Grandmothers are a complicated lot, whether they’re called Baba (as I am), or Bubbie (as most of my friends are) or Safta, or just plain old Grandma. Grandfathers are simple, unperturbed beings and thus are not part of the following thesis, regardless of their monikers, Zayda, Zaydee, Sabba, Grandpa, or whatever.
Your typical grandmother is a confused creature with a deflated sense of self-worth due to her tenure as a mother. Mothers, no matter how competent, are self-doubters even if they have a close relationship with their children.
A mother’s insecurity usually doesn’t manifest itself when her children are young. She is too busy being sleep deprived and totally focused on caring and protecting her little ones. But then, when her children become adults and her role as a mother is redefined, she is thrust into uncertainty. She knows she must step back and let her adult children make their own decisions and learn from their mistakes. This is easier said than done. The mother has spent years protecting her children. It’s not so easy to watch from the sidelines when a grown child does something really stupid.
But let’s say a mother does adapt to her new role. She bites her tongue when she sees her children doing something she knows they will regret. She won’t offer advice unless asked (with the exception of health-related issues which supersede the holding back on advice rule.) Yes, this abridged form of mothering can throw a woman off balance, but she adjusts, because she has to.
And then, as the years go by, if she is lucky, the mother becomes a grandmother. Suddenly, her role is muddied. Just when she got used to standing back as her children went on with their lives, this woman is called upon to dare I say it: HELP. Yes, this mother/now grandmother is required to be hands-on, when a minute ago she could focus 100 per cent of her time on her career, if she has one, or her hobbies, or her exercise regime, or whatever is important to her. No longer is she No. 1 in her own life. Of course, she gladly drops everything to help. She loves her grandchildren dearly and is thrilled to do all she can for them.
But in order to assume this role of grandmother, the woman must have a split personality. She has to be both hands-on—willing to babysit or pick up grandchildren from school when needed—and hands-off because she must not in any circumstances offer suggestions regarding a baby’s sleep position, a toddler’s toilet training, or how much TV a child watches. This dual role thrusts the woman into a frenzy of insecurity.
In addition to this, a major hurdle throws the grandmother into even more turmoil. This impediment (generally not spoken of in this negative term) is a thorn in her side, eating away at the already insecure grandmother’s sensibility. This rarely talked about obstacle throws the grandmother’s already wobbly self-confidence into mayhem.
She now has to deal with…the other woman! No, I’m not referring to a husband’s mistress. I’m talking about the other grandmother.
This instigator of grief is a wonderful person. She’s so nice. But why is the other grandmother such a fabulous cook? And why does she find it so easy to knit adorable hats for the grandchildren? It’s not fair that she’s a former kindergarten teacher with unparalleled expertise in the art of playing with the little ones. And she is so patient, seemingly unfazed by the demands of youngsters. Doesn’t she get tired?
On top of everything, the other grandmother lives close to the grandchildren—not an hour away (two hours when the 401 is jammed.) When she’s needed, she can drop everything and be with the grandchildren in an instant. Everything seems to be stacked in her favour. Okay, it’s not a competition, but…
God forbid—the insecure grandmother laments—what if the grandchildren love the other grandmother more?
Phyllis Shragge is a local writer, mother of five, and grandmother of five.