I was sitting in my brother's home office in Los Angeles, about to read a story to my two-year-old niece Maggie, whom I see all too rarely and who had spent the better part of the afternoon working up the courage to approach me with a story request. Just as Maggie came up to me with her favorite book and a tentative smile, a well-meaning family friend, mis-reading my caution with Maggie as dislike, swooped into the room and scooped up Maggie, saying "Come on, Maggie! Let's go play!"
Amp, my sweet, peaceful Thai Buddhist sister-in-law, whose grasp of English was tenuous only a few years ago, was in the room in an instant. "I'm really pissed off!" she said, her eyes brimming with angry tears. "I'm sick of this shit!"
Our collective jaws dropped -- both at her enhanced proficiency in English slang and also at the intensity of her anger.
It occurred to me then that we sometimes stir the ire of new parents with the very best of intentions. And I thought back to many therapy sessions with clients reporting conflicts and misunderstandings with their children over the grandchildren or eager aunties finding themselves nose-to-nose with a newly minted mother tigress.
A grandmother I once saw in therapy was often in tears because she lived to spoil her grandchildren and this was leading to continuing conflicts with her son and daughter and their respective spouses.
Another enthusiastic grandma expressed her outrage at "having to make an appointment to see MY grandchildren!" She was hurt and angry about her daughter-in-law's request that she call before coming over.
It's all so tempting -- to want to spend the maximum of time with little ones we love, to make them feel loved and cherished, to give our daughters or daughter-in-laws the child-raising wisdom we've learned through the years, to give our beloved grandchildren, godchildren or nephews and nieces some of the comforts and luxuries that we perhaps weren't able to give our children when we were younger and poorer.
And yet, all these good intentions can backfire into confrontations, tears and resentments if we're not careful.
Indeed, the best intentions can go awry, cause problems and rifts in friendships and family relationships. I've seen it often in therapy: a grandmother resentful that a daughter-in-law or daughter seems uninterested, even hostile, to her help and advice; an extended family member who feels shut out; an exhausted new parent who feels overwhelmed by responsibility and unsolicited advice that seems to imply that she's incompetent and a bad mother.
Of course, I've also heard in therapy and in daily life about parents who expect grandparents and others to shoulder more responsibility for child care than they want: expecting a parent to give up a job to care for a grandbaby; expecting their parents to be babysitters constantly on call. While many grandparents, fond aunties and friends welcome such involvement, others feel overwhelmed. One couple I know actually moved 1,800 miles away from their children and grandchildren -- whom they love dearly -- to get some time to themselves.
But that's another story, another blog post. Right now, my thoughts are with new parents and what they need us to know.
As I have watched and listened in therapy, talked with a variety of grandparents who are neighbors and observed over the course of that recent weekend with my brother and his family, some thoughts and rules came to mind. These rules are often unspoken, but any violations -- no matter how well-intentioned -- can lead to painful conflict. These include:
1. No matter how warm your connection, this isn't your baby. The new Mom and Dad, no matter how inexperienced, rule. Even though you may have the parenting experience, defer to the new parents. Yes, sometimes the new parents don't know best, but make suggestions tactfully. You may feel an eye roll coming on when this inexperienced parent is giving YOU instructions for care, but this is her child. She needs to be the expert on her own baby in order to shoulder the new and constant responsibility. Ask "How can I help?" instead of rushing in with advice. And when you give advice, try framing it in a non-confrontational way: "Have you thought about...." or "I wonder how it would work if...." Be a collaborator in this much-loved child's care instead of letting the (often insecure) new parent think that you consider her (or him) incapable.
The best case scenario is to help the new parent feel more capable and confident with your warm, loving support.
2. Don't force closeness. You may have felt intense love the minute you knew this baby was on the way -- even from a distance. However, it may take the baby or toddler a little longer to warm up to you if you're not a part of his or her daily life. If a child sees you only occasionally, he or she may need time to feel comfortable. Don't insist that the child kiss you or sit on your lap. Let the child make a decision about when or whether he or she will come closer.
Earlier in my last visit, as Maggie hovered beside my chair, I told her that I could move over and make room for her if she wanted to sit with me in the rocker. "No," she said, deciding, instead, to stand on my feet, looking into my face, as I read to her. Gradually, she began to wiggle over onto my lap, eager to show me a story on her iPad. But it was her choice. (Remember how you hated being forced to kiss Great Aunt Clara during her annual visit?) As eager as you may be to gather this precious child into your arms, give the kid a break. Let the child lead the way.
