Nearly 20 years ago, at the age of 60, I became a grandmother. I didn’t think I would again experience the infatuation I felt for my own son when he was born, but I fell in love with my grandson at once. My adoration was embarrassingly all-consuming, and indeed if anyone asks me about my grandsons even now – they’re 20 and 17 – my face breaks into a broad smile.
I didn’t want to be called “Gaga” (too close to the truth) or, as some reluctant oldies apparently want, “Glammy” (too far from the truth). I’m simply “Grannie”.
I looked after my first grandson roughly once a week until he was about seven – then less frequently as school and events enlarged his and his brother’s worlds. It was a routine I found very painful to relinquish.
Once grandchildren appear in a family’s life, everything changes. Particularly dramatic is the new relationship between the grandparents and their own children and children-in-law. It takes some adjusting to.
Try to imagine a family, pre-baby, as a long-running theatrical favourite. Everything runs reasonably smoothly. Then suddenly, with the arrival of a baby, everyone swaps roles. We forget our lines, move into the wrong spaces. For a while, chaos reigns.
When it happened to me, I was no longer the mother, the benign matriarch; I was demoted to Grannie, seen as a sweet but sometimes wrong-headed old person by the new parents. My son became the father, laying down the law; my daughter-in-law the matriarch; and to confuse everything, an entirely separate cast arrived – the other grandparents, other uncles, other aunts and mysterious relations I’d never met before.
Grandparents like to see themselves as the experts, the wise ones. But one’s children, the new parents, are desperately finding their own roles too, not only trying to put right perceived malfunctioning in their own upbringings, but often slaves to new fashions. I rebelled against my mother’s following of the ghastly Dr Truby King, a child expert from New Zealand, who not only was against demand feeding and for leaving a baby to cry for hours but, later, recommended putting children’s hands into splints if they masturbated.
As a young mum in the early 1970s, I followed the liberal Dr Spock, who advocated demand feeding and never letting babies cry. I remember indulging a friend of my son’s who came to tea by (on his mother’s instructions) peeling his fish fingers for him, as he only ate the outer layer of breadcrumbs and left the fish.
So when our children began to follow Gina Ford (who recommended leaving babies to “cry it out”) and “Supernanny” Jo Frost (who devised what I saw as a cruel punishment, the “naughty step”), grannies of my generation felt uncomfortable. Looking back, I hope I kept my mouth shut.
The only way to avoid problems between the generations is for each to understand where the other is coming from. New grandparents should remember how they felt when their own parents and in-laws interfered with their parenting. New parents are often dogged by feelings of inadequacy. The last thing they need are suggestions that they might be doing something wrong.
When my own mother-in-law reasonably suggested my year-old son might go to bed earlier than 10pm, I was so sensitive I became furious. She also sparked my rage when, after she had looked after our son for the night, I returned to find she had washed our tea towels by hand and hung them over the chairs to dry. How dare she! My towels weren’t dirty!
When babysitting my grandsons, I did remember to wash up, water the plants and fold the dry nappies and put them in neat piles. I just hope that wasn’t seen as “interfering”. Though now I can well understand how infuriating that might have been.
Grandparents should remember, too, to be more forgiving of strictures from their children about diet, phones, TV and so on. Your children are new to the role of mother and father and are desperately trying to do their best. It may be true that giving your grandkids the odd sweet or chocolate bar won’t do much harm in the long run, but if it upsets their parents then don’t keep a sweet jar at home.
If a grandparent does occasionally break the rules and gives out the odd piece of chocolate, it’s best to be open about it. Never inflict the burden of keeping a secret on the grandchild.
Two-fifths of grandparents over 50 have provided regular childcare for their grandchildren, according to a 2017 YouGov survey for Age UK . Since the pandemic, the figures have almost certainly risen. While I’d happily look after mine any time, I have friends who weren’t so keen. They were dying to go off travelling and have their own fun. But having fun, for me, was building a pile of bricks and watching my grandchildren knock them down. Or we’d play “the bear and the birds”, in which I would sit with a blanket over my head and suddenly rise to my feet with a mighty growl when the “birds”, screeching and flapping their arms, got too close.
Occasionally, grandparental adoration might inspire a little jealousy. I remember arriving at my son’s house after the whole family had been struck down with a bout of sickness, crying, “Oh darling, you poor thing!” He was just about to reply with an account of his hideous night when I apparently rushed straight past him and smothered my adored grandson with kisses. Galling.
While many grandparents express the joy that looking after grandchildren gives them, new parents who do have willing grandparents around should acknowledge the huge advantages of having that help. Free childcare for a start, and unconditional love, patience, kindness and that relational contact a stranger can never supply.
On top of this, being with a grandparent teaches a small child that things are done differently in “Grannie’s house”: maybe they have to say please and thank you, even wash their hands before mealtimes. What can be OK in one home may not be OK in another. That’s a big learning curve – and essential to understand if you’re ever going to get on in the world.
It’s reported that Margaret Mead, the great anthropologist, said that “the reason grandparents and grandchildren get on so well is because they share a common enemy.” If this is true – and it certainly is in some cases – it’s even more important to try, by understanding the power struggles and insecurities between the generations, to make the relationship between grandparents and their children as loving, honest and respectful as possible.