Notes from a New Grandma

A new baby turns parents' lives upside down. Grandparents, too, must adjust to their new roles, and there are usually a few missteps and lessons learned along the way.

Love Thy Grandchild, Though Remember She's Not Yours

grandma and baby

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When my granddaughter, Isabelle, was 9 days old, I learned the First Commandment of Grandparenthood: love thy grandchild as thyself, but never presume for one nanosecond that she's yours.

I had made the mistake of offering -- too eagerly, I suppose -- to hold her when she started squalling during dinner (which I had cooked and delivered to the new, sleepless parents), causing my son, Clay, to snap, "She's my daughter, and I'll hold her." But 20 minutes later, when he and Tamar, his wife and Isabelle's mother, decided they needed a Starbucks break, he gladly handed the baby over to me. That's when I realized that even though I was present at the birth of my granddaughter and am drawn to her with a force that feels stronger than gravity, I am, in fact, backup, part of an extended-family support team, a relief player. I may be besotted, but I must win over Isabelle's gatekeepers -- her parents -- in order to spend time with her.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with this arrangement; it's perfectly natural. The first time my parents came to visit after Clay was born, I recall feeling as proprietary about him as a mother tigress feels toward her cubs. Even though my mother had managed to raise two children, I didn't trust her alone in the room with my son -- a fierce protective instinct that must surely be biological. Still, now that I'm on the far side of the fence, I'm discovering that the role of grandmother takes some getting used to as well, especially for women like me who are accustomed to speaking our mind, being in charge (read: bossy), and laying claim to those we love, notably our children. All things considered, this grandmother business is pretty humbling.

"When Juliet, my granddaughter, was born last year, my natural impulse was to jump in with boundless enthusiasm," says New York City psychotherapist and author Florence Falk. "As a grandparent you feel none of the anxiety or responsibility that comes with being a parent. You're just flooded with love." But, Falk realized, "My son and daughter-in-law needed to assert their right of dominion. I had to curb my instincts to offer advice and, instead, take my cues from them." Not only that, she recalls with a laugh, it was as if she had to audition to prove that her babycare skills were up to snuff. "I was aware of them watching me like a hawk the first few times I changed Juliet's diaper," Falk says. "I knew that if I was going to have access to her, I had to abide by their rules even when I disagreed. It was a whole new family dynamic for which I was completely unprepared."

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