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Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Dear Grandparents

A few years ago I wrote this note to the new father. This is Part II, if you will, in that series. And here is Part III - a note to the new Mom

One of the most difficult challenges parents of a newborn face is how to deal with their own parents (baby's grandparents) who suffocate them (the new parents) with love, help, advice, and over-presence post baby's arrival. I know the word "suffocate" is a little harsh, but the truth is I have seen this scenario play out time and time again. Add natural tension, add doses of stress, add hormonal imbalances, and the patience sometimes wears very thin very quickly.

Of course there are parents/grandparents who have incredible relationships with their adult children, who also know how to be there when needed, be helpful as needed, and when to withdraw when it's too much. Their presence seems to be an incredible blessing to their children (the new parents) and it is inspirational to behold. To these people, I only have to say "God Bless you, and the following letter is not for you."

A lot of this difficult balance can be attributed to personalities, whether that of the grandparents or that of the new parents, and also may change based on if it's their daughter who had the baby, or their son who had the baby.

At the same time, in the case of some new grandparents (even when they are seasoned grandparents), they just don't see what they're doing to their kids, and so, as someone who has counseled parents dealing with this situation, I offer this perspective, hoping to help avoid some stress and tension and keep relationships more than civil, but as wonderful as possible. 

Dear New Grandparents

Mazal tov! Your kids just had a baby! This is the most wonderful kind of feeling you get to experience - that you have a new grandchild!

I know you want to help them in every way, and I know you are going to do everything you can for them. But. I want you to realize, because you may have forgotten, that your role as parent has changed a bit, and that your role as grandparent is an entirely different role than you might think.

You are a GRANDparent - Not a parent (of course you are a parent - but your kids are also adults!)

You trusted your kids enough to get married. Knowing what typically follows marriage (with the right blessing and in the right time), your kids are now PARENTS, which means that even if you view them as kids and as children, they are adults - AND YOU MUST MUST MUST SEE THAT. They have an awesome responsibility. They have to love, nurture, feed, teach, raise, protect this little child. They also have to learn, as you did back in the day, how to do that.

And they will make mistakes. And that's OK. They'll also learn quickly. And the mistakes will be their best teacher.

But they really want to do this their way. To which they are entitled. That's why they married each other - to go through these kinds of experiences their way, the way they discussed, the way they planned, the way they need to. And that way may be very different from your way.

Your role as grandparent is to support your kids' needs. And to be happy. And to not add stress.

Your kids have a lot of decisions to make for the bris. They may ask you for your advice. If they ask, by all means - give advice! Some grandparents think the suggestions they make are harmless as "I'm only giving ideas! They don't have to listen!" But out of respect for you, they may go against their wishes because they perceive you as imposing your will. Perhaps if you say, "I would like to discuss a few items with you" and give them an out saying, "You don't have to listen to any of it" then come back to "But I am your father/mother/father-in-law/mother-in-law and I have opinions I want to share" then perhaps you'll set yourself for success. But always give them an out - they don't need to follow through with your ideas!

Here are a few areas in which I've seen this go sour.

I know Sefardic Jews have a custom to honor a living relative through giving their baby that relative's name. Ashkenazic Jews have a custom to perpetuate the memory of a loved one through naming a baby after someone who has died. These are wonderful customs. HOWEVER, they do not work for everyone. And they are not binding on new parents.

If they want to choose the name for their child, I am sorry to say this, but stay out of it. It's not your business. If they honor your dead mother or father, or your brother who died in that terrible accident, you can express your gratitude and appreciation. If they choose to give the baby a different name, swallow it and move on. Love your grandson. Love your kids. This is their choice. He is their baby.

Definitely don't express your disappointment in their name choice. Honestly, that is an emotional response you will only regret in the long run. Are you going to love your grandson any less because he doesn't carry your dead father's name? Of course you won't. So check your emotions at the door and be prepared for whatever is coming.
  • Finances 
Some people get married very young, many are financially not well off in the early years of their marriage. Of course people should use good judgment when it comes to spending money on a bris, and that means you have one role, if you want to participate financially. Tell your kids how much you would like to offer to contribute - towards catering, towards mohel's honorarium, and let them choose if they want to accept your set amount. Don't budge on it if your kids are making bad decisions.

Most importantly, your offer to help financially should come with NO STRINGS ATTACHED. If you have conditions you intend to insist upon, don't offer your money. It is the wrong time. This is their son's bris. She is hormonal, he is stressed out, she is frustrated in trying to figure out nursing, neither of them are sleeping. Your demands are ill-timed.
  • Telling your daughter or daughter-in-law how to be a mother

Let me make this clear. If the new mommy wants help with the nursing, if she is happy to have you change every poopy diaper, if she wants you to show her how to do everything you are an expert at - by all means. Take over, with her blessing.

But if you are imposing your self - you have to open your eyes and ears. I have seen new moms have their hair stand on end, their antennas blazing at how much their own mom (new grandma), and certainly the mother-in-law, is in their face. And it's not that they don't love their mothers! It's that this is a very new thing for them, and new-Grandma is getting on new-mommy's nerves. It is so clear to me EVERY TIME when the new mom says, "OK, Mom. We got it. I know what I need to do. Thanks. No. Thanks, Mom. I got it. Etc etc etc" that she is extremely frustrated with the fact that she feels she is being treated like a 12 year old who just (irresponsibly) had a baby, even though she might be in her 30s, married with a profession! These new moms do their best to control themselves out of respect for their own moms. But there's a limit to how thin the layer of patience is.

This last section has been more for the grandparents who don't "get it;" they need to see that sometimes too much is too much.

I could go on and on. But I'll stop with a few parting thoughts.
  • Use your eyes and sense to see the difference between what is needed and helpful and what is overimposing.
  • Be happy. The emotional whirlwind is only exacerbated by family-induced stress. Just be happy.
  • Be helpful with the baby most directly either when you've been asked, or if your offer to help comes with an out, such as "I don't want to impose. Would you like me to change the baby's diaper? I'll also accept a 'No.'"
  • Offer to run errands that will get you out of the house - the shopping, the dry cleaning, getting pizza for baby's older siblings, or take older siblings out of the house so the parents can be alone with the new baby.
  • Be prepared to have an open wallet for the errands you will run and the shopping you'll do - for the diapers, the baby blankets, the baby detergent, the formula, etc. Hey - if you don't want to, don't offer. But if you offer, do it with a smile and expect nothing in return (though hopefully the new parents will express gratitude and appreciation)

This is a big transition period - moving from parent to grandparent. With the right balance of love, care, concern, advice, help, presence, etc you'll do great!

Mazal tov. May you have much nachat and joy from all your children and grandchildren!

Most sincerely,
Avi Billet

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