The Third Third

Grannie 4-1-1

Our mothers were the "baby whisperers."  They knew what to do when we clearly did not when we brought our newborns home that first time, when we were all thumbs and hormones and sleep-deprivation. They knew how to feed and calm the baby and did it while feeding and calming us.  And when they left, despite their assurances that we were doing just fine, we knew we shouldn't be trusted alone with such a precious, fragile little one while still in shock that we were the Mommies now.  We yearned for more advice — anything, everything they could tell us about being a mother, even if they scoffed, just a little, at our new, modern pediatrician's admonition to sleep the baby on her side or on her tummy and wondered aloud, sometimes, in spite of themselves, if the baby was getting enough milk from such a nervous nursing new mom.  It never occurred to us to question them; they were experienced experts and we were desperate for their counsel.  In their absence, we turned to Spock, and then Brazelton,  and we learned to use the pediatrician’s call-in hour. But Mom was still just a phone call away.

This experience times four (though let it be said that with each successive child my mother retreated more quickly) created great expectations for my debut as a grandmother.  I was ready to pass the proverbial torch, to assume the baby whisperer’s role, to initiate my daughters and daughter-in-law into motherhood itself.  I was so ready.  Let’s be honest here:  it had been a long time since I had felt so needed and depended upon by my otherwise appropriately independent adult children, and I was warming to the task.

But — Spoiler Alert! — things are different now.  New mothers are generally older, for one thing, hence more mature and experienced, more confident they can figure things out as mothers much the same way they have in their careers.  They’re extremely well-informed, having read all the baby books and Mommy blogs that have proliferated since Spock and Brazelton and Ilg and Ames sat alone on our book shelves.  They have midwives and nurse practitioners in the obstetrical practices they’ve chosen to counsel and advise them.  And much stronger norms prevail.  For example, pediatricians now specifically recommend breast-feeding for at least six months and preferably for a whole year and support and encourage — and sometimes pressure — new moms to comply. Lactation specialists abound. Then, of course, you emphatically must put the baby on his or her back to sleep to avoid SIDS which is, I must say, just a little confusing because pediatricians told us exactly the opposite a generation ago.  But we don’t dare say so, actually.  Because there’s something more in these “expert” books:  some of them tell the new mothers precisely how to handle “the grandmothers,” how to dismiss their advice and concerns (which they actually anticipate in print!)  with a simple “Things have changed, Mom” and the suggestion that Grannie would be most helpful if she just stuck to the laundry and the meal prep.   (See Baby 4-1-1: Clear Answers & Smart Advice for Your Baby’s First Year by Denise Fields.)

Then there are the fathers.  They’re on the scene so much more than I could ever have imagined, and that’s a wonderful thing — for the  mom and the baby.  We didn’t know from paternity leave; in fact, my husband’s boss, having located him at the hospital the morning we delivered our first child demanded to know, without so much as a Congratulations-Boy-or-Girl, when he’d be back at the office, before or after lunch!  Babies today are much more a family affair, part of the work and joy of the marital partnership and, when you’re lucky, recognized as a significant life event in the workplace, too — and this is good.  Yet, here’s the rub for the grandmother:  she really isn’t so much a part of the equation anymore; she’s not so desperately needed.  With all the books and blogs and baby professionals and with each other — mother and father — new mothers can actually figure it out on their own.

But not exactly on their own.  There is a ton of advice out there. Interestingly, this overabundance of information, while fully intended to let new mothers know and understand what is going on with their little bundle of joy, also appears to stoke their fears.  They’re not merely learning how to calm a cranky baby; they’re also learning all the things that could go so very wrong, things I would truly prefer they consider only on an as-needed basis.  This data overload can be paralyzing:  what do you do in the moment, say, when the baby is projectile vomiting? My pediatricians and I would say Trust your instincts:  comfort and clean up the child and call the pediatrician.  New mothers and fathers can be found, however, looking up projectile vomiting in all its forms and potentially terrifying causes in a dozen different books and making their own unnecessarily worst-case diagnosis.

Far be it from me to say anything, however.  Having definitively not been ordained the Baby Whisperer,  I’ve learned not to say a word (except, I confess, to lament my fate to my husband and to laugh with my women friends who’ve also been told “Things are different now,” and agree, say, that the new parents’ obsession with swaddling is ridiculous).  

So much for the cosmic connection I so eagerly anticipated, the powerful passage to a new, richer mother-to-mother relationship with my girls.  Except that, like the grandchild,  the relationship is still in its infancy. And as I learn to adjust my expectations, silence my critical voice, make no “suggestions,”  read the same books the new mothers are reading so that we‘re on the same page, clean up the kitchen and fold the laundry, and, most importantly, simply love on that new baby — and my daughter — every chance I get, a new, stronger and I would have to say, more respectful relationship is developing.  I am not the Baby Whisperer; but I am a damn good Grannie!

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