We older mothers (born anywhere from 1950–or before!–through 1969, I think) like to trade anecdotes with a knowing look and a smidgen of soft laughter about “those days…” when we had the privilege, often surprise, and also “the female task” of bearing and raising wee ones. We don’t quite recall the sufferings of labor and childbirth, or how cranky/bleak-and-in pain-exhausted/ utterly confused/at times even disturbed by it all we were. The prolonged healing process (“a near-travesty of femaleness if you ask me but has to get done”) fades; a colicky infant’s travails (“he’d never give it up, kept at it day in, day out–bless him”) 3 a.m. to 3 a.m. fade; unquenchable thirst with expanding hunger (“couldn’t keep that baby filled up, yet now–what a strapping man/gal!”); and our desperation for sleep and an hour for privacy, fifteen minutes alone in peace…(“well, it got better and better, didn’t it?”)…it faded as time went by.
We–at age 50 and older–have been there, know it all after one, two, or more kids, now grown, right? And yet we forgot so much, replaced those times with other years’ memories. Why bring up all that hard stuff? It is as old as the hills: women experience this stuff all the time. We learned from our own mothers to not whine. We wanted to act stronger, brighter, braver. And we just did what every new parent does those first days and nights, weeks, months. With a knowing smile and nod at one another, and plenty of swallowed tears.
So honestly, why would our daughters– and sons, for that matter, and their partners– believe our self-pronounced “wise words” easily? We can be so blithe despite greater truth of things. The insecurities we thought we’d triumphed over after years of therapy. The rosy illusions that exit into a black pit of depression when we realized our bodies were no longer our own (especially nursing but bottle feeding is still on demand); and that any free time would came at a cost both emotionally, even literally. That constant worry the burp was too goopy and might even choke the trusting infant in your anxious arms. That soiled diaper held too little or much–and that creeping rash along a nearly-invisible neck. Is it as bad as it looks? And what and why? Why is that crying so black-out loud and indiscernible?
So often, who knew exactly what the mysterious realm of babies was all about? Ole Dr. Spock was dismissed; there were many after him that had a very small reign. No one said: “It is really very hard, but somehow you figure it aout..”
Nothing anyone could have told me would have prepared me well enough when my first child was born at age 23. She was two and a half months early (a time when medical advances were nowhere near the level they are now). Nor was I “ready” when each of the others arrived, a lot less early and stronger but nonetheless as baffling one way or another. My mother was not so nearby for me to often request her presence, my sisters lived across the country, my brothers were…brothers… and also gone. My mother-in-law was boldly opinionated in ways that were generally not too encouraging, and my husband was…a stoic husband of those times, gone so much, capable and caring but less attuned to baby’s and mother’s woes/wants than could be useful. Especially when I got more worried and far less rest. And wrestled with guilt for all I should/could/would have done. What business did I have, having children? But came they did.
I felt on my own most of the time, with a neighborly woman or a couple friends here or there to share experiences (though in college three young families lived near one another–such stories and helps we shared for a time), give a reassuring pat on the back that cooled as soon as they went back to their more accomplished, carefree lives (so I believed). And it was more uncertain, even frightful terrain to explore than I’d admit. I knew how to endure much, I thought, so prayed every other minute for strength, compassion–most of all, practical wisdom. A tall order. Tears came as I sang and hummed to my babies. Rocked and rocked until all was calmed, she/he finally sleepy, my own eyelids closing. And then rocked-or walked–them more.
I was an amateur the first time, only a tad smarter the others. I slowly experienced carefully nurtured devotion, a burgeoning love, and lived by a few instincts and intuitions. Time passed, there came a little bravado, more trial and error. I acted as if, is all; I was good at that sort of thing and determined to do well as a mom even as failure threatened at every other turn. But did not say so if I could help it. The big reveal was that I loved mothering, anyway, no matter what.
But as a grandmother, it becomes a different scenario. Doesn’t it? We feel a step removed at first, our strength arising from knowledge of how to navigate many rocky roads that diverged from any easy understanding, and our hearts got bigger with many joys and triumphs, too. We made it! They do settle down, become more interesting even than anticipated but the remarkable thing is they do grow up: if we can at last be adults with them, it is nothing to make light of–a victory for all… If love has been the stitchery mending rips, pleating new pieces, adding new dimensions for a workable whole, we feel at home. And glad of the piecemeal process.
