excellent advice and I follow this to the letter. I live next door to 7 of my grands and the children try to change the rules once in a while, trying to make me decide they get to do something I know the parents would not approve….and I remind them, ONLY when Mom and Dad give me the decision , their rules prevail.

    It makes for one big happy family

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