From My Perspective – On Being a Grandmother

This has been a hectic summer, full of happenings and activities, both positive and negative, that made the days fly by. It seemed like I had no summer at all. September is shaping up to be much the same. This year, however, I’ve resolved to adjust my schedule and my many activities to ensure that my family is prominently included. I can’t make up for the neglect over the last few years, while I was going to university full time and so involved with the student union and work. But I think I’ve really had it brought home to me that I don’t have a lot of time to waste, nor can I continue to pursue my studies and my other activities at the expense of my family. A key factor in this realization was the arrival of my grandson seven months ago.

It’s changed my life in so many ways. People say that you can really enjoy being a grandparent in a different way. You are no longer consumed with the worry of trying to manage a family and make a living, so you can take time and enjoy your grandchildren in a way you may not have been able to do with your own children. People also say that they like the idea that they can enjoy their grandchildren — then send them home. I never really understood that statement, always feeling that I would be thrilled to have my grandchildren with me as much as possible. I did my best to do that with my own children, home-schooling them and remaining closely involved in their lives through my participation in their dance training. Of course, as parents we are always feeling guilty that we’ve not done enough for our children, and I am no different.

There is an added dimension to my relationship with my first grandchild. As a new university graduate, with education in psychology and pursuing a master’s of counselling, I have an enhanced perspective of what parenting means. I have watched his development with an educated eye, thinking about Piaget’s children and how he developed so many of his influential child development theories by observing them. My daughter, of course, rejects any notion that I might view my grandson as a psychology experiment, believing that I should simply enjoy him as the very unique, incredible individual he is. She’s right. But I can’t help but pull out all my psych textbooks on child development, reading and re-reading them, trying to get a sense of where he is at from an educated viewpoint based on research. I’m fascinated by each stage he enters, trying to puzzle out just what is going on in his brain as he learns about the world around him. I started this process before he was even born, often talking to him in the womb, knowing he was hearing my voice, and hoping it would enhance the bonding process somehow.

During summer school I had to leave for three weeks, and although I had visited with him the day before I left, I was unable to see him for several days upon my return — meaning that, at the tender age of barely six months, he would be re-acquainting himself with an individual he had not seen for almost 20% of his young life. I was worried, particularly when I heard that he had been playing strange with people, notably my own parents (his great-grandparents). I need not have worried. He took one look at me and broke into a wide smile, eagerly going into my waiting arms, obviously recognizing me! I was amazed and elated. A few weeks later he surprised me by greeting me by pressing his wet, wide open mouth up against mine – his version of a kiss. I think he knew right then that he was king, and his grandmother his permanent, and most loyal, subject.

I’ve been fascinated by his musical development, not only because we are all heavily involved in the arts, but because my research area includes the development of creativity. I was playing in a band when I was pregnant with my first daughter. The night I went into labour we had a gig, a wedding. The bride and groom had requested that we play “You Light up my Life” as the first song, and I spent most of the day Friday learning and practicing the song. At about 4 PM, as I sat at the piano playing and singing, I felt the first twinges of labour. I continued to practice, ignoring the pain, determined to play the gig. By 7 PM it was time to head to the performance, and I knew I was not going to make it. The rest of the band (including my brothers and sister and husband) dropped me off at the hospital and headed off to play the wedding without me. Six hours later, I went through a rather lonely birth experience, but I was always curious about what effect, if any, that song would have on my daughter later in life.

We have a family tradition. At each birthday, I re-tell the birth story of the daughter celebrating her birthday — so my daughter always knew what had happened that night. As she grew older, I asked her if “You light up my life” held any special meaning for her. She confirmed that it is a song that always gives her a funny feeling she can’t quite explain. The effect of music in the womb is an area that I would love to be able to research more. My grandson loves music, and I’m fascinated watching his appreciation of music grow as he experiments with noise. Whether it is the piano, the xylophone (we have both a kiddie one and an authentic African one he plays with), drum sounds, or his voice (he has been imitating voice sounds and singing from two months on) he has a keen appreciation for music and rhythm. One of his favourite pastimes is cuddling with me while I dance and sing to him.

