June 26, 2007

In the Company of Grandmothers

This past weekend I attended two gatherings: One a monthly meeting of nonfiction writers and the other a BBQ dinner hosted by neighbors. These were great opportunities to catch up with people I like and admire.

Most of the women were grandmothers, or grandmothers-to-be, and on both occasions the main subject was children and grandchildren.

Normally, I would feel excluded in these conversations. However, this was different. All of these women knew me, knew I was happily childless by choice and was working on a book and documentary on this subject. All of them appeared to respect my choice and understood that I also respected their paths as parents and grandparents.

Other than mutual respect, what did we have in common?

The common theme of these conversations was "setting boundaries." Grandmothers and grandmothers-to-be talked about how to communicate to their children that they would not be full-time babysitters for grandchildren. They were finally empty nesters and they valued the free time and the lifestyle they had come to enjoy, and were reluctant to get sucked in to that full-time guardianship role again.

I could identify with that. I set boundaries early, when I chose to babysit at thirteen to earn some money. I told my clients I would not babysit infants and toddlers who were not toilet-trained. I would not day-sit or do overnights. Eight hours in the company of children was my limit.

We also talked about this new generation of parents: how paranoid and nervous they were. I told them how my cousin is considering implanting a chip inside his infant son’s body so he could find the child if he went missing. A grandmother lamented that she could not watch TV in the presence of her grandchild because her daughter didn’t allow TV for her children.

Another grandmother said her daughter had told her that she did not want her child exposed to unsterilized surfaces, plastic toys, and sugar or sugar substitutes. This woman’s husband was peeved over the fact that he could not take his grandchild for an ice cream. These women worried that their grandchildren were being over-protected, isolated from the real world in which they would eventually navigate on their own and from the bacteria that might save them one day.

I found myself nodding in agreement and sharing a laugh over many of these stories. Modern parenting is a huge challenge for both the parents and the grandparents. The stress, the worry, and the inevitable guilt when things don’t go perfectly are the acknowledged pitfalls of caring for a small child. That’s one reason why I never wanted to take on the full-time guardianship of an infant.

Apparently, some grandparents feel the same way.

Flickr photo by
by garethjmsaunders (cc)
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AnitaD said...

Not really on the topic of grandparents but I over heard a conversation two of my colleagues were having at work the other day. They both ave early teen age daughters and their concern for how to introduce contraception without it coming across as a way to encourage them to have sex when maybe they are not ready. But, afraid at the same time that they are ready for sex but wouldn't have the protection. They talked about ways of introducing it. Maybe just sneak it into the medicine cabinet in the bathroom or have a proper chat. It was amusing to hear. I just thank God I have none of those concerns.

Teri said...

Laura - I wish I could skip the parent part and just be a grandparent! I was very close with my maternal grandmother and she died a little over a year ago, leaving a huge vacancy. I would simply not be the same person without her.

I do want a kid element in my life, but I am not going to be a parent. It's that simple. Once we get our house established, we may host an exchange student. I may continue to substitute teach. I may not. My favorite role so far is that of Auntie, or Aunt Teri. The time I get to spend with our nieces and nephews are brief and precious moments -- chances to influence, expand horizons, and picky palates!

AnitaD -- I remember I took my nephew R and his girl buddy J to the movie March of the Penguins, so their Moms could explore the toney Yorkville shopping district in Toronto. There was the scene where the birds were "doin' it" live, full screen. J asked me real loud so everyone could hear, "What are they doing?" My reply, "Go ask your mother!" There were lots of snickers in the dark theater.

LauraS said...

Funny, funny--
I've had the sex talk with my "little sister." It is not easy, but it is easier if you are not a parent. I've only had a few sleepless nights imagining what she's doing on a particular night. I'm not waiting to hear the door open every night, checking my watch, praying.

We've hosted each of my 3 nephews for a summer trip away from their home in Scotland. We've hosted a French exchange student. All were great experiences. I imagine it is the same feeling that a grandparent has. Love 'em and leave them...with their parents!

Anonymous said...

Wow, that is sad. How about talking to the kid exactly that way, voicing your fears that it's not time for them to have sex yet but giving them the tools and information they need to protect themselves when ready? Some people need to grow up and be an adult regarding talking to their kids.

