She comes to your house and cleans out your pots and pans cupboard. She refolds all the sheets in your linen closet and reorganises your spice jars, alphabetically. She looks after your children and is cooking you a meal as you walk in the door from work.
He comments on the way you stack the dishwasher, how messy the children are, and how your car could do with a good polish. He’s full of endless advice about everything from investment properties to weed cutters. He wrestles with the kids and loves to rev them up right before leaving your house.
Are these mystery people angels or intruders?
Neither: they’re grandparents.
You don’t have to scroll far on the forums to find grandparent and in-law bashing. As in most topics of parenting, the difference of opinion – of what role people should play in other people’s lives – is as wide as the day is long (when you have a newborn, anyway).
You can’t win. You can be too involved, or not involved enough. You can take initiative by folding washing but your adult children may see this as intrusive (not in this house – bring on the folding!). You may refuse to babysit, or agree to mind children every once in a while, but can then be judged as uninterested or unhelpful. More regular babysitting offers may deem you needy and pushy, while having your own life and hobbies can tag you as selfish.
Like parenthood, grandparenthood is a precarious balance between involvement and interest, and recognising boundaries while encouraging independence.
I’m lucky. My parents are fantastic grandparents to 12 grandchildren, with some nearby and others interstate. They love them all and demonstrate care and concern through visits, phone calls, cards in the mail, remembering favourite foods and recognising big events in their grandchildren’s lives. They help out when available but also lead lives of their own. To me, they’ve mastered the balance.
My father-in-law is 80, but despite distance and age, he shows affection for his grandchildren by remembering birthdays, calling regularly and visiting when he can.
I held idealistic views of the type of parent I’d become before having children, but those bubbles of aspiration were effectively popped by reality. No doubt the same thoughts about what kind of grandparent I’ll make (in a very, very long time) will receive the same treatment.
But that doesn’t stop me from writing a list to remind myself of those crazy ideals.
1. Love my grandchildren like nothing else in this world, but keep clear in my mind they are not my children. This is not my time to parent or judge.
2. Offer help and babysitting when I can. I’ll try to remember how hard it was to get a night off with my husband, and offer the same breaks to my children so they can preserve their relationships with their partners.
3. Maintain my own life and space so my children and grandchildren understand I’m there for them but am also my own person, not an on-tap nanny.
4. Show interest by remembering important dates (birthdays, first day of kinder/school). I’ll try to attend events, when asked/where practicable, whether big or small.
5. Give them treats they know are just for ‘Grandma’s House’, while trying my best to not undermine or ignore the food ideals their parents maintain.
6. Respect the boundaries of the parents. They are the primary caregivers forming their own family, with their own set of values, traditions and routines. One size does not fit all.
7. Curb my instinct to offer advice, taking my cues from my children and their partners. Our parent’s wisdom is ever valuable, provided it doesn’t come laced with the poison of criticism. Times change and regulations are fluid, with standards constantly being updated in everything from cots and carseats to food and breastfeeding, so what I did may no longer be relevant.
I will NOT:
1. Say: “My children never had tantrums/misbehaved.” If I ever so much as think that, I promise to replay (on repeat) video footage of said children losing the plot. If I cannot locate footage, I will assume they did indeed misbehave and I’ve simply forgotten or conveniently blocked it out.
2. Comment on the cleanliness of their house unless:
a) I’d like my head bitten off and spat out at the front door, or
b) I’m prepared to clean it myself to my own standards, or
c) I fear for the health and safety of the people living there
3. Complain about how little my children/grandchildren call or visit. Where possible, I’ll initiate visits with store-bought treats (just because I’ll be a grandmother doesn’t mean I’ll have miraculously turned into a fabulous baker) and hope to be welcomed.
4. Discipline my grandchildren when the parents are sitting next to me and very aware of their child’s behaviour. It’s not my place.
5. Detail the intricacies of my current health problems, no matter how unbearable my gas is, unless I’ve been asked, and/or I’m happy for my children to shout “TOO MUCH INFORMATION!”
I can already hear the cacophony of cackles from the grandparents. As in parenthood, the quiet note to self “your time will come” is probably being rehearsed in their heads. As my father said: “My guess is that you will find the role of grandparent as surprising as you have found being a parent.”
Perhaps my own personal goal for grandparenthood can be summed up by this quote:
“I don't want to be my grandchildren's parent, disciplinarian, workhorse. I want to be that magical person that adds sparkle to their lives.”
What would your list be. based on your experience? Are you a grandparent now and have your own list to give back to me? Comment below or join the conversation in the Essential Baby forum.