When I birthed my firstborn, my mom stayed with us for a week, and organized our pantry.
Slowly, over the course of seven days, our dry goods and snacks were divided into clear plastic containers, each with a shiny white label neatly attached. “Rice.” “Sugar.” “Snack nuts.”
This was her gift to me, the one way she knew to help during a season of upheaval and very little sleep. And at the time, I felt grossly underserved. I’m not sure what I’d expected of my mother – a butler standing silent at my bedside to fulfill my every need? A personal chef to hand-feed me bonbons, and brew a bottomless pot of Mother’s Milk tea? A walking instruction manual on the art of mothering?
Whatever miraculous tonic I’d hoped my mom would supply, it didn’t matter. She could have arrived with Mary Poppins’ magic bag of tricks, filled with every tool I’d possibly need to conquer this new phase of life, and it wouldn’t have helped.
Because, you see, I vividly recall waking up with Joey one night (or maybe it was in the wee hours of the morning – it all sort of blends together), when he wouldn’t stop crying, wasn’t hungry, didn’t need a diaper change, and I was out of answers, and deliriously exhausted. My poor mom, trying her best to be useful, appeared in my doorway to help, and without a thought in my head, I screamed at her that I was fine, and to leave me alone. And, dutifully, she did.
For the first years of motherhood, I complained widely and foolishly that grandparents are no help. Because “they just don’t remember what this is like, having small kids.” I’d accept their gifts, toys, and money – after all, it was the only real aid they provided – and I’d boast to my friends that living far from our families wasn’t all that tough, “because I’m not sure how much help we’d receive from them anyway.”
Still, every once in awhile, when Nick and I couldn’t find childcare if our lives depended on it, when we wished someone could deliver us a Snickers bar, a bottle of wine, or some Advil, and when holidays rolled around and things were far too quiet, family sounded pretty appealing.
I’ve watched enough mom friends to know that living near loved ones has its ups and downs. Like me, they complain often that the help they receive isn’t the help they really need, they detail all of the drama and politics that are constantly in play, and I think to myself, We’re doing just fine on our own, we don’t need them. But even long-distance, there are sticky dynamics afoot, the oddest being the picking of favorites.
I’d always assumed that grandparents, like parents, loved their progeny equally. They had to. It was a requirement. But when I think back, even my own grandmother sent each grandchild different sums of money on their birthdays, or chose to attend certain graduations over others. I’d assumed it was an innocent mistake, because you can’t keep track of everybody, or lose all of your income to birthday cards, but now I wonder…
I honestly feel bad for grandparents, because if you don’t play your cards exactly right – remember absolutely everybody’s birthdays, special events, and favorite toy-of-the-moment – you can come across as insensitive, or aloof. And, apparently, you’re also supposed to know exactly what sort of help your children require, and provide it at precisely the right moment. It’s a wonder that grandparents have any time at all to live their own lives, with all of this pressure to be perfect.
Look, after seven years of marriage, I’ve learned not to tyrannically expect my husband to read my mind, understand my every need, and fulfill it without me asking. That’s just silly. So, why do I expect it of my parents and in-laws? And I forget plenty of my friends’ birthdays… hell, I almost forgot Mother’s Day, and it’s my own day. It seems pretty clear that not remembering a birthday, or a favorite color, or making it out to visit regularly doesn’t necessarily prove a lack of love – it proves that our parents have their own shit going on.
Treating your grandkids equally is a pretty tall order. I don’t even like my own kids equally every day. (*gasp* WHAT?!) Come on. You moms of multiple kids are going to tell me that each and every day, there isn’t a particular kid who challenges your patience and pushes your limits? There isn’t one who’s going through a more huggable phase, who seeks your undying attention more fervently, and therefore receives it more easily? There isn’t one who tempts you to wring his or her neck every five minutes?
Hey now, that’s parenting. If love means jumping in front of a bus to save your kids, then absolutely, I love them both equally, always. But there are some days I don’t particularly enjoy one (or either) of them. There are seasons when I’m not sure how best to show my love, when playing dinosaurs and wrestling get a little old, and I’m sure someday my kids will view this lack of interest and energy as a lack of love, when it sure as hell isn’t.
Human relationships are just hard, because spoiler alert: we’re human. There are a lot of politics and dynamics at play in every relationship, including those with our children and grandchildren. I’m learning as I grow older that love and help never look the way I’d expected, or arrive in quite the way I’d hoped, because (newsflash) nobody in this world automatically knows how to love me best at any given moment. (I don’t even know what I need at any given moment).
But each of us is trying our darndest anyway, and all we can do is get better at asking for the love we need most, modeling that practice for our kids, and giving each other a little fucking grace and appreciation. Raising kids is hard enough without all that judgment and disapproval getting in the way, don’tcha think?