3. Don't make assumptions. This includes assuming that the parents want to be away from the baby. Especially those of us without kids see the unending responsibility, the constant distractions, the sheer energy it takes to care for a baby or toddler and we assume new parents would like a break. And we assume that a break would mean being totally away from the child for a nice chunk of time.
That may be true for some. But many others would simply find an extra pair of hands useful while still staying close by. So you can give a new mother a break by preparing meals or doing housecleaning so she can relax and continue to bond with her new baby. Or you can give new parents a break by playing quietly with their child or children at home while they catch up on some postponed chores or take a nap.
Unless it's an emergency or unless Grandma plays a major role in their daily lives, babies and toddlers generally do better with parents nearby. Fun sleepovers can come a little later.
4. Don't undermine rules and beliefs or play out conflicts through the child. There is the joke that children and grandparents are co-conspirators against the parents. But, in real life, while your relationship can be pivotal and incredibly special, it's important -- especially with toddlers -- not to undermine the parents' rules, wishes and convictions. They need to learn to follow rules their parents set -- without interference.
This means not being the soft touch when it comes to discipline. If Mom or Dad says "No", it's not up to you to say "Yes." And if you're entrusted with the little one's care, even for a few minutes, it's critical to keep parental concerns in mind.
For example, I remember the angry tears of my long ago client Jody who had a toddler named Emily and an over-eager neighbor named Tracy, divorced and childless, who loved being Emily's play companion and who never reinforced any of Jody's rules for the child. When she ignored Jody's instructions during a visit to the play area of their local mall, the situation quickly became a crisis.
When Emily was playing happily in the mall's large children's area, Jody, pregnant with her second child, suddenly had to go to the bathroom. She asked Tracy to watch Emily and to make sure that she didn't leave the play area. Jody returned -- less than five minutes later -- to find both Emily and Tracy gone.
With growing concern, she checked the immediate area and surrounding stores to no avail. Now frantic, she alerted Security and called her husband -- who was working at home and was on a conference call. He dropped everything and ran to join her at the mall. They searched everywhere -- finally finding Emily and Tracy at a store on the other end of the mall. Tracy's account was that Emily had started to wander from the play area "and I just followed her to keep her safe."
Both Jody and her husband were furious and distraught. It seemed not to have occurred to Tracy to contain Emily in the play area as asked or, if she was wanting her Mom, to take her to the restroom where Jody had gone during that brief interlude. Either of those scenarios -- rather than the one that unfolded -- would have made this a non-event and certainly would have made the parents less concerned about Tracy's judgment.
Some extended family and friends may feel that loving a child means being a playmate. Some of the permissiveness and lack of judgment seem to come from personal neediness -- feeling, perhaps, that your relationship will suffer if you reinforce parental rules. The opposite is true, of course. Children can have many playmates their own age. But adult relatives and friends who offer fun and the personal safety that comes with limits are treasured indeed.
I've thought a lot about my beloved Aunt Molly lately, remembering how my brother, sister and I loved her so much and what fun we had together. But it wasn't all fun. Aunt Molly's temper could be fierce, her justice swift. When we were with Aunt Molly, we knew that, in order to have those good times, we needed to behave like reasonable human beings. She loved to have fun with us, but wouldn't put up with any nonsense -- and we quickly learned the difference. If we tried to get around parental rules with her, we hit a dead end. She always stood up for our parents. (And when she disagreed with a parental action or rule, she brought it up in private with our parents, never in our presence.)
What I always sensed as a child and know for certain now is that Aunt Molly's love for us came, not out of her own personal neediness, but out of the fullness and richness of her life. We weren't her whole life and what she brought to us from her life beyond our family was incredibly valuable. I loved to read her poetry and short stories -- both the published variety and the ones she wrote just for us, just for fun. We were all excited when one of her scripts came to life before our eyes on television. As a teenager, I loved meeting her sophisticated friends and staying overnight in her very cool apartment. I felt enriched by her life as well as by her strong and enduring love. And the fact that she had expectations of us and set limits made us feel wonderfully safe and secure with her.
5. Don't drop in. Call first -- and ask if it's convenient to come over. Even if offering help, this is important. In some families and cultures, dropping in is just fine -- but, otherwise, never assume that it's fine. Call and say you'd like to be helpful and ask if this is a good time. If you constantly drop in to play with the baby or to spend a day with baby and parents, you risk wearing out your welcome. Routines can get disrupted. Alone time can be important for the new parents and baby.
