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What a Grandma Wishes Parents Knew About Helping With the Kids

It's not easy being a grand-nanny

Sally James

Published on: August 22, 2019

Grandma and daughter and grandchild

Thirty years ago, when I was a young mom, there was less information available about parenting and motherhood was a little more freestyle. Or maybe I just escaped peer pressure because I had no relatives living nearby, no sisters and no parenting village to call upon.

These days, I am part of a new village as a part-time nanny to my daughter’s baby. My husband and I belong to the grand-nanny set and we see our peers everywhere. There’s the gray-haired guy wearing a Snugli in Madison Park and the army of grand-nannies at the local toddler gyms. I’ve met them in line at the grocery store and we talk about feeling a little lost sometimes and about how parenting has changed.

For one, parenting requires a lot more tech knowledge than it used to. How do we refocus the video monitor? What is the right security code to enter before an obnoxious loud beeping sound wakes the baby? It is even possible to feel lost about things that might have been second nature the first time around.  How much diaper cream is too much?

The new village raising this child looks like a family band, one in which everyone plays a different instrument and it only sounds good when we are synchronized. While I worry about doing a good job, my daughter worries about how to communicate with me. We are slowly finding our rhythm. The parts we play in the family band switch back and forth. Often, it feels like there is no one conducting. 

My daughter writes delightful notes on a yellow legal pad. One day it is “Try to stretch the time between first and second naps.”

With modern parenting, careful consideration is paid to every aspect of childminding. My daughter writes delightful notes on a yellow legal pad. One day it is, “Try to stretch the time between first and second naps.” Another day, it may read, “Offer zucchini” or “Not too many Bambas.”

My engineer husband and I are victims of our own desire to do a good job. He will re-tape the diaper a few times in pursuit of perfect symmetry. We both attended a half-day certification in CPR and first aid for babies. We write down when she sleeps and for how long. These days everything is measured and analyzed. 

When I was a mom, feeding the baby was a little more straightforward. These days, babies are supposed to have complete autonomy and control over the spoon, as they explore food the way people explore the beach. My granddaughter can smear it, throw it or draw with it. I am not supposed to help her get the food inside her mouth, even though the urge to help her is so strong. When she seems to gag, I am not supposed to panic. In my daughter’s words, “She is learning how to deal with the food.” 

Rules about sleeping have changed, too. What was once “tummy first” is now “back” only to reduce the risk of SIDS. Sleepwear has changed, and our grandbaby gets zipped into a special sleepsuit for nap time and isn’t allowed to fall asleep in my arms or on my shoulder.

Our daughter worries about when to give us direction and when to let us improvise. She’s learning, too, and sometimes says to me, “I feel like I can’t give you any instructions until I have it down.”

But lucky for all of us, in this village, the music gradually gets easier and easier to make together. We all improvise. We all give ourselves second chances. The baby learns to sleep for her mom, her dad and her nannies, following three different routines. The baby has always known how to adjust to all of us, but we had to gain our own confidence with that.

Thankfully, singing and goofing and playing percussion on baby toys has not changed. My husband and I juggle those demands. 

An anthropologist might be baffled at the role of elders in the village of today. Once upon a time, a young mom might have asked me how to calm her baby or where to gather the best berries. But now, I’m studying the latest wisdom from the younger scientific generation, and eating berries my kid knows how to find at an organic store.

I’m following, not leading.

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