Fresh Eyes: Grandparenting 101

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by Jo Maeder

When news arrived that my nephew and his girlfriend were bringing the first grandchild into the immediate family, I felt as much panic as jubilation. James and Tiffany were barely in their twenties, careerless and, surely, clueless. They fought a lot. I worried when they adopted a kitten. How could they possibly be parents?

I should talk. I’m in my fifties and never had children. I know I’m clueless.

Then I heard there was a Grandparent Love class at the Women’s Hospital in Greensboro where the baby would be delivered. They offered 23 classes in everything from breastfeeding to infant CPR.

I did not see one called “Childrearing for the Nonplussed Mature Woman.”

Five of us (James’s parents, Tiffany’s parents, and I) attended the class, certain the care of this child would fall on the real adults in the picture.

When I relayed to the instructor that I had no children, she said, “You’re lucky. You’ll have a much easier time.”

Ann Clark — with RN, MSN, and CNS after her name—has been helping babies come into the world and thrive as children since 1977. She shared one outrageous story after another about how she had failed as a grandmother in the eyes of her children and their spouses by not following their directions.

She repeatedly told the class of 20 mostly women and a few men: “Your son or daughter is no longer your child and they think you know nothing. Everything has changed from when you raised them.”

I could see that was true when James and Tiffany said nothing about getting married and no one pushed it. Greensboro, from my former Yankee perspective, is the Bible Belt. The quick cultural shift to accept children outside of marriage still boggles my mind.

A proud grandmother for 35 days chimed in with, “The diapers now have lines that turn colors when the diaper is wet. No sticking your finger in there!”

What else was different? There’s so much to learn about car seats that it’s an entire class. Baby lotion, powder and anything scented are out. The water heater shouldn’t be set above 120 degrees. Vintage cribs with sides that go up and down are outlawed, and never put anything in a newer one except a blanket that can be securely fastened.

The people who should be hearing this are James and Tiffany, who have not signed up for one class.

“Very few new moms take birthing classes today,” said Clark. “They want the epidural and they want the baby on its due date. They have schedules! They learn as they go.”

Do they think they only need to download an app or bring up Google on their cell phone when an issue arises and all answers will be at their fingertips? They’re probably right.

Her No. 1 rule: KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT. Do whatever you’re told, even when the child is in your care. Don’t give unsolicited or even solicited advice. If it doesn’t work, they’ll never forget. Your job is to build their confidence as parents and nurture the couple’s relationship. What they really want from you is to cook, clean, wash clothes and vacuum.

Now I was concerned about my brother Arthur. How could he just step aside? He had recently lost his paying job when his company closed the local office and was now losing his 22-year job as a parent.

As we left, my fears lessened when Arthur said with new determination and a stronger stride, “If that child stays at my place, he’s abiding by my rules.”

Clark told me later that’s how most grandparents react.

He had a job after all. As did I. Now when is that infant-CPR class? Or should I simply download the app?

On Feb. 3, 2014, Cameron James came into the world a week after his due date at a whopping 9 pounds, 1 ounce. Not only is he a miracle I can look at forever, the instantaneous mature transformation in James and Tiffany was undeniable. James now has a steady job.

Arthur says with pride and disbelief, “James is more of a hands-on dad than I was when my kids were that age.” I asked if he and Tiffany were still fighting. “No.”

How a helpless baby can change an adult in the best of ways is the greatest miracle of all — and a source of deep regret. I wish I’d taken such a leap of faith when I could have. I wanted everything to be perfect: a father to the baby who I loved and who was totally on board, plenty of money in the bank and a career that wasn’t so demanding. I wanted the child to be perfect, too.

Lately I’ve found myself Googling adoption sites and looking at older children, wondering if, just maybe, I’ll say the words “my child” one day. Or will I just be the greatest great-aunt ever.

Jo Maeder is the author of the Triad-based caregiving memoir When I Married My Mother, Opposites Attack: A Novel with Recipes Provençal and way too many Facebook posts. Find her at JoMaeder.com.