Op-Ed: In grandmotherhood as in motherhood, bliss can’t be the whole story

(Joerg Sarbach / Associated Press)

The same daughter who made a mother out of me 29 years ago is fixing to make me a grandmother in a few weeks. Everyone says I’ll love it. Not just the grandkid; the whole grandmother biz.

But isn’t that what they said about motherhood? Yes, yes, bliss, fulfillment and love beyond my wildest dreams, but that’s not the whole motherhood story. Even if your kid is perfect in every way, never sick or in danger, or in jail, or unhappy, your life is never your own again. It’s just not. And now my life is about to be divvied up again.

Even if my daughter and her husband didn’t live in our garage, I’m sure the addition of a whole new person to my life will shake things up pretty good. I take my foggy memories of early motherhood and try to transpose them onto my current life and ... I can’t. And even though I went through what she’s about to go through, I’m having a hard time picturing what my daughter’s life will soon be like, too.


As I (dimly) recall, there was nothing gradual about motherhood. Boom! The baby was there and hungry, and there was no negotiating with her and no one to pawn her off on. It wasn’t that I hadn’t been warned but I’d had no idea what sleep deprived and zero autonomy really meant.

Once each maternal torment passes, it is instantly replaced by something so all-consuming and worrisome that whatever preceded it fades into nostalgia.

I didn’t decipher the subtext of the chorus (or coven) about how fab motherhood was until my own rashy brute was squalling in my weary arms: “Sleeping? Going to the toilet alone? Walking along with your arms swinging, carrying nothing but a lip gloss? Speaking to men who aren’t your pediatrician? Ha! Ha! Ha!”

And now that very baby I have loved more than life itself, the one I’d hoped would someday have a baby as difficult as she was, is flipping through stroller and car seat catalogs.

I remember the 110-degree day I wrenched my back trying to get her out of her stroller. It took all I had to lug it and her up to our flat so I could collapse on my floor instead of the street. I remember her arching her back to stop me from locking her into her car seat because we both knew once locked in, as much as she screamed, there was nothing she could do to escape.

Whether those early exhausting, terrifying years were worth it is not the point. The point is that motherhood bore little resemblance to what I’d expected, and now the whole shebang has resumed its earlier mythological shape. Luckily for the continuation of the species, hindsight is as fictionalized as foresight.

Once each maternal torment passes — the car seat/stroller phase, the teen-darting-off-to-do-something-stupid phase — it is instantly replaced by something so all-consuming and worrisome that whatever preceded it fades into nostalgia. Only the present is tricky.

And so it goes, as my mother would say, “From their first breath to your last.”

Speaking of my mother, she would think my talking up grandmothering now was playing fast and loose with the Evil Eye, brazenly tempting fate by assuming my daughter and my grandson will survive childbirth.

Although I’m shouldering my mom’s role in the family, I hope to avoid her superstitions. If I could cherry-pick among her traits, I wouldn’t mind taking on the unbridled delight she felt when I made a grandmother out of her. And the joy she found in her grandchildren’s’ company from the start.

Maybe I can channel all that. But when I think of the grandmothers, selfless and wise in novels, films and ads for incontinence aids, pulling fresh pies out of ovens, there’s a disconnect between me and them. I’ve got the frumpy and bespectacled part down, but the wise and pies parts are dicey.

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As I watch my daughter lumbering belly first into motherhood, dreading labor, fearing a C section, or an episiotomy, I find myself saying it won’t be so bad, it heals. If anyone had dared say that to me postpartum, I would have slugged them. But now I’ve taken my place in the circle of old crones, telling the uninitiated to stop worrying, they are young and strong and can take it.

How I, on the other hand, am going to lift a squirming grandkid with these arthritic hands, and lug a loaded diaper bag, and wrangle some newfangled car seat, I don’t know. Maybe those deficits and untold others are why storybook grandmothers are sometimes depicted as dying or dead.

Meanwhile, here’s another thing my mother used to say: “You’re only as happy as your least happy child.” So I’m going to cherish these waning days with one less person to worry about, to ache for, to love.

My daughter presses a swollen hand to her aching back, tired and uncomfortable. The thing is, after 29 years of mothering her, my automatic concern is for my baby, not hers. And it’s hard not to wish that stranger in her belly would give her a break.

But of course, he won’t. Ever.

Amy Koss is a contributing writer to Opinion.

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