My mother loves her grandkids with gusto, and spends time and money on them accordingly. When she comes from Canada to visit us for a few weeks in California, she enlivens our house with her fun, quirky presence. But when she’s here, I admit to feeling discomfort — OK, resentment — over her refusal to set aside her own agenda.
I love my mom. And while she has many good qualities, like a willingness to make messes — and sometimes even clean them up — and her enthusiasm for helping my kids learn about their world, I often wondered why she wouldn’t just readily go along with whatever the kids or I needed.
Typically, when she’s visited, I’ve counted on her help so I could make dinner, or steal an hour’s writing time. And then I’d feel frustrated when she’d be out and about — in my car — searching for the perfect eyeliner or back massager. In other words, doing what she wanted. For hours.
I never vented to her face about it. But I’d make snide comments to my husband about her, and I’d not-so-secretly wish that my mom could be a little more like a textbook Jewish grandma: a little more self-sacrificing, a little less independent. A little more like his mom, who readily makes herself available for babysitting and laundry-folding.
But a recent trip to the San Diego Zoo changed all that.
It was Mom’s idea to go to the zoo. It was her first visit, though my kids and I have been there dozens of times. It’s just 10 minutes from our house, and we hold annual passes in order to drop in when the weather’s right, or whenever it’s not too crowded.
The zoo is a delightful place — but it’s also an exhausting one to traverse with an 8-year-old and a 5-year-old. After the cheetahs and the aerial tram — my kids’ favorite attractions — they’re mostly interested in going to the playground and wheedling me for ice cream. We hardly ever stay for more than a couple of hours.
But since Mom was in town, and she had to pay full-price for her ticket, we stayed longer than usual. A lot longer. By 4 p.m., I was more than ready to shower and sit by the fan with a gin and tonic. But Mom wasn’t done.
“I want to take the bus tour before we leave,” she announced. “I haven’t seen half of this place.”
“I know, Mom. No one sees it all in one visit. It’s huge!”
“But what about the Giant Pandas?”
I shook my head, annoyed. It was a scorching day. The line for the Giant Pandas was an hour long. I sensed the kids were a minute away from a meltdown. And did I mention the gin and tonic?
Again, I found myself wondering why my mom couldn’t be more like my mother-in-law. She would never suggest we go out of our way to do something just for her. She would never make waves like that. She doesn’t like to ask for what she wants.
And that’s when it hit me: My mom lives a bit like I want to — as an adult human with responsibilities and attachments who also gives enough of a damn about her own desires to speak up for them.
I took a deep breath. “I have to get the kids and myself home,” I told her. “But why don’t you stay and take your time? Call me when you’re ready and I’ll get a Lyft for you.”
She agreed, and sent us off with ice cream and hugs. And that’s all it took. Instead of fighting my mom’s nature or feeling put out for the rest of the day, I did what I needed to do, and let her do what she wanted.
And I realized, believe it or not, that I may have a thing or two to learn from my mom. Recently, I’ve been trying to recover myself as a person with interests and ambitions — something I may have lost sight of since having kids. My two were born with intense needs and personalities, and the way I chose to parent them — co-sleeping and working part-time so that their days in other people’s care were minimized — upped that intensity. And while I don’t regret it per se, I wish that I hadn’t buried so many of my own aspirations (career and otherwise) over the last decade.
So once the kids and I were home from the zoo, I curbed my knee-jerk reaction to complain about my mom: “She is still at the zoo. Alone.” I could have slipped down the same narrative slope about how my mother is a little too much in her own world, a little bit, well, selfish. But I stopped short.
Yes, my mother wants things, and often at inconvenient times. But why do the terms “mother” and “grandmother” necessarily include the catchphrase, “Oh, don’t worry about me?” Why do we expect mothers and grandmothers to sacrifice what they want time and again?
I realized that my mom, flawed as she is, is a role model. And, flawed as I am, I can become a similar kind of role model for my own children.
“Is Grandma still at the zoo?” my son asked over dinner that evening, with bedtime fast approaching. “By herself?”
“Yes, Grandma is still at the zoo,” I replied, and I didn’t roll my eyes. “I hope she’s enjoying herself.”
And this time, I actually meant it.