- Sara

LynnR said...

From time to time I have worried how my parents would cope with not being grandparents (my sister and I are both child-free). However, recently my mother expressed how lucky and grateful she feels when she hears all her sisters and friends expressing sentiments similar to those contained in the post. I also feel very fortunate to have a mother who respects my choice to be child-free. As for Dad, well, he's a work in progress...

frieda said...

Great post. I really value hearing the thoughts and opinions of our elders. It can be a difficult subject to talk about with them. It's pretty rare (for me) to hear them speak out honestly about it, and I appreciate it. Thanks for sharing.

I get mixed messages from my family. My dad expresses his desire for grandchildren all the time (or disappointment that he doesn't have any), yet last time I was visiting him his girlfriend told me every time he's seated near children in a restaurant he asks to move. So, I realized I need to take his hassling with a grain of salt and not worry about his opinion so much. I don't think he really considers the reality of what it would be like, and I think both of my parents are in denial about how hard it is to raise children. My mom claims it was "easy and fun" yet my memories of childhood sure differ with that! Maybe I wasn't bratty enough for her?

Maryam Webster said...

I am childfree by choice and just found this blog - excellent writing and topic! I'm blissfully past the childbearing years and thank goodness, the callous "why don't you have kids" comments have all but stopped. I don't look my age though and still occasionally get a few random, (often snooty) people up in my face when I answer "it's my choice". There are the inevitable accuasations of "that's so wrong", "you're selfish" and so on. Now I'll just say I'm "purple" if anyone asks, and leave it at that. ;-)

I resonated to the topic of modern parents being overprotective. When I was a kid in the 60's, we played with unsanitary wooden toys, frolicked in the dirt, came home grubby as you please, were scrubbed with a brush until we glowed and had the time of our lives. We got sick occasionally, but it didn't kill us, and indeed, made us stronger. I had chicken pox, measles and mumps as a kid (the measles was in reaction to being vaccinated) and I'm glad I did. Gives me all sorts of resistance to bugs as an adult that I don't see modern children as having.

We were also told to mind our manners, respect our elders, be polite, helpful and grateful for what we had...and were spanked soundly by those elders upon transgression. After the first few spankings, a stern look or just a word was enough to make most of us toe the line. While I don't agree with spanking, discipline is necessary, and I see it gravely lacking in much current parenting. With discipline again, we grew up with a sense of respect for others that I don't find present in quite the same way today. Most of us also had jobs in the house to earn our allowance if any, and segued into outside paid jobs as teenagers.

I've never not worked a day in my life past the age of seven, when my first job was to clean the bathrooms in the house. I hear again and again that kids smirk and roll their eyes when asked to do such things today. When I was a kid we may have hated it, but we did chores regardless. Myself and my contemporaries grew up saying "please", "thank you" and "pardon me". It's the rare child today who is courteous today. If the world was a kinder, more sharing/giving place in the 60's, taking personal responsibility and observing a few simple courtesies would be some of the big reasons why.

Today I see a massive sense of entitlement in kids. What I don't see so much is a sense of personal responsibility. These kids expect and demand to have things handed to them it would have taken a kid in the 60's months or years to earn. I see a lot of people blaming these kids for being wasters. The real blame lies not only at the feet of parents though, but also a society who supports swaddling kids in so much protection from life in general, that they don't know how to take responsibility for themselves.

And that my friends, means we child-free folks are just as responsible for the kids of today as their parents, because it takes a village to raise a child. This means all of us.

Well, given what I've written above, the process of turning into my own mother is well and truly complete - grin. Thanks again for providing this blog, it's great reading!

LauraS said...

Your comments brought me back to my childhood. I never regreted having to work after school at 15 even though that meant I had to decline a sub spot on the cheerleading team. My parents made sure we understood the value of a dollar and now that I am in my forties and striving for a debt-free life I really appreciate their efforts.
There is huge pressure in schools and in our society to wear the right labels and have the right stuff. With top celebrities like Sara Jessica Parker coming out with $20 price point clothing lines, perhaps this will change.
Though when I saw all the people camped out for the new iphone, I wonder...