Grannies can wear jeans
I think it was the curly grey hair and the pastel print dresses that put me off the idea of being a grandmother. Years ago my children agreed that I could be a jeans wearing grandmother instead. I felt I could cope well with the biscuit making and the knitting. Just not the hair and floral dresses.
Of course, then, I did not expect to become a grandmother at just forty-nine. I had lived out the expectations of my parents, marrying my first serious boyfriend and having my first born at just twenty-two.
My daughter always told us she wanted to have a baby when she finished her degree. We didn’t realise she meant three weeks after the final exam! But she was twenty-seven, with a long-term partner and far more experienced in the ways of the world than I was at that age.
So why was I not excited? It wasn’t just the idea of middle age that bothered me, but the potential loss of freedom, only so recently gained. I was still active in the work force, had a busy social life and whilst the knitting appealed, babysitting did not.
But as my daughter nested, rounded and glowed, it was impossible not to be caught up in the joy of planning together for the next generation. Shopping together for material for sheets and wraps, buying tiny singlets and jumpsuits, oohing over ultrasounds and aahing over heart beats.
When we eventually held Sammy, fifteen minutes old, there were no tears of joy, nor a flood of instant love as there had been with the birth of my own children. Just great tenderness and relief that Sarah was fine and Sammy was perfect, with all the right bits and pieces.
A colleague, experienced in the art of grandparenting, assured me the love would come. How right she was. As I held my grandson in the hospital early each morning before work, listening to his snuffles, marvelling at his tiny proportions, intoxicated by his smell and softness, we became inextricably bonded.
And then came the serious stuff. How to be a wonderful grandmother. Helpful, not pushy, supportive, not overbearing, accepting, not judgemental. A role undertaken by generations of women before me, but not diminished in its importance for me because of that.
School Principal, Irene Lind, has seen many examples of the wide variety of roles undertaken by grandmothers in her school. ‘There’s a perception in the community that the extended family no longer exists, but in my school that’s not the case. ‘Our grandparents range in age from their forties to their seventies and you can never make assumptions about the relationships just based on age.’
Lind says that grandparents can, and often do, play a vital role in the education process. For some it is a chance to participate in a way they didn’t have time for with their own children. ‘We have grandparents who regularly help in the canteen or classroom, listening to reading for example, and love that they are able to contribute to their grandchild in that way. Others play an equally important role picking up after school and dropping off in the morning’.
The importance of this can’t be over emphasised, Lind feels. ‘The child’s day doesn’t finish when the bell goes. Having time to talk about the day, anything that bothers them in an unhurried, sympathetic way is wonderful support for the family.’
Textile artist, mother of three and ‘hands on’ grandmother of seven, Helen Gray, agrees with Lind. ‘I was only 45 when I first became a grandmother and was overjoyed at the prospect of a baby in the family again. But I also wanted to be able to help them in a practical way.
Helen says that she moved interstate from her own parents and found it hard with three small children and a demanding career in the fitness industry. ‘I was constantly juggling family and business commitments and felt quite guilty about it. I also carried the disapproval of the previous generation because I worked full time. I wanted my kids to have it easier.’
Helen concedes the practicalities of being a grandmother were made easier by a career change for her. ‘I now work from home so I have the time and flexibility to be available to them.’
And she is. Her grandchildren, who range in age from ten to just a few months, have all been taught to swim by their superfit granny. ‘But I also want to do things with them that I didn’t with my own children. My interest in the arts happened later in life and I want to foster that interest in them.’
Helen picks up from creche, looks after on set days, cheers at little athletics, cares for off colour ones, gives advice sensitively when asked and soothes both grandchildren and their parents with her calm good spirits. Recently, she spent her 55th birthday at her beach house, teeming with children and grandchildren, and would not have it any other way.
‘I want to provide an unconditional loving home for them additional to theirs. So that as they get older if they are in strife at home they can come to granny’s and not be in strife here. Some time out for both their parents and them.’
Lind has seen the benefit of this kind of grandparenting with her own child, four-year-old Rhys. ‘When I gave birth in my forties, it was the culmination of a 20 year dream for my mother. She preferred his company to anyone else’s and was infinitely patient with him.
‘If I was ever feeling frustrated she would say to me “He’s just a little boy”, or “It’s only a house. It doesn’t matter if he makes a mess.” The day before she died she was still playing imaginative games with him and singing along to Playschool.’
But Lind has also seen the dreadful dilemma faced by some grandparents when the role required of them is no longer just support, but prime carer.
‘Unfortunately, I’ve seen cases because of illness or death, or the inability of parents to cope for a variety of reasons, when the grandparents have been needed to take over the parenting role completely.’
She says that while some are comfortable in the role, others are faced with a dilemma – knowing that morally and socially they should, and emotionally they may want to, but realising that practically they just can’t. If the alternative is fostering or adopting, their grandparent role can cease immediately.
As our little Sammy grows and thrives, we share in the small milestones of his life; his first bath, the joy of his first giggle, his first pair of shoes (ridiculously expensive, paid for by an over enthusiastic grandmother). With his sloppy kisses and chubby arms around my neck, I feel the recipient of the greatest gift, made all the more meaningful when my daughter said to me soon after his birth, “I now realise how much you must love me.”
And jeans I’ve found are just fine.
By Judy Aulich
A Book to Read
Our Granny, written by Margaret Wild and illustrated by Julie Vivas - Published by Omnibus Books.
is a gorgeous picture book about the infinite variety of grannies – from the soft cuddly ones to the groovy, jean wearing ones. You’ll find your granny in there!
This article was first published in Australian Family Magazine, September 2001.