Grand(Mama) Mother Talk – Part 1
by Sheri and Amy
In an effort to get some conversation going in the grandmama arena and in support of the Mother Talk series, we gathered a few of our favorite grandmothers for a dinner and talk a month or so ago. I invited my mom Bev (a.k.a. our Grandmama columnist), and Amy invited her mom Melinda. Then Kate Washington, our New Girl columnist, came with her mom Cathy. And finally, we invited our good friend Stephanie and her daughter Cate, who owns deep, the local art gallery where mamazine.com threw its launch party. So we ended up around the table—mamahood from the perspective of two generations, grandmamas looking back at motherhood and forward at grandmamahood. We had a few hours of very interesting conversation. We will publish this conversation in several parts, and here's Part 1.
mamazine.com: Let's start with numbers: how old you were when you had your first child, what year it was, how many children you have, and how many grandchildren?
Bev: Just the numbers, 21, 1968, two children, three grandchildren.
Stephanie: I was 25 in 1970 when my son was born, 26 in 1976 when my daughter was born and [I have] two grandchildren, one is seven and one is three and a half.
Melinda: I was 23 when Amy was born, 1971 barely, January. And I went on and had two more children and adopted seven children, so I have ten children and three grandchildren.
Cathy: I had Kate in 1972 when I was 27 and Peter three years later in 1975 when I was 30, so this is the year that I'm twice as old as he is.
Melinda: That's a number.
Cathy: And I have one granddaughter, and she's four and a half months.
Bev: So I was the youngest mother.
Melinda: How old were you?
Bev: 21, just.
Amy (to Melinda): But Mom, you have the oldest grandchild. But Stephanie has the oldest biological grandchild. It's very complicated.
Melinda: I thought I was pretty old. I got married when I was 20, so to be almost 23 in those days…
Cathy: My mother thought I was never going to have a baby.
Sheri: You were 25?
Cathy: I was 27.
Stephanie: One foot in the grave. But Bev, you are still married to your very first husband, the father of your children. I don't think any of us in our generation at the table [can say that], and you were the youngest. It's supposed to be the older you marry the less likely [to divorce]. Boy, you screwed up the stats.
Bev: I know I was just telling [my husband] Roger. We are so boring, we are still married to each other, we still live in the same house, and I've worked [in the same job] for 30 years.
Melinda: Just hang on, a few years ago I would have said the same thing.
mamazine.com: Can you tell us a little about your experiences as mothers? What did you expect of motherhood—and where do you think those ideas came from? How did the reality match up with the fantasy?
Cathy: Well, I really think that I expected motherhood to be manageable and fairly easy. I don't know why I thought that, but that's what I thought. And for the first six months with each child, it was not easy at all because both of them were colicky. I think, looking back on it, I think my nervousness probably contributed to their colickiness, but it was kind of a vicious circle. But anyway that expectation was dashed.
Melinda: Well, I had a different experience. Just generally, just thinking about Amy. When I was pregnant, my husband was in Vietnam so immediately the fantasy was not quite the way it was supposed to be. The reality was not the fantasy. I was living at home, staying with my sister who was in junior high, in her room, with a little crib on the side.
Amy: My first nursery.
Melinda: And it was fun. My parents were really supportive. It was kind of fun to have her, but when we finally got on our own… My husband came home, and we had the real little house with the little bedroom with the kids and stuff. I don't know, I really enjoyed [it]. I really always wanted to be a mother. It was the only thing that I cared about, just playing with my dolls and stuff. I really enjoyed it.
But obviously, it's not all fun. I think, ah, I don't know. I think it was harder in a lot of ways, of course, as everybody knows, but it also was just as wonderful as I thought it would be. To be the mushy one here. I mean I really loved it. It was just wonderful. Obviously or why would I have more than two kids or more than one. (Laughing from all) As I was saying, she was this wonderful baby and a really neat kid, so it was easy to just keep going and see what you see what you could come up with next.
Stephanie: That is just what I said to Cate and [my son-in-law] J.R. when they said they have enough children for now. I said, "But you make such wonderful children. Have more!" And J.R. said, "But we have been very lucky," and that was a very good response.
Stephanie: Me? Can I talk about Cate and J.R.?
Cate: J.R. is not your child.
Stephanie: He's cuter than heck. The first time I met him Cate said, "Quit scamming on him." He's so cute.
