My heart skipped a beat when my daughter asked me to accompany her on a work trip to the States to look after her 28-month-old daughter.
“Of course I will!” was my enthusiastic response. What a thrill to be able to spend so much time with just my daughter and granddaughter! After the week-long conference near Boston, there would also be a meeting with a colleague in Ontario that would be combined with a three-day visit with our Toronto-based family.
But I did have my reservations—would I have the energy required for the daily care and entertainment of a toddler? Would the arthritis in my knees prove to be a serious impediment to my functioning? Coming from Israel, how would we handle the jet-lag? Would my daughter and I, not without our differences and conflicts, be at logger-heads the entire time, or would we find joy and peace in our relationship?
Luckily, none of these apprehensions stopped me from going ahead with the plan.
While in Massachusetts, we stayed in a dormitory suite (four rooms and a bath) at Mount Holyoke College, and all meals were offered in the dining hall at the campus hotel. Our first day began with breakfast together, but once my daughter had to leave for her work commitments, separation was not easy for my granddaughter. We all met again for dinner in the early evening in the dining hall, after which separation was even more dramatic as my daughter had to go to her evening session. Crying and clinging to her mother, my granddaughter insisted, “Mommy no work!” My daughter would not go until my granddaughter would let her part calmly; this naturally took some time.
Clearly the toddler wasn’t the only one having a hard time. Not surprisingly, my daughter felt torn between her professional need to devote as much time as she could forging the collegial relationships that are important for her career development and the sense of guilt, thinking that she should be spending more time with her little girl (and maybe me?). By the second day, she began to wonder if the whole trip was a mistake—she was finding it difficult to concentrate on the material and to interact with her peers.
And I, as mother of the mother, wondered what I could do to help my daughter salvage the week and make use of the opportunities it presented to her. Having had no help raising my own children, I was determined that my daughter would have the freedom to develop her career knowing that her daughter is well looked after and happy.
That evening, with four more days ahead of us, I spoke with my daughter in a decisive yet hopefully tender tone. I told her that, while we would go with her for breakfast, I would leave with my granddaughter soon afterward so that she could then begin her professional day with colleagues over a more leisurely cup of coffee. I added that she should not expect us for dinner; instead we would pick up a picnic box from the dining hall and sit somewhere along the river that rushed through campus, where neither she nor my granddaughter would see each other. This would make it easier for my daughter to stay out until after she had exhausted the day’s offerings.
She valiantly accepted this arrangement and set her daughter free to my total care.
The next morning, separation at breakfast was still not without some stress, but my granddaughter and I had things to do (such as visit the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, the Holyoke Children’s Museum, McCray’s Farm and Ice Cream Parlour, and of couse, to buy new shoes and toys at the mall).
On the fourth day, as we passed by the conference building on our way to the dining hall, my granddaughter pointed to the building and said aloud with a smile in her voice, “Mommy at work.” And for the first time, she did not start running up to the building entrance but happily proceeded to collect our picnic dinner. By now, what concerned her most was whether there was chocolate cake or ice cream for dessert (and don’t think we didn’t pack the ice cream in that cardboard picnic box even in the heat of summer)!
On our way back to the airport for the Toronto leg of our journey, and all the way home back to Israel three days later, my daughter kept talking about how much her little girl had seemed to mature and grow taller over the week in the U.S. Only when others back home remarked about how she had changed did it become clear what an important milestone it was for my daughter to have allowed a little bit of space into their naturally symbiotic relationship.
As for me, a mother of adult daughters, I know that the challenge of finding a balance between involvement and independence will reappear periodically throughout life. And believe me, I’m still working on it, too.