Posts Tagged ‘grandmother’

The other week, my mother came round to babysit E1 while I took E2 to a doctor’s appointment.  It was a strangely warm day and so what did my mum do the whole three hours that we were gone?  She played in the garden with her granddaughter.  They gathered pine cones and seedpods for the bird feeder.  They played on the swings.  They marched around the garden and discussed the flowers and the trees and the sky and — from what I can gather — the whole of Life as it appears to a three-year-old…

I would never have done that.  I am not that kind of mother.  I am all about thinking ahead, keeping things safe, preparing for the worst while I go about teaching my daughters their independence and letting them show me what they want to learn.  My mother’s take is, in so many ways, completely different from mine.  She is all about being in the moment, experiencing every joy of parenthood (and grandparenthood), taking away pain, and leaping in to provide everything her charges might possibly need.  She is always there, always available, and always doing everything she can think of to make life better for the people she loves.

And according to Janet Penley’s excellent book MotherStyles, that is a perfectly in line with both of our Myers-Briggs Personality types.  As an INTP mother, my natural priorities are to foster independence and autonomy in my daughters, and it comes naturally to me to stay hands-off so my girls can learn through their own experiences.  My mother is an ESFP — expressive, attentive, and focused on practical help and especially on fun.  Even if all this Myers-Briggs mumbo-jumbo means nothing to you, it takes only a glance at our letters to see that my mum and I have very few of them in common.  Except for that ‘P‘, we are polar opposites.

Growing up, I found that very difficult — oppressive, even — though I didn’t realise it at the time.  Being a strong T (thinker), I don’t tend to be much ruled by my feelings — in fact, I don’t tend to delve into them much at all (with the anomalous exception of this blog) — and as an I (introvert), I’m not very comfortable sharing them even when I do.  But as an E (extrovert) and a strong F (feeler), my mother pushed me all my life to share my feelings freely with her  (and everything else too) — she has never understood why I feel so uncomfortable doing what comes so naturally to her.  For many years — and especially after I began to develop more of my true self as an independent adult — she told me that I was wrong…  that I was prickly…  cold-hearted… even that I was a bad daughter for not being the way she had expected me to be.  I was an enigma to her — and she to me — and the rest is our sorry history.

And as a grandmother, she has certainly done her fair share of things crazy-making.  As sad as it is to say — and I hate that it’s the case — being so near to her has been one of the things I have struggled with the most about moving back to the US.  And I have no doubt that she is slowly coming to the conclusion that she doesn’t actually like me much as a person — though I know that will never change the fact that she loves me completely as a daughter.

But when I got home that day from the doctor’s office and asked what they’d been up to while we’d been out, I was floored.  I would never have had the patience — or, let’s be honest, the interest — to have spent that much time exploring the garden with my daughter.  I would have done one quick turn before retiring to the porch-swing with a copy of the Economist, content for her to explore on her own and then to bring her millions of questions back to me as I rocked comfortably back and forth. But my mother never left her to herself, never tired — in a full three hours — of walking by her side and seeing the world through a three-year-old’s eyes.  She was, as per her ESFP-type, the “totally there” mother — the stereotype in the best of all possible ways.

And though I don’t understand my mother and she doesn’t understand me, and though we struggle so awkwardly — so miserably — to get along, and though as mother and daughter we often simply don’t work at all, the real truth is that we complete each other in my daughters’ eyes.  Together, we give them almost everything they need — both independence and total availability, calm rationality and expressive emotion, the foresight that keeps them safe and the ability to share in their joy of the moment.  Without my mother to fill in my gaps, my own mothering would be incomplete.  She does things that I simply can’t.  She walks around the garden with them for hours.  She helps them to feel every moment.  She swoops in when they need attention.  She is always, always there for my daughters.

She is everything that I will never be.  That’s the kind of mother my mother is.


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My mum found that one of her favourite shops was having a major sale and so she swung round to pick up the girls and me for a day of girly shopping, of the sort we rarely got the chance to do while I lived on the other side of the world.  It was wonderful fun — we found a ton of adorable dresses for the girls, and even a few really nice pieces that fit my still depressingly lumpy body.  And afterwards, we were all tired and hungry, so we looked for somewhere to eat.

This is easier said than done.  With a combination of allergies and intolerances that rule out eggs (both girls), soy (me and E2), peanuts, treenuts, chicken, dairy, avocados, and bananas (all E2), not just any place will do.  Most chains ares simply out of the question — indeed, when I mentioned a problem with soy, Olive Garden and TGIFriday’s quite happily told me they’d rather I ate somewhere else — and even individual places struggle to accommodate us.