Melinda: Can you update me a little? The word "scamming"?
Stephanie: Maybe that's my word, from the early 90s.
I actually have no imagination. I didn't imagine I'd be a mother, and I became pregnant. Okay, I'm pregnant, that's fine. I started painting bedrooms and stuff, but what struck me was two [things]. With my son Tony… Cate isn't responsible for this, but she added to the second part of it. What I found was that when I went into labor and we [were] driving to Marshall Hospital, where I would be by far the oldest mother in the maternity ward, I would like to point out by a few years, that I thought, "Oh this is like death." And I thought [this] cause there is no going back. It was the first time it ever struck me that, it never hit me that death—I don't mean that depressingly, but it was inevitable. It was the inevitability that I had never in my life experienced. That baby was going to come out somewhere between Gold Hill Road and Marshall Hospital—the baby was going to be born, there was nothing I could do to stop it, and I just remember thinking, "This is kind of like life and death." But it wasn't depressing. It was realizing that I was this animal person, that this is what the reality of life was.
But the other part was when Tony was born—and it upped the ante when Cate was born—I'd never known what love was. I loved their father, yeah an action word. Love was there and everything else, but I had never experienced… I've never been so protective or so much in love. When Cate was born 19 months later… Poor Tony was not pretty; he was really long and skinny, weighed five pounds seven ounces or something, and he was really long, and the only other kid in the nursery was this like 70-pound little Mexican kid who looked four years old with this black hair that was just gorgeous, and then there was my son. My long, yellow-jaundiced son. (Laughter from all) And my mother, we're not close by any means, but when she called to congratulate me, I said, "But he looks awful." But Cate, bless her soul, was absolutely gorgeous. Even the doctor said, "My god, she's beautiful," and they were still mopping her up. And I thought, "Yes! I have a beautiful child." But Tony became beautiful, he did, he did. But I learned about death, I learned about love, so I guess that's pretty cool.
Bev: I think that time went so fast when I was a mother. It was a blur, but sometimes it seemed those long afternoons were really long—like, "When is this day going to be over?" But it was hard, it was easy, it was happy, it was sad, it was fun, it was horrible just all wrapped into one.
All the time I was pregnant I thought how great it would be to have someone who hadn't experienced life come into mine and love me for me. It was interesting because I always think of this story because my son was always like, "Whatever you say Mom, I believe it," until he went to kindergarten. The first day, he came home and asked me some question and when I answered, he said, "But my teacher said…" And it was like, "Oh my gosh. I'm not the only one anymore." But it was interesting. I remember the first night we had Mike home and, because I babysat a lot when I was a teenager, I thought, "Oh my gosh. This isn't like the evening when I go home at the end." It was that realization.
Melinda: Yeah, when are the real parents coming home?
Bev: It was interesting.
Melinda: Yeah, I think that realization that not only the next day or 18 years but forever. This person you are going to worry about.
Stephanie: I didn't get that.
Melinda: I don't know when I got it, but I got it. It's just so scary in a way.
Bev: But I think being a grandmother, even if it makes you go to that next [level], I don't worry so much about my kids now because they're grown, but I worry about my grandchildren.
mamazine.com: How about your expectations of grandmotherhood? How has the reality differed from the fantasy?
Bev: I don't know. My grandmothers were old. My parents were the youngest of 9 and 11 children, so my grandparents were always old and we didn't live near them so I never got to know them. I didn't know what to expect being a grandparent. But I remember being excited. Of course, when my son and daughter-in-law announced they were having a baby, I was crying and my daughter-in-law was worried I was sad, but I was thrilled. My child is having a child.
But it made me anxious because [I worried] will the parents be okay, will the children, will the strain of the child break up the couple, will the child break her neck on the jungle gym? But then you realize your son probably watches [his daughter] more than you did when he was playing on the jungle gym.
I had to call one of our faculty today and ask about this because she had told me awhile ago about this saying. "My child's child is two times my child." It's Greek—I think that's why we are anxious and worry because they are really our children twice.
Stephanie: I told Bev that I wanted to, in response to your article, your piece in mamazine, Kate, about you trying to take a shower and Nora is in the her room, when all of a sudden the boogeymen from the community are going to abscond with her. I said to Bev I would write an article in response from another generation but totally, totally on your side. I haven't because I sat down to write it [and] I thought no, this is so grim.
