August 10, 2009

The Slobbering Grandmother

I don’t like taking off my shoes when I go to someone’s house. Hey, haven’t they heard of vacuum cleaners? But I’m the visitor, and it’s their house, after all. So even though I don’t like to do it, and they don’t have to do it at my house, I take my shoes off. It’s polite, as a guest, to respect my hosts.

Even with 9 months to think about it, even if you read all the available books about how to prepare, you’re never prepared when the baby arrives. Suddenly, you’re a parent.
As I said in An Aunt Who Shares, our modern style of family unit often leaves new parents, and new mothers in particular, very isolated. There is a natural tendency with bright independent young adults not to ask for help. I think this is a mistake, and tell them so. I encourage getting those grandmothers and other close relatives to watch the baby for short periods that allow the new mother to get some precious sleep. An absolutely essential part of being a good parent is being available to your child. With a newborn, you need to look out for your own healthy nutrition and exercise, and more than anything, you need sleep. The baby needs the most alert, healthiest mother possible.

So part of the journey into the ‘parent’ part of your life is taking care of yourself so that you’re there to take care of the baby. It’s one of the key stepping stones of adulthood.
In this spirit, I had been seeing one of my new babies nearly every day. The mother, Melissa, was struggling. She was indeed isolated, by the circumstance of having moved here from far away. Her husband was as supportive as he could be, but I suspected that he had an extensive list of pre-birth expectations that needed immediate reappraisal. When they were in the office, for example, he seemed to be impatient with any cry from the baby. I got the feeling that he thought that if the baby was crying, the mother was doing something wrong. Still, he let her do 99% of the baby care. Newborn care looks easier from the outside. Melissa was, of course, sleep deprived and emotionally fragile. I knew she was getting depressed.

But the reason for her call late at night, when the baby was about a week old, was a surprise. “I need you to answer a medical question. Is it safe for the baby if someone who’s had herpes like a hundred times is kissing him on the mouth and slobbering on him?" But I heard something else in her voice. I asked why she’s worried about this.

Her husband’s mother had come to visit. She insisted on holding the baby and kissing the baby on the mouth, kissing his eyelids. She did, in fact, have a long history of eruptions on her lips. Melissa told me that she had politely asked her mother-in-law not to do that, since it made her uncomfortable. The activity didn’t stop. The next day she asked again, and this triggered a cascade of discussion which included Melissa asking the baby’s father to ask his mother to stop doing this. The mother-in-law, in a spirit of helpfulness no doubt, explained that she raised 3 children of her own and knows much more about babies than Melissa. Her son said that he didn’t want to get in the middle of anything. Melissa called me and asked ‘a medical question.’

In general, I don’t like getting in the middle of anything either. But I told Melissa that my answer had 2 parts. First, the recurring cold sores that her mother-in-law gets on her lip are certainly herpes. It’s from a virus she caught years ago, that doesn’t go away but remains dormant in the nerve cells of her spinal cord and reappears from time to time with illness or sometimes stress. It’s definitely contagious when there’s an eruption, but it is probably somewhat contagious just before or just after an eruption. So since her mother-in-law isn’t having an outbreak right now, chances are very good that the baby will be fine. I pointed out for future reference that during an outbreak, I’d be reluctant even to let the person hold the baby, since if they touch the annoying sore, the virus can be spread on the hands. I apologized for not being able to tell her categorically that this woman shouldn’t be handling the baby. Melissa sounded disappointed.

I reminded her that there was a second part to my answer. This was her baby, I reminded her. This lady had her 3 kids, just as she said, but she was not this baby’s mother, and has no say in how to raise it, feed it, hold it, or choose who gets to do what with it. It was hers. I told her that I, too, cringed when she described this woman kissing the baby’s mouth and eyes. I was glad the grandmother felt affection for the baby, but when asked to stop, there could only be one acceptable response, and that was to respect Melissa’s wishes.

It’s OK with me if, in the car on the way home, the mother-in-law complains bitterly to whomever she’s with about the lousy job her son’s wife is doing with her baby. It’s OK if she calls her friends and tells them how her son married someone so unworthy of him. Where it crosses the line is telling her son or daughter-in-law these opinions, and it’s way over the line when she goes ahead and does what she thinks is best despite the wishes of the parent.

I have posted in An Aunt Who Shares about how much we might have lost when our society moved away from the multigenerational household. These have been the standard for generations. The expression It takes a village to raise a child is an African aphorism (Nigerian Igbo culture) that confirms the naturalness of having more than a single caregiver.

But again and again I am the unlucky witness to conflict between mother and grandmother when a new baby arrives. As hard as the transition from adult to mother might be, there is a transition from mother to grandmother that is clearly a difficult one for many. The bookstore doesn’t have a big section of parenting books for grandmothers. If I wrote one, it would be short, so I’ll outline it here.
  • Share your love, your time, your money
  • Babysit
  • Offer advice when asked
  • Indulge the child much more than the parents ever should or would; much more than you did with your children
  • Keep visits short
  • Mind your own business

You are not the parent. You had your chance, and for better or worse, it’s over. Move on.
Your daughters and sons still need you a lot. But it’s their life now, and their family. If you want to keep your family together, respect theirs. The reward will be the calls and invitations to visit that you really want.

Epilogue: Melissa appreciated my support. I asked her permission to do a blog post about it, and she said it was OK. Things are tense with all of the husband’s side of the family.

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