It happened to me, nearly 18 years ago. I became a grandmother, and then within two weeks, my husband and I had the feeling we were grandparents that would most likely be acting as parents. It happens more often than most people realize. As I write this article, my grandson is preparing to graduate from high school, and his brother makes ready to enter high school.
At the time of his birth, I was a direct entry lay mid-wife in the great state of Texas. Although, I wasn’t the primary midwife, I did attend the birth, and caught my first grandchild with this grandson. Labor was swift, she delivered within about 7 hours, and we left the freestanding birth center within the allotted 6 hours (after all she was coming home with a midwife). She was awkward holding the baby, and feeding him, and she insisted during those first few weeks on breastfeeding him. I thought for sure, with a conviction like that, she would grow into her role.
I never, at any time, wanted to usurp my daughter’s role as mother. I think I always hoped that she would evolve, grow and progress into the role of mother. Initially, I thought she just needed a little help—after all, she was the daughter than never played with dolls, never pretended to be a domestic diva. No she tromped through the woods as a tiger, a gazelle, a neighing horse. I would be her guide, or so I thought.
By the end of 3 weeks, she had weaned him, and wanted to return to work, and move back to the city. We lived outside of Houston. Her career choice was that of an exotic dancer. The fourth time she called me to come get the baby, when he was just under 3 months old, in the middle of the night it was evident that the baby needed me to parent. It was not about my daughter anymore. I brought him home, he lived with us, and she visited him, at our place.
I think honesty is the best policy. Even though I had him, I was Grandma Debi, my husband Papaw Greg, and my daughters still living at home we referred to as the Aunts. As I look back, I wonder what would have been the harm in letting him call me Mom. I say this because I have lived this life, and there were some things I wasn’t prepared for.
Most adults don’t ask why your grandchildren live with you. They know there is a reason, and that at some point it will emerge. But other children do ask. They ask in hundreds of ways. Like when I went to lunch with him in kindergarten, and a little girl said, “This is your grandma?”
“Where’s your mom?”
“She’s in Houston.”
“Don’t you live with your Mom?” Another child interjected, “Doesn’t your mom like you?”
“Hey,” I quipped, “Some kids like living with their grandma and grandpa.” I helped him navigate the questions. Then I wondered what it must be like when I wasn’t with him. I am young enough that I look like the mom. When he was in second grade, and we had moved, he asked if he could just call me mom. By then, he had a brother who had come to live with us when he was 5 months old.
“Well, sometimes your mom comes to visit, and she would think I was telling a lie.” He nodded his head, and we moved on. I think I could have said yes, if that is what you want to call me.
My daughter, their mother, died two years ago. By then she was off and away, in Puerto Rico. As I sat out on the porch swing quietly weeping after receiving the news, her younger son came out and sat with me. He put his 12 year-old arm around my shoulder and said, “I know this sounds bad, but I have never worried about her. I am worried about you. You are my mother, and you love all your babies. This is hurting you.”
I hugged him, nodded my head, unable to speak. Then he said, “Gran’ma, I know this sounds really bad, but, now when people ask me why I don’t live with my mom, I can say she’s dead. That will stop the questions.” I looked at him, tears welling up in my eyes, but tears were in his eyes, too. The heartstrings pull just as hard, and they are just as strong—when you are a Grand- Mother.