So when my mother suggested Chili’s, I was dubious.  Leaving everyone in the car, I went in first to ask whether they were geared up to handle our allergies.  Imagine my surprise when the hostess — far from getting that weary look that I know so well — smiled and said, “Yes, let me just grab our allergy menus.”  Allergy menus?!?  I was delighted to discover that Chili’s has gone to the trouble of putting together individual lists of the items from their menu that are ok for people with a variety of allergies — one list for each of the top eight allergens.  I was over the moon that someone would take our needs so seriously, after so many brick walls and downright hostility.  And when I noticed the egg list was missing, the hostess ran back to the office to print a fresh one.  Fabulous!

And on that high note, I began the hard work, attempting to cross-reference all the lists and the menu spread out on the table before me to find something that the girls and I could eat.  But they were tired and cranky and starting to act up, my mother had chosen and was ready to order, and I was getting nowhere fast.  There was too much information, too much to check, and I couldn’t process it all to determine what was safe for E2 to have.  I was too acutely aware that if I ordered the wrong thing, I was putting my daughter’s life at risk, and the enjoyment was quickly draining out of this rare chance to go out.

The manager came over to answer our questions, and we found that there was a risk of dairy contamination (butter) with any food cooked on the grill, so we had to retreat to our safe standbys: the girls would have a plate of plain corn, broccoli, and carrots.  Soy being particularly insidious, I ordered the only items that were available to me out of the entire six-page menu: a burger with no bun and no fries and no mayo, and a side-salad with the one non-soy dressing (low-cal vinaigrette).  It wasn’t exactly what I would call much of a choice, but it was safe, and we were eating out for once, and I was still on a high because of all the care Chili’s was taking with us.

And after all that, the conversation continued on theme — my mother and I discussed the dangers of cross-contamination, my fears about sending the girls to school, and the horrible possibly that a moment’s lapse in concentration could have devastating results.  I told my mum the story of Sabrina Shannon, and we both stopped mid-bite, frozen at the thought that anything like that could happen to the two precious girls digging happily into their dinners next to us.  My daughters’ world is constant crossfire of danger and to keep them safe, we both agreed, vigilance was everything.

Eventually, the conversation changed and the mood relaxed.  The girls’ bellies now filled, they began to settle a bit and enjoy the novelty of being out for a meal.  My mother and I discussed with glee the bargains we’d snagged that day.  We had nearly finished our meals and all was well.  I sat back and relaxed for the first time since we sat down.

I turned to E2, who was wildly excited, pointing at the pictures on the walls, and we began discussing them one by one.  After a while, I realised E1 was making that whinging noise that three-year-olds do so effectively, and I looked over to see her leaning on my mother’s arm and reaching out for her plate, as my mother dug around in her salad bowl.  “Hold on, darling,” my mother said, “I’ll find one…”

“Mother,” I said, suddenly going cold.  “What are you doing?”

She picked up on the tone in my voice, but still remained cheery.  “I’m getting a tomato for E1.  She saw me eat one and she asked for one,” she replied, still digging.

“Mother, what is the white stuff all over your salad?”  I couldn’t hide my fear and irritation.

“It’s my blue cheese dressing.”  She stopped digging, a juicy cherry tomato now poised on her fork.

“Is it…”  I couldn’t believe I was having to say this… I suddenly felt like my head was being squeezed in a vice and I’m not sure I kept my tone under control.  “Is it egg-free?

There was pause and she put her fork down.  “I don’t know.”  Anger rose up inside me and made my vision go blurry on the edges.  E1, seeing that her prize was slipping away, began whinging afresh.  I picked up the egg-allergy list and looked at the salad dressings they listed as safe — blue-cheese was not there.

“It’s not on this list,” I said, not trusting myself to say more.  I looked at her for a moment, and then had to close my eyes and clench my jaw, and I couldn’t stop myself from pulling a face that I know revealed everything I was feeling inside.  It was the face of a mother who felt sick at what might have just happened.  It was the face of a mother who is afraid for her children every time she steps into a restaurant or a snack bar or a cafeteria.  It was the face of a mother who knows, in her heart, that her children are not safe, moment to moment, even with their own grandmother, even as I sit right there with them.


Epilogue: The next words out of my mother’s mouth were, “I don’t think there is any dressing on this tomato though…” as she eyed it carefully.  After all we’d just discussed about cross-contamination of utensils, of Sabrina Shannon’s death…  I could have cheerfully smacked her.

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