What to do about Granny?

Mothers. Not you. Yours. The one who brought you into the world and/or brought you up. My mother is on my mind. She is in my house. She is in our house. We’ve just moved in together.

The theory sounds wonderful. She helps me look after the children and then in turn we help look after her. My mother is in good health for now but she has Lymphoma, a form of blood cancer, and so at some point in the future her health will deteriorate. To use her own words she is ‘glad to know what will get her.’ As a result of receiving her diagnosis she has made the tremendously courageous decision to pack up the family home after 55 years and buy somewhere small with us. She has bought a little house in Sussex, near a Steiner school for the children. My husband has to be in London for work, so we are going to try out ‘Daddy-time’ at weekends. Meanwhile the children get Granny (and Mummy) time through the week. The idea is that my mother can enjoy being a fully active granny and then I can be there, beside her, to care for her when the time comes. Sounds good, huh?

And the practice? I have just moved in with my mother. Over the last six years the children and I have spent a great deal of time at granny’s house and she has been a regular visitor at ours. But this is different. Something we have never done before. I have lived inside her as a baby, with her as a child, but I have never lived beside her as an equal adult. And how is it? It’s only been a week but so far I am touched by how awkward it is. How much difficulty there is as well as ease. Two women. Too similar, very different.  Housemates with a history. I am struck by how many quiet judgements fly back and forth between us: she thinks I am taking too long over choosing a bread bin; I think she should not have packed that small ottoman from her old house. She is cold (even though the house she has left had only three rooms in it with central heating and was often freezing). I am not. I offer to put on the heating. She says, “No, no don’t worry” but looks uncomfortable. I delay but then put it on. She wants everyone to be having a wonderful time in our new home. I do too but her eagerness polarises me into holding onto the un-wonderful parts so that when she asks me whether my husband is enjoying it, I reply emphatically “No!” and then soften and explain that it is too complicated for him to be simply ‘enjoying it.’ These tiny moments. Flickers of defensiveness, impatience, sadness. 

And yet. And yet it is also wonderful and I know I am incredibly lucky. My mother is the only grandparent my children have and she has been amazingly supportive of us all. No making and no Mothers Who Makewould have happened without her. She is the grandmother of this whole movement. Every clunky, awkward, tense and anxious moment is worth it. In fact they are a part of the value of this time with Granny, not a thing with which I must put up in order to benefit from her support. 

Grannies. I know there are many of you that don’t have one: women whose mothers died long ago; women whose mothers live in another city, country, continent; women who are mothering in such a different way to how they were mothered that it makes the relationship too fraught to be a source of support; women whose mothers are already in need of too much care themselves to be able to do any caring; women whose mothers do not want to engage with their grandchildren as they are keen to have some child-free years at last. Whatever your situation it does not take away the need for the ‘Granny role.’ 

I have a dream that at every MWM meeting there should be a granny in the room, whether she is a maker or not. Sometimes there has been and I have loved their contribution. They play with the children. They sit and listen and don’t say much, but they are there, proof that there is life beyond the crazy intensity of the early child-rearing years. It is a relief to have their perspective present, a momentary view from wiser, wider, higher ground, whilst I am stuck down in the crammed streets of the days, managing meals and laundry. We need this. We need the grandmothers and it can be hard to find them. Hard also to foster situations in which intergenerational support emerges as the mutually beneficial resource it can be.

I am struck as I navigate all the tender, awkward, difficult moments of starting to live with my mum by how radical it is. How such an ordinary thing as living with one’s mother can be rare and strange. It’s simple radicalness reminds me of Mothers Who Make, of how a space for adults that welcomes children is a rare thing. How a space that recognises and celebrates more than one role at once is also unusual. Can we make it a space that can hold another generation too? One more layer of roles? I will invite my mum along to the next meeting, so I will be a mum, a maker and a daughter too within the room. 

There are two parts to my question for the month. Actually I am giving you some homework, if you want it. Below is your ‘Grandmother Project’      Commission:

1)   Do you have a granny in your life, actual or otherwise? An aunt? A godmother? A neighbour? Someone else’s granny? Could you invite her to a MWM meeting? Or just round for tea? Whom do you know that might enjoy this role?

2)   Maybe there is no one. No granny or no one you know. Even holding space for the dream of such a role seems worthwhile to me. In my husband’s favourite picture book of all time, How Tom Beat Captain Najork,Tom frees himself from the tyrannical ‘Aunt Fidget Wonkham-Strong’ and goes off in search of a new aunt. He puts an advert in the newspaper and finds himself “Aunt Bundlejoy Cosysweet.” He tells her, “No greasy bloaters, no mutton…and I do lots of fooling around. Those are my conditions.” What would your advert for a granny be? Write it down. State your conditions. Give her a name. Maybe one day you can be her and, for now, whilst you need her support, you can dream her, make her up – and making, as we know, is a powerful thing.