"I used to feel so upset and conflicted when my two kids were babies," my friend Jessica told me recently. "People were coming over all the time to see them, give me advice and hang out just as I was trying to get the little ones down for naps and then have some time of my own to take a shower or clean up the house a little. I appreciated their enthusiasm and concern, but it felt impossible to get anything done -- even when they wanted to help. Sometimes the help they envisioned giving didn't fit with the kids' sleep schedules or with what I really needed. I felt guilty for being so ungrateful, but I found myself getting mad at so many people I loved for thinking that my 'call first' preferences didn't apply to them."
6. Love isn't a competition. Children flourish with love from family and friends -- and it's all important.
Think about the people in your own childhood who mattered so much -- and how each enriched your life in a unique way. If a child is fortunate enough to have two grandmas and a variety of other people who love him or her, it's cause for celebration. Being competitive can drive a wedge between you and the new parents. Both sets of grandparents, all the aunties and family friends can add immeasurably to a child's life. You will all have your unique relationships with this treasured child -- and, from the child's perspective, it's all good.
7. Don't automatically shower the child with gifts. There is so much more you can give a child besides material gifts. Time and encouragement and unconditional love matter so much. There are times, in fact, when gifts can get in the way of a developing relationship.
I once had a patient named Bea who had spent years buying her two grandchildren lavish gifts. Then she suffered through a late life divorce and ended up impoverished, living in a trailer on a very tight budget. And, as much as she loved them, her grandchildren didn't seem too interested in knowing her anymore. Part of the reason was their adolescence, when friends were a much greater lure than family. But another part of the problem was that, in the flurry of past gifts, real intimacy had never developed between Bea and her grandkids. Now that gifts were not at the center of their relationship, they had little to share with each other.
There are gifts that can also violate parental preferences for their children. For example, some years back, my sister Tai didn't want her daughter Nick to get into the Barbie thing, preferring educational toys. Nick's paternal grandmother would say "Nonsense! Every little girl loves to play with Barbies." It set my sister's teeth on edge and added to the conflict between mom and grandma.
I find I have to watch my own holiday exuberance with Maggie. Mike and Amp aren't crazy about the Santa Claus custom or, being Buddhists, the whole Christmas tradition. "Besides," my brother says. "She has too much stuff already. The greatest gift you could give her is the gift of time."
After checking with her parents, another friend recently gave Maggie an insightful gift: a baby doll to care for in anticipation of the arrival of her baby brother this summer. She has embraced this gift enthusiastically, though insisting that this new baby is a girl named Sarah.
Just keep in mind that too many gifts -- or gifts that upset the parents -- can build barriers, not bridges.
While parents rule, grandmas, aunties and good friends are all important to young child's growth and development.
I remember some of my parents' friends and family members to this day with great affection: Carl Mueller, so laid back and patient, who taught me to take time, lie on the grass and notice the shapes of clouds; Frank Camerlo, the husband of my father's secretary Angela, who had been an opera singer in his native Italy and who encouraged me to sing duets with him -- to my great delight. And my parents' friends Aggie and Mac McKenzie who brought such love and laughter to my life -- as a child and into my mid-life years. My maternal grandparents were a joy to me -- not to mention a lifesaver to my brother who lived with Grandma through high school and college. Aunts Evelyn and Ruth always made me feel special. And Aunt Molly...well, she was in a whole different category altogether. She was my love, my idol, my role model, my inspiration.
As we visited recently, Mike and I shared loving memories of our Grandma Gladys and Aunt Molly. He told me how pleased he and Amp were when -- possibly prompted by my talkative inclinations -- Maggie started to talk much more during weekend I was visiting.
"I'd love you to be another Aunt Molly to Maggie and Henry," Mike said.
Oh, how I wish!
But Aunt Molly was 27 when I was born. We shared 59 years of living and loving. No matter how much I might wish it, I won't have the luxury of such time with Maggie. During my growing years, Aunt Molly was a young woman, full of energy. I'm delighted to be an aunt -- and there is so much I want to experience with Maggie and Henry, too, after he arrives this summer -- even if I don't have the advantage of a young woman's energy. I can't ever really be Aunt Molly. She was truly one of a kind. But I can be a loving auntie in my own way and time and, happily, in a very different family dynamic.
But no matter how much I'll love them and hope to share many good times and fun adventures with Maggie and Henry, I'll never forget those unspoken but critically important rules!