Who You Callin' Grandma?

What do you call a woman who’s not ready for "Grandma?"

By Adair Lara

What’s in a Name?

I knew I had a problem with the granny thing when it took me two years to find a name I could stand. It had to allow my 2-year-old granddaughter, Ryan, and her baby sister, Maggie, to claim me as their grandmother, as the person ready to open her fridge, her wallet, her house, and her heart to them. But it had to do this without giving me — or anybody else — the idea that I was old enough to be anybody’s grandmother.

I was 51 when Ryan was born, the same age my grandmother was when I was born, so I’m not saying I’m literally too young to be their grandmother. I’m just saying the old Grandma image is no longer applicable. "Grandma" is my mother’s mother, with her white braid wrapped around her head, smelling of Black Jack gum as she knitted our Christmas sweaters, one blue arm growing out of her purse as if she had somebody in there.

Last time I visited my daughter I noticed Ryan had one of those plastic early-learning toys with pictures in a circle; you pull a string and a voice says the name of the thing in the picture. Hers shows a family. Grandma is a dumpling with gray hair, an apron, and little spectacles. Fisher-Price, where are you getting your data? Norman Rockwell? Stitched pillows?

Chaka Khan is a grandmother; so are Suzanne Somers, Goldie Hawn, and Carla Wallenda. So where are the hip grandmothers on TV and in the movies? Instead, the best we get is that recent telephone commercial showing an elderly woman dressed in pastels, waiting patiently in a silent living room for her phone to ring.

The new G-Mother — that’s a hipper moniker, don’t you think? — has short red hair, a Mini Cooper, frequent-flier miles, and an iPod in her Kate Spade bag. The average age of a first-time grandparent today is 47, which was, incidentally, the average life expectancy just a century ago. We are the same age our grandmothers were, but we’re in the middle of our lives, not at the end.

One recent Saturday morning my daughter, Morgan, and her husband, Trevor, were feverishly trying to pull their new apartment together with Ryan underfoot and the baby wailing. "Can you watch the babies while we work?" Morgan called to ask, as Trevor hammered in the background. She lives three blocks away from me in San Francisco.

Look, I’d love to nip over and whisper secrets into 1-month-old Maggie’s ears, or to dress 2-year-old Ryan in the black leather jacket I bought her recently and take her to look for late blackberries in Golden Gate Park on my bike (with its deluxe new kid seat). But I have a job. I’m a reporter, I have two books to write, a husband who wants to go to France, and I just bought an investment property in Portland, Oregon. I love my grandchildren, but being a grandmother got added to my to-do list.

The truth is, I can’t be the kind of grandmother my own grandmother was — available and self-sacrificing, always arriving in her red VW with her overnight bag to help Mom. I wasn’t a stay-at-home mom, and I can’t be a stay-at-home-grandma either.

As I pondered this, Morgan was waiting for my answer. "I can’t, sweetie. I’m working," I told her. "Okay, Mom, we’ll manage," she said, with that briskness she uses to cover up disappointment. I put the phone down, realizing I’m going to have to live with that guilty feeling. You may think I’m being churlish, but at least I’m not alone. One friend, also a grandmother, was recently entertaining members of her board when the call came asking her to babysit at short notice. She couldn’t do it. Inevitably, her daughter was angry and fed up, saying, "You make time for other people, but not for me."

"I want time for myself and with my husband — we’re young enough that we still want to enjoy ourselves," says another friend, Corrine D’Apolito. Her solution is to establish babysitting boundaries for her two grandchildren: her Wednesdays are for personal time, and she won’t do Saturday nights "unless it’s for a wake." But still, she, too, feels guilty. "I shouldn’t but I do. When I go away as we’re doing next week, I felt I had to tell my daughter and get her approval!"

D’Apolito said her daughter remembers "my mother, always home, the good old-fashioned grandmother. We never had to call. My daughter reminds me how nice that was."

My own daughter, Morgan, told me, "I know you’re busy, Mom. But I can’t help wishing you could help more. I thought that was what grandmothers did."

Well, yes, it is, but now it’s on our own terms.

A New Beginning

Having just quit after 12 years as a family court judge, my friend Susan Baker is now trying to set the limits for her own grandmothering. But the end of her legal career merely signals the beginning of another, as an author. She feels bad that, because of a long-planned book signing and a scheduled day on the bench, she couldn’t drop everything for a week when her oldest daughter, Susan, had another baby last November. "I felt really guilty about that," Baker told me. But her new career is important to her. "I love those little kids and I do want to have a relationship with them," she said. "But I’m not willing to give up my writing or my traveling. I’ll be the best grandmother I can from a distance."

For Baker this means she’s available in emergencies, but will not show up at every game or holiday event. "I tell them it’s not important for me to come to their birthdays — they don’t even know I’m there. But I’ll stop by and spend an hour or two when it’s just them and me," she adds.

So listen up, Fisher-Price. For your next early-learning game the image of the grandmother should show her writing checks. We give money to the parents for rent and down payments on apartments, and we chip in on "extras" like after-school tuition, saxophones, and private schools. (Heck, I bought Ryan so much stuff Morgan said she didn’t need a shower.) We also have more energy and better health. Today’s time with Grandma is no longer baking cookies; it’s more likely to be a Stones concert, the Planetarium, a camping trip, or waiting for her at the finish line of the MORE marathon.

By the way, I got the name thing resolved. Ryan started calling me Bobbie, after her Russian babysitter referred to me as "Baba." Well, I suppose it’s better than "Babushka." And though that Saturday I couldn’t help Morgan while she set up her apartment, I did convert her old room at my house into a playroom for the girls, and they’re welcome any time. Just as long as they make an appointment!

Adair Lara is a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle.


First Published Mon, 2009-04-06 18:03

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