Okay, two things, when Cate, my Cate, when she called to announce that she and J.R. were pregnant… I had [some friends from Seattle] there when Cate told me, and I thought I was being supportive. I must say that something in me just sank and [my friend] said to me, "Why were you so horrible to your daughter?" I said, "I wasn't. I was very nice. I said all the right things," and she said, "No, you were terrible." And I realized that I was scared. I was just terrified, and I mean it was ridiculous, my children, I had a wonderful time with my children, thank you very much. So you were investing in something you had never done before, and it became real to me what I was terrified of. It was never anybody else, it was always me, me, me. I was just terrified for them. I was happy when [my first grandchild] Gwen was born. It was a great day, probably up there in the top three, top four days of my life. But what I realized was that I'm sort of a mother hen. Like [my grandson] Lucas went off to play soccer. Well, Lucas wasn't playing soccer, his sister was playing soccer, and Lucas wanted to go climb on things. I remember Cate saying, "He's fine, he's fine," but I realized I'm this overprotective grandmother person because if anything happens to them, it's two generations. It's not just me and the child. What would happen to my grandchild is bad enough and then what would happen to my children, my son-in-law, and then me. It was two times two; it's another way of putting it. And that was the piece I was trying to write and I sat down to write and then I read Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, and that was the end of my memoirs.
Melinda: Well, I don't feel like you two. I don't feel this extra fear or anything about my grandchildren. I think I used it all up. I just delight in them. I mean they are so much fun.
Stephanie: I was saying that, too. I agree. Absolutely.
Melinda: I think I have more confidence in my own ability to see all the things that could happen and make sure they don't or be better in helping them not happen or something. Also, just the wisdom that my kids all grew up, they have all reached adulthood, and they are all fine. And probably that's what is going to happen, but also that bad things happen, and we can't keep that from happening either so I have a little bit more peace with them. I don't know, they are just so much fun, and I look forward to having a lot more.
My grandmother was a big part of my life. My great grandmother, I spent a lot of time with her and my grandma. And Amy spent a lot of time with my grandma, her great grandmother, so I want to be that kind of grandma that has the kids come and spend time and get to know them on a kind of different level and get rid of the parents.
Everyone: Yes, definitely.
Melinda: And use this time…to talk about different things.
Amy: What is funny to me is that when you were the parent, we had carseats, and we were in seatbelts. She was way ahead of her time. We didn't eat a lot of sugar until my younger siblings came along—I was very resentful about that. No, but I think of that as a gold standard.
Now, my kids don't know really know how to swim well and my stepfather has a boat, and my mother last summer [says], "We can take the kids out. We have life vests, and they will be fine," and I'm thinking, "Where did my mother go?"
Melinda: Well, I would have said, "Oh my god no!" too, but once I got on the boat and saw what it was like, you know, seeing the obvious. I just hadn't had a lot of experience doing a lot of things that were so scary so I [didn't] want them to do it. I still have… I shouldn't say this, but…my mother wanted to take Amy gliding, on a glider…
Amy: I don't remember that.
Melinda: I'm sorry. You don't know about it. She was 7 or 8 or something, and my mom was going on this glider and she said, "Would it be okay if we take Amy?" and I said no. And I still feel really bad about that because my mom was fine, and it would have been such a memorable experience. But I just thought no way….you know you can't fly those things.
Cathy: I was really close to my maternal grandmother too. My paternal grandmother was in my life as well. In fact all my grandparents were alive until I was 26 years old, and they all lived in the Bay Area so we saw them a lot. But I don't know if that influenced the way I thought about becoming a grandmother or not. Katie and Brad had been married about five years when [she] got pregnant, and I wasn't waiting with bated breath but I was curious—really I felt it was up to [her], not me. So she called, one day, a regular phone call and I was going on and on and on and on, motor mouth and all of a sudden I said, "Well, how are you?" And she said "Pregnant." I was so excited, that was so exciting, it was a nice way to hear it. It was just this cute little interchange, and she waited so patiently for me to stop going on and on and on and on.
So anyway that was really nice, but I guess my expectation about being a grandmother was just to have all the fun of childhood and everything without any of the work. Really, I mean, once my kids started talking—they both started really early—to me, it [kept getting better]; it was just wonderful. Every stage was better than the one before. You know there were some bad times, but they pale in comparison to the rest.
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