An excerpt from A Mother’s Circle.
With the birth of your baby there is a great shifting of the generations. Just as your transition to motherhood is a passage into a new life phase, so is your mother’s to grandmotherhood. After decades of being the mother, she must now move over, make room for you and rethink her self-concept.
She will also have to rethink her name. Your mother may choose a name to be called as a grandmother. But just as likely, your baby will one day invent the name that sticks. Part baby talk, part association, your mother’s official appellation may become MiMi, NaNa, GeeGee, Rummy, Nonna, Nonie, Nanny, Nanna, Grummy, Mumsie, Vavoa, Puggy, Grammy, Gramma Dot, or MaMa Ginny. Eventually you may call your own mother by her grandmother name.
Being a grandmother can be one of the most life-affirming and joyous periods in a woman’s life. But in this youth-obsessed culture, it can be a jarring reminder of aging. Your mother may already be having a hard time accepting that she is getting older. She may be in the throes of menopause. Or she may have mixed feelings about her landmark sixty-fifth birthday. She may simply not like the way “Grandma” sounds.
By the time she becomes a grandmother, a woman may feel no desire to undertake the nitty-gritty aspects of baby care again. She may feel liberated from those duties, or she may feel out of practice, unsure of herself. Many women report their mothers saying “I don’t have the patience anymore,” or “This is exhausting. I’ve forgotten how hard it is,” or “I like babies better when they’re older.”
A grandchild can stir up the past for the new grandmother as she relives old joys and feels again old regrets. For some women a grandchild elicits strong feelings of well-being, a sense of rebirth, new energy and a fresh focus for their love and affections. Others experience a preoccupation with mortality, sadness and a longing for a time when they were young mothers themselves. No matter how they present themselves, almost all carry inside of them the full range of these emotions.
As a grandmother, a woman walks something of an emotional tightrope. The new mother wants her own mother to be supportive and helpful but not intrusive or domineering; older and wiser and never dependent or needy herself; doting on and loving toward the baby but respectful of the mother’s primary role and authority; happy to pass on family stories, recipes and traditions, but not overwhelming in the role of family matriarch. A grandmother is supposed to be filled with joy at the sight of her grandchild, ready to sacrifice. But, just as the perfect mother is an impossibly tall order to fill, so is that of the perfect grandmother.
If you are in your twenties of thirties, your baby may have come at a time when your mother needs to care for her own parents. Or, if you came to motherhood in your late thirties or forties, your mother may be becoming dependent or needy herself. If this is the case, two powerful life passages will overlap for you—the aging and eventual loss of your parents and your early parenting years.
If your mother lives close enough to be involved on a regular basis with you and your baby, there will be more opportunities for a tangible sense of sharing as your baby grows. There will also be more chances for you to lock horns. A baby can trigger a grandmother’s maternal instincts and she may be unable to take a backstage role.
Sharing your baby with your mother can bring you closer, but a lot depends on how you feel about sharing with your mother to begin with. Competitive feelings are an ever-present, yet rarely acknowledged dynamic in the relationship between mother and daughter. If your mother has always assumed a certain ownership of your life, you may put up defenses when it comes to sharing your baby. If she was more removed as a mother, however, you may want her involvement now more than ever.
The choices you make about your baby’s care and the course of your family’s life affect your mother. She may marvel at your breastfeeding or try to undermine it. She may disapprove of your working or wish she had been able to do that herself. She may become closely involved with you and the grandchildren or she may not. You may be baffled by your mother’s behavior at times. It may be that your perspective as a daughter obscures the complete and complicated woman your mother is. Simultaneously, your mother may be so accustomed to relating to you in a motherly way, that she is not in the habit of explaining herself to you as a woman.
The way you and your mother relate to one another has been changing and shifting from the moment you were born. There have also been dramatic changes in our society’s expectations of women’s roles over the last thirty years. As such, motherhood may be the first truly common experience you and your mother have shared. Most new mothers gain insight into and empathy for their mothers, which they never had before. Almost all report new ways to relate with their mothers that hadn’t before been possible.
When a woman has a baby, there is often a shift in the balance of power between her and her mother. Many new mothers talk about their relationship with their mother in terms of “Before” and “After” the baby. Motherhood can be an equalizing experience, putting both women on common ground for the first time.
It may be as simple as your mother coming to where you live rather than you always traveling to her. Or, that you finally learn to ask her for help. Or that she finally feels comfortable giving it. Or that you are truly communicating for the first time in years. It may be a significant breakthrough in a long-standing stalemate of emotions.
As you reach out to your mother, or she to you, you may feel that you’ve come full circle. Boundaries created when you were younger, which may have once been vital to your emerging identity, may not seem quite as important anymore. The very fleeting quality of your baby’s infancy may inspire a sense of urgency about making amends. If your mother is still alive, you will have the opportunity for a while to be both child and parent. Like a boat gently dipping and rising, you will rock back and forth between being a mother and being a daughter, moving from the past into the present and imagining into the future.