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The Joys of Bringing Up Grandchildren

Helping to raise my grandsons has been a passion, a privilege and the focal point of my later years. If only it could last forever.

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The Joys of Bringing Up Grandchildren

I never thought of becoming a grandmother. Although some of my peers were already lamenting their lack of descendants, I was far too busy hacking out newspaper columns, running to New York to be with my friends and keeping up with feminist activism to daydream of a new role. Aging itself was a puzzle; no matter how relentlessly the years passed, I felt the same young self looking out of my eyes.

At 54, levelled by breast cancer and a menacing cascade of the treatment’s malign side effects (including diabetes and a nearly fatal aspiration pneumonia), I struggled to understand the implications of my chrono­logical age. Frequently, during that year of sickness and fear, I racked my mind: was I so terribly young to die? Or had I, at 55, lived a luxuriously long time and should I be satisfied? Focused on my own survival, I never contemplated future generations.

Even as I lurched into my 60s, I lacked grandmotherly thoughts. And even when our older daughter proclaimed her intention to have a baby with the aid of a sperm donor clinic in New York (where she worked at the United Nations), my thoughts circled around her well-being and her happiness, not on any potential human.

Truthfully, it was not until the surgeon lifted the plump baby boy into the air that my shocked heart rocketed to the sky. In an instant, I was dazzled and in love. If he hadn’t been quickly bundled and put into my arms, I might have immoderately snatched him from the nurses.

While my daughter was stitched up from the Caesarean, I was invited to sit in an adjacent room and rock the baby in my arms for an hour. Not since she, my first, had been born, had I experienced such an astonishment of love. To this day, 12 years later, I only have to look at his face or into his grey-green eyes to feel the endorphins ricocheting around in my brain.

But I mislead. There are other grandsons, three more (though no granddaughters, nor are there likely to be), and they occupy that same room in my heart that seemed full to overflowing with Zev. His younger brother (same donor) is Yoav. Their little cousin, Zimri Alan, is the son of our younger daughter, who resorted to technology as she neared 40 and no appropriate suitors presented themselves. She has lived with us since Zimri was born. He is now a joyful four-year-old, so beautiful that I sometimes find it hard to look away from him as we sit together at the dinner table.

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One day, no doubt, he and his cousins will ask about their donors. We’ll have to remind these three wonderful boys that there are other ways to be created, as exemplified by our son, who has just fathered the fourth boy in the family. Toma Lee, so longed for and so perfect, nestled in my arms. Eyes, toes, spiky hair. Three days old and compact with potential. And how odd and exhilarating to think that this baby has two parents!

Being the grandmother of intensely desired babies born to single mothers is a different role. There’s no partner to take up a half share of the burden or even to come between you and the baby. My older daughter was exceptionally generous in inviting my participation, probably because she was completely grown up (in her late 30s) before venturing into single motherhood. She moved home to Toronto from New York to be close to the family, and there I was, in my 60s, with a completely new passionate focus to my life.

I proposed his name, and it was agreed upon (he was named Zev after Zelig, my gentle grandpa, a carpenter). I was the one on the other end of the phone or jumping into my car when there was any crisis of feeding or fever; I was the one to accompany my daughter to look at daycare centres and interview babysitters; and I was listed as “co-parent” on the admission forms, with my phone number as the emergency backup. And I was the one who kept getting the flu through his whole first year
at daycare.

Surprisingly, my daughter and I had few clashing views. At first, my entire dedication was to “mothering the mother,” a credo that formed during my early days of breastfeeding my own babies. Mothering the mother meant that I would go to any lengths to make her feel strong, capable and cherished. Luckily, she was such a natural and easy breastfeeder, and the baby was flourishing so, that she did not need much extra to make her feel confident in her role.

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I have not, contrary to conventional wisdom, felt sidelined or disempowered as a grandparent, and I did not often have to bite my tongue to prevent myself from offering bossy advice. Instead, I gave the one gift to each of my daughters without which parenting can be an emotional sinkhole. I was, for them, the one other person in the world as keenly interested in the quality of the crying, the first word, the mysterious temper tantrums, the diarrhea, the appetite or lack of it, the preferred style of sun hat.

Later, I assigned myself the role of the one who brought the extras-the bearer of stacks of children’s books, provider of chicken soup or spaghetti dinners, the pumper of balloons, arranger of music lessons, chauffeur and scourer of the Internet to find music that would please the infant and then toddler taste.

My older grandson, Zev, also inherited from me an almost insane glee at the sound and feel of words. He was just three when, one night, his mother overheard him sleepily saying aloud in bed, “Legumes!” and then, getting wilder and more drunk on words, “Granola! Barn! Science centre! Art gallery!”

I am “Safta,” having rejected the somehow suburban and patronizing sound of “Bubby.” My mother, part of the immigrant generation that strove for perfect assimilation, taught me to say “Grandma” for that beloved woman who died when I was 12. I have her image always in my mind: her kind, broad face; her gentle voice; her deep bosom. She spoke very little English, but she lavished me with tenderness, her brilliant cooking, her skilled dressmaking. Her unconditional love was the ground floor of my life.

As a Safta myself, I was the confidante and co-conspirator in raising three baby boys as macho-free as possible. My older daughter, as strong a feminist as I-and a lesbian, to boot-held passionate principles against gender stereotyping. Together, we rebuffed the hockey and superhero T-shirts, pyjamas and rain boots thrust forward by crass consumer capitalism. We also unwittingly set Zev up to be persecuted at nursery school, where strutting six-year-olds saw this tenderly affectionate three-year-old as prey and reduced him to
tears with their playground taunts and terrorism.

So thoroughly did we explain the gendered world to him that by the age of six he could dismiss the strutters and terrorizers as “standard boys” and resolutely forge his own path.

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“When I’m tired of them,” other grandparents often beam, “I can just hand them back to their parents.” This always irritated me. I never tire of my grandchildren. If anything, I’m sorry to hand them back and miss the next precious hours of whatever they would be doing next. I’ve brooded over this. Sometimes I think the delight springs from the fact that your own children (usually) have survived and thrived, so you are not weighed down by the dread of a mistake or failure that attends every tiny decision you make as a parent. And it’s not necessarily the satisfaction that they will carry my genes on into the unknowable future; my genes are a rather abstract substance to me, and too many of them have turned out to be crappy (cancer, heart attack, diabetes) for me to dote on them.

No, I can only think that love is its own reward. To own the privilege of having these young creatures in my life, to accompany them as they make staggering daily discoveries, to have an excuse to share the childish happiness of Halloween or autumn leaf piles or a sandy beach. Each of them doubles and triples the amount of life in my life.

Most parents remember that they were immortal in their youth and began to be mortal the moment their children were born. That fear subsided as my children grew to adulthood, only to be replaced by a new spectre after the grandchildren were born. I began to hear the ominous clock of mortality ticking in the background; the more I grew devoted to these infants, the more horrified I became at the thought that I must, in all probability, “check out” before they are grown.

I bargain with the Shadow. “Just let me live till they are bar mitzvahed,” or, as that becomes less likely with my advancing age and the continued production of babies, “just until they’re old enough to remember me.” I don’t care about my genes, but I want my grandchildren always to remember how much they were loved.

copyright 2014 by Michele Landsberg. Excerpted from The M Word: Conversations About Mothering. Edited by Kerry Clare and published by Goose Lane.