My biggest complaint with my grandson is that I don’t get to see him often enough and very rarely get to babysit. My daughter is enjoying him so much that she never wants to part with him, even for a few minutes. This last week, however, I got lucky — she left him with me on two occasions! I really treasure every moment. As I’ve said, I used to always wonder about people who would say that they enjoyed their grandchildren — yet considered the best part to be knowing that you could send them home at the end of the day. Although I still don’t agree with that idea, I must say, after babysitting him alone for the whole day, I was prepared to be much more sympathetic to that sense of relief when the grandchildren go home. He’s a dear, precious little thing, extremely content and well-behaved. But he never stops! I don’t know if it’s because I’m older and more tired, but I don’t remember it ever being quite as challenging to keep up with my own daughters when they were his age. He doesn’t remain with any one activity for too long, and is an active explorer who gets around extremely well on hands and knees. He’s not far from walking, and I can imagine this will only increase once he is mobile on two legs. I had a few tasks I hoped to accomplish while babysitting –laundry, cleaning, dinner preparation, studying — but found I had to adjust everything to account for a small, insatiably curious little person who needed to follow me everywhere, touching everything.

One of my greatest fears in babysitting him is the many household dangers present. When my oldest was only six months old I left her at her grandmother’s for a few hours. Upon my return, I discovered to my horror that she had fallen down the stairs in her walker (which have since been banned), landing on her head. Sick with worry, watching avidly for signs of concussion or brain injury, we rushed her to emergency. Fortunately she was OK, and recovered quickly. But my mother was devastated that this had occurred, and we all remained painfully conscious of how lucky we had been. I’ve taken special care to baby-proof my home — not an easy task when you’ve had no small children around for more than a decade. To be safe, I do not let him out of my sight.

That meant carrying him downstairs with me when I went to do laundry, sorting with one hand while holding him with the other. Briefly needing both hands, I placed him on the floor for a moment. Within seconds, he discovered the floor drain and his tiny fingers had lifted it out of the floor! I replaced the drain and held it down with one foot to prevent another occurrence. I continued to load laundry, moving as quickly as I could, trying to keep my balance as I attempted to corral him with one leg while holding down the drain with the other foot – but he was much faster. Giving up on the drain, he quickly reached over for the bottle of bleach and grabbed it, ready to take a swig out of it as if it were a water bottle!! I gave up and scooped him up with one arm, completing my laundry tasks with the other.

Back upstairs, I persuaded him to sit on the floor in the kitchen next to me while I prepared supper. I provided him a couple of amusing toys, and he was content … for a second. He crawled over to explore a box full of tomatoes, green and red remnants of my garden. Many of them are small, baby-sized, fitting nicely into a small fist. He found a ripe red one, concealed it somehow in his hand, and before I knew it he was on the other side of the room, having squeezed wet tomato sauce all over himself and the floor in the process!

I managed to get him and the floor cleaned up, but discovered that his mother had inadvertently taken his diaper bag, along with his change of clothes. So we had to be creative. Back downstairs I went, this time with a half-naked baby squirming under one arm, and tossed his clothes into the machine. Digging through the laundry basket, I found a relatively small T-shirt belonging to my daughter, and crafted a temporary nightie for him. He looked awfully cute, but kept getting frustrated when the length of the T-shirt would get caught under his feet as he motored around the room.

Studying proved to be impossible. If I went to work at the computer, he came along. Keyboards are great fun, and his “help” meant a lot of mis-typed words in my assignment. If I sat down to read my textbook, he would crawl over, wanting up. Of course, his goal was to check out the pages of the textbook, to see how well they fit in his mouth and whether they would twist and tear nicely between his little fingers. I tried distracting him with a book of his own, but he insisted that we share, and I eventually gave up and read his “text” book with him instead.

Finally I noted signs of sleepiness, and with a sense of relief, managed to persuade him to take a nap. Even then, he was tricky. He knows if he resists sleep long enough, Grandma will sing to him to sleep — his favourite pastime. For a while we played that game. He would drop off to sleep as I sung, I would gently lay him down and get up to do some other activity, and his eyes would pop open! I’d give him a serious look, tell him to go back to sleep, and sing to him until he drifted off again. Then we would repeat the process. I must admit that when he did finally settle down for a nap, I thoroughly enjoyed the quiet hour that ensued!

When the time came for him to leave, I was conflicted. I was exhausted by our afternoon together, but the moment he left, I desperately missed him and wanted him back. Of course, reality set in very soon. My back was aching, so I had a hot bath, and by 9 P.M. could not keep my eyes open and went to bed for the night!

I suppose that is our role as grandparents to give our best when our grandchildren are with us, while knowing our limitations and being willing to give them back to their parents when the time comes. I know I will always play a very special, very important role in my grandson’s life, one that probably would not be the same if I had him with me all the time. Perhaps that is the key to being a grandparent — enjoying your grandchildren by taking a step back. It is that small distance that can allow you to see and appreciate your relationship all the more, and perhaps it is the irregular contact that allows your grandchildren to really celebrate each contact with you. It is certainly that way for me, and I am eagerly looking forward to the next time I am privileged enough to spend another afternoon with my grandson.