These are not my first grandchildren, but the sixth and seventh. And yet, I can tell you it is more than a standard three act operetta since these twin grand babies arrived. If nothing else, it means double of every single thing and event…
My youngest daughter is 39 this year and she has just had the twins. She calls on me almost daily, and sometimes beyond. Since we moved out here in the quieter, woodsy suburbs to be close to her and our son-in-law and babies, we are here for her. Late call for more baby formula? Check. Early call for help with a feeding? Check. I/we don’t live with them right now only because there is not enough room to move in–but would, anyway.
It is a truth that even in common ways I wanted my own mother and father to be more present with me, but did not get to enjoy such generous engagement. So I want to do this (as does my husband whose first two babies were raised mostly alone the first 3 or 4 years). Even when I can feel this daughter’s hovering fears and aching and complex subterranean needs. Especially so. When I embrace those two tiny ones close and they grab my shirt, wail with mouths demanding more. It is the season of more and more, mesmerizing, lovely creatures–so designed for their survival–with big needs. When my daughter’s exhaustion clings to her like an unwieldy, thick cape in the sweet spring air. I cannot lift it enough from her; but I can fan a fresh breeze around her feet, her face, her spirit. I can sit with her and work by her side and her husband’s.
I really know so little despite knowing more than I thought I recalled. It is an in between place to be, this grandmother’s watch. I wait to see what’s needed before stepping in and determine when it is better to just step forward. A balance of things, of new ways and old. This is a daughter who has been bold no matter the sweat and strategy things take, and smart, so she makes it her business to learn all she can. She yearns to be present every moment although she and her husband need to sleep an hour, take a break for a few. I want to tell her to “just relax” but know full well how ignorant and unkind that would be… But I cannot take a lead when they are mine only by default, my being one of their grandmothers. But still, they are this much a part of me, of my husband. The generational wheel turns.
The babies count on all each moment since leaving their enclosure of safety. The human way, yes, and more growing happens, changing happens–a stronger sudden leg kick, a dimple showing, a startled stare at the light moving through a window. They are not the same in looks, size or temperament–and all the more intriguing.
I am in a good position to muse over the whole messy wonder, to watch people I care so much for scurry toward vague horizons, to ponder: what on earth? how did they become such ones! To pray: help us with these matters of concern…Because twin girls may have in common many attributes and issues with all other infants, but they are not single babies. They are not the same and yet they are connected as roots of trees are connected, i think–by nervous systems messages, by instinct and familiarity. They sleep nestled that close, two snuggled beings of a greater whole. They are silent when touching forehead to forehead: here I am.
They are , it is true, not my preemie baby girls (and boy). They are not mine, period, but only by that blood riverlet connection. Every day I feel it run deeper; I do not know start or finish of it, it runs and runs and within it we live day to day as a larger story emerges, and will be remade again.
I do not blithely offer my new neighbor, “Oh, it is all fantastic but just tiring, they eat every two hours, both of them, they sure can cry–you know, it is a challenge…but we made it, didn’t we?” It is more complicated; we all know it. I have not forgotten the hard days and nights of young motherhood. There is less laughter than nostalgia manufactures, more bleary-eyed with hapless awe mixed with mad worries than may be admitted. And then when it seems too much: more bloomings of love. And forbearance.
When my daughter said through dark, dull eyes one morning: “Nothing you can say can make me feel any different right now,” she was right. But oh… I so badly wished I could.
This woman who was my child is a grown up finding her way. She has weekly support groups I never had. She has resources, information galore, enough to make my head spin. Plus a husband with time off work to wholeheartedly help carry the load. So we gingerly embrace this new arrangement, my daughter, her daughters (and their father), and me.
What I say is so much less valuable than what I do or do not do at this time. I take my steps and words slow. I find my place in the mix of it until called forward. I simply do not know it all.
Still, we take turns lifting the babies to the green light of May, encircle them in our arms as we feed them, side by side (or I feed two at once as the parents rest). And there is dancing time as I sway and tap one sleepy, fussy one while she burps and rocks another and sings in her warm, sweet voice. Unbearably tender, their fast beating hearts against ours. I will yet embrace my own dear one–with respect and a watchful eye–as she does her new dear ones. This is how families grow, each turn of a current revealing a blessing that carries us forward. I admit: there are things yet to learn as my daughter tackles her changed life, with two fine, lively spirits to adore.