Becoming a new grandparent is an event as revolutionary as the invention of the wheel, if you listen to my grandparent friends. Besides giving them a new little being to love and spoil, the birth of a grandchild changes the family hierarchy. Suddenly the parents are in control, and it’s the grandparents who have to follow the rules.
This power reversal isn’t entirely unexpected, and in most cases it doesn’t feel burdensome. We adapt to life under a benevolent triumvirate — our grandchild and the parents of our grandchild. Everything goes smoothly, as long as we know the rules — these eight rules, which every new grandparent should heed.
1. Grandparents can’t visit unless invited.
While some grandmothers are still reeling from not being invited into the delivery room, here comes a second blow: The new family isn’t quite ready for company. Some parents don’t want hospital visitors, because that’s their time to bond with baby. And even when baby and company are safely ensconced in the family home, grandparents still have to be invited. It is okay, however, to propose a visit. “Do you think it would be okay if we came over on Sunday?” is a good way to propose the idea. (And it might help if you promise to bring a pot roast.)
2. If grandparents come to help, they have to take direction well.
The number one thing that parents want from grandparents is a little assistance. Many parents have told me that they would have never made it through the first month (or six months, or elementary school) without help from their parents. That being said, all parental help is not created equal. I heard from a Houston mom whose mother-in-law came to help, ignored the clothes that needed folding and ended up reorganizing the kitchen cabinets. It’s almost funny, the idea of that sleep-deprived new mama trying to find a mug or the colander in a revamped kitchen… except that it’s really not.
3. Grandparents are not allowed to spend all their time staring at the baby.
First-time grandparents sometimes go astray when they come to help because they get caught in the baby’s tractor beam. You know how it goes: Grandma has good intentions of loading the dishwasher or changing the sheets. Then she passes by that little baby face, and SCHWOOM. She spends the next hour looking at the baby — watching baby television, we used to call it. Now, the mom probably has no problem with the a grandparent holding the baby while she takes a shower. But at other times, the grandparents should tear themselves away from all that baby sweetness and get to work.
4. Grandparents shouldn’t ignore their older grandchildren.
Sometimes when there is a new grandbaby, there are other grandchildren in the house. While it’s understandable that grandparents are drawn straight to the new baby, they really should sit down with the older grandchildren first. They should spend a little time with them before saying something like, “Oh, I completely forgot about the new baby.” Actually, you’ll never be able to pull off that line, but do greet and visit with your older grandchildren first. Also, bring little gifts for them if you bring things for the baby.
5. If they are staying over, grandparents have to be the best houseguests ever.
If you’re an out-of-town grandparent, your position is a little dicey. On one hand, the idea of a live-in grandparent nanny is probably sounding better and better to the parents every minute. On the other hand, you won’t be staying at the Hilton with room service and a maid; you’ll be sharing a bunk with a kid and 52 stuffed animals. Regardless of the accommodations, if you plan to stay over, you’ll need to be the ultimate houseguest and resident granny — mostly invisible, but ready to swing into action at the first hint of a diaper explosion or a dropped pacifier. You’ll be sort of a stealth Super Granny.
6. Grandparents should leave the time machine behind.
If there is a phrase that parents absolutely do not want to hear from grandparents, it is “When my children were babies…” followed by pretty much any other words. They don’t want to hear about putting alcohol on the umbilical cord, or adding Karo syrup to baby’s bottle, or any of those other outdated baby care methods that worked so well back in the Dark Ages. If you haven’t caught up on modern parenting methods, pick up one of those parenting books that are probably lying around the house where your grandchild lives. You’ll be amazed.
7. Grandparents shouldn’t compete with the other grandparents.
No matter how you feel about the other grandmother, the birth of a new baby isn’t the time for a showdown. Don’t play the game of who can be the best grandmother. Don’t make passive-aggressive statements about her. “That dress Nana gave her is adorable, but don’t you think it looks a little scratchy?” And don’t hog the baby when the other grandmother is on the premises. (The same goes for grandfathers, aunts, friends and anyone else who comes to see the baby.)
8. Grandparents shouldn’t question what the parents do.
All grandparents have heard the standard advice about not offering their opinion unless asked. Some evidently think that it’s okay as long as you ask instead of tell. Feeding is a favorite topic for this tactic, with “Are you really feeding him again?” alternating with “Do you think he might be hungry?” Another favorite is “Does she have to have that plug in her mouth all the time?” You’re a grandparent, not a contestant on Jeopardy — so you don’t get credit for putting your comment in the form of a question. Being a grandparent means going in with a “closed mouth and open mind,” as Donne Davis of the GaGa Sisterhood is fond of saying.
The other great directive that grandparents must follow is much easier to do. Patti Tucker of the Oh, Mrs. Tucker! blog lays it out for us: “The best thing new grandparents can do is love. The End. Period.”
This article was written by Susan Adcox, a writer specializing in generational issues. She is the author of Stories From My Grandparent: An Heirloom Journal for Your Grandchild.