Oonagh Roy reports on the shifting patterns of family relations

It seems a strange irony that, when faced with the overwhelming evidence of the inadequacy of their own child rearing, ie YOU, your own parents retain a dogged belief that only they know how to produce a well rounded and useful member of the human race – and one that lives beyond its first year. And so, with the birth of the first grandchild, comes the birth of the first grandparent.

Firstly, be prepared to accept a lot of advice. ‘That child is cold’ said my Mum, astoundingly arriving at this conclusion despite the fact that 3000 miles and the Atlantic Ocean separated us. ‘I can hear it in her breathing’ she persevered.

“Actually that’s the TV,” I said.

“If you have the TV on how can you tell if her breathing is OK?” countered mum. Strange that the onset of my rapid breathing didn’t alert her to the fact that her own child was verging on meltdown.

There is no doubt that pregnancy, birth and the aftermath mean you gain a greater appreciation for everything your parents have done for you and better understanding of the parental choices they made. You also have to quickly accept that when it comes to grandchildren, grandmother is convinced she knows best.

While incubating first grandchild I was enveloped in a glow of parental love, care and protection. From my fluffy gestating cocoon I could make all kinds of unreasonable demands for, luxury food, extensive naps and the latest issues of Marie Claire.

Post partum got a whole lot tougher. On the walk from hospital ward to car my husband proudly bore our newborn babe in her spanking new car seat and my mum raced ahead of him to ensure safe passage. Strangers were politely requested to remove themselves from baby’s flightpath. Coughing in baby’s vicinity was deemed unacceptable and open breathing discouraged.

Meanwhile, virtually comatose after an 18-hour labour and with stitches pulling in all kinds of unpleasant places, I limped at least 10 metres behind this cavalcade. When my husband, mum and newborn babe disappeared out of the hospital’s revolving door I began to worry they might go home without me.

It was probably my breast milk that saved me from total abandonment. This brings me on to another shocking discovery. You no longer own your own body and previously taboo subjects are open to all.

Suddenly my prudish mum discovers a love for discussing bodily functions. To clarify, this is a woman who still refers to couples that are shagging, but not committing to each other, as ‘courting’. But suddenly leaky bladders, vaginal tears and anal fissure are all up for grabs over a family Sunday lunch.

“Isn’t it lovely we can talk about nipples and things now,” said Victorian-era mother to my husband, as they examined the instructions for my manual breast pump. “Ooh I think it grabs it and gives it a good squeeze. It’s a bit like milking a cow really isn’t it.” Husband just looked a bit sick.

Despite this I was very thankful for the help the new grandparents offered in the early weeks. My mum was brilliant for our morale – helping with hot meals and housework, and latterly looking after the older children while I tended to the newborn. Always happy to change a nappy, she answered the door and the telephone, managed guests and let me sleep.

Not everyone gets so lucky. I know one new mum who just days after bringing baby home had a visit from the mother of all mothers-in-law. This woman arrived, poured herself a large glass of crisp white wine and only paused in her perusal of Hello magazine to ask if anyone else thought it a good idea to stop toddler B from starting up the garden hedge trimmer.

She went on to demand her meal re-cooked with gluten free pasta, dispatched the husband to the off licence for “a properly chilled bottle of Pinot Grigio,” while running her finger along the dust on the mantelpiece.

Another friend, returning from hospital following a Caesarean section, recollected having to beg her mum to buy some fish fingers to feed three hungry children. A longer stay in hospital had resulted in a fridge run bare. This grandmother said her weekly hair appointment meant that she didn’t have the time to make the 30-second journey across the street to the corner shop, upped and left.

As the months and years roll on, the thing you can depend upon is that grandparents will keep you abreast of the areas of parenting where you are still coming up short. This can span the spectrum of academic, behavioural, sociological and physiological problems, but can also focus on single issues.

I have heard of one grandmother who decided the delectable blonde curls of her three-year-old grandchild were interfering with his ability to run long distance. Against the mother’s express wishes, the next time Granny was babysitting she hot-footed it to the hairdressers and got the cherub’s barnet shorn. It has taken over 24 months of mediation for this particular mother/daughter combo to be talking again.

This is a salient reminder of the need for you to establish the boundaries of what YOU want for YOUR child. Even then expect suggestions for better parenting. In the midst of a four-week blitz of chickenpox, cellular occulitis, winter vomiting and diarrhea my mother decided was the perfect moment to gift me ‘How To Feed Your Children Healthy Meals’, alternately titled, ‘Stop Feeding Your Kids Crap-You Imbecile’.

“I knew you’d look at me like that”, said mum as I took the book while shoving her out the door. Note, I did take the book. Well it can’t hurt and sometimes, maybe occasionally, mother – that is grandmother – does know best.

Tips for Grandparents

Helpful
• Enabling new parents to bag some sleep
• Changing nappies
• Cooking meals
• Knowing when to leave
• Getting rid of visitors who have outstayed their welcome

Not Helpful
• Touching / peering closely at boobs
• Input on contraceptive plans
• Giving children Kit Kats for breakfast
• Any suggestion that newborn’s name is not entirely perfect