What Big Teeth You Have, Grandmother…

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There’s a dark narrative that runs through women’s mothering stories, and it tells of the wolfish granny. She might sound like a figure from a fairy tale, but women in the mothers’ groups I’ve run in Ethiopia, Central Asia and the UK have told me that she’s alive and well. Among the kind, supportive, wise and wonderful grannies I hear of, there are older women who seem to want to take over the baby, or who are competitive with the new mother, dispensing advice and disapproving looks instead of support. This takes a big toll on relationships and mental well-being.

Grandmotherly experience can be incredibly valuable, life-enhancing, time and sanity saving. Most grandmothers love their grandchildren, so why should some grannies’ comments grate so much? I think the culprit is advice: just as “friendship will not stand the strain of very much good advice for very long,” so too unwanted advice can strain family relationships, particularly in the early days of motherhood.

In those first days after birth, even the most well-intentioned Granny can make a new mum snarl if she doesn’t rein in her advice. In Western culture, Granny often comes to stay when the baby is born, stepping into her daughter’s newly established territory and regressing both back to roles, which, with the arrival of baby, are now outdated. Paradoxically, women are at their most vulnerable and their most powerful when they have just had a baby. Vulnerable because it’s all new and they are swirling with protective hormones, because they hurt and leak, they are exhausted and nothing will ever be the same. But powerful, too, as they move into the role of mother and decision maker. If they listen to their bodies, they begin to know what is best for their baby, even if they don’t yet know it intellectually. The status quo has changed.

However, if becoming a mother is the steepest learning curve that any woman will experience, grandmothers have some hard adapting to do too. These days, the birth of a grandchild can be a reminder to the older woman that she is moving into late middle age, loss of fertility and, maybe, influence. So while hormones and tiredness make comments from Granny sting, a new mother’s rebuttal of Grandmother can be wounding too. And that’s when insecure grannies or grannies unwilling to relinquish the ‘mother’ role may respond with ego-salvaging, wolfish traits. These often take the form of unsolicited advice, advice which can feel like an attempt to ‘take over’.

Unfortunately, choices about how to feed the baby often become the focal point for all the myriad of ways that mothers define themselves against or alongside the experiences of their upbringing. Choosing to do things differently can be read as personal criticism, in which Granny may sense comparison.  In the UK, the current generation of grannies were very unlikely to have breastfed, since breastfeeding rates in the 70’s and 80’s were so execrably low; in British culture, then, it might come as a shock that some daughters are even considering breastfeeding.

“My mother in law wanted to have my new baby stay over for the night; when I explained that wouldn’t be possible as she was too young, and anyway, I was breastfeeding, she shouted, “But no one in this family has ever breastfed!” (Scottish mother)

When a wolfish granny seems to be making a takeover bid for baby, some mothers feel so threatened that they flee, picking up their offspring and getting out. Because they can, Western women often block ears, screen phone calls and retreat to the independence of the nuclear family.  Some work out lines that placate or deter intrusive grannies: “Well, it works for us!” and “I expect we’ll figure it out, in our OWN way.” Others use sarcasm. When asked how long she planned to breastfeed by her mother-in-law, one mother quipped, “Well, I expect I’ll have him weaned before he goes to university!”

In traditional cultures, though, the mother probably doesn’t have the option to avoid her in-laws. She will often be living in her mother-in-law’s house, under her roof, and is expected to abide by her rules. In Central Asia, where I currently live, it’s common for the grandparents to even choose the baby’s name.  Here, mother-in-law grannies can have especially sharp teeth; not only are they sometimes virtual strangers, but women feel that Granny’s automatic allegiance is to her own child. Tradition, too, may be valued more highly than the preferences of the mother.

“My mother-in-law wanted to be the first to swaddle the baby into his bishik (traditional cot) as traditional demands. I told her I was not going to uphold that custom. It was ages before she would speak to me.” (Central Asian Mother)

The world over, well-meaning but outdated advice can be especially undermining.

“My mom gave awful advice (if you don’t feed formula after breastfeeding you’ll starve the baby, etc). She repeated what the doctor told her about everything. She advised out of love and concern.” North American Mother.

In London, on a home visit to a new mother, one eager Irish Granny asked me if she should go and get a rough cloth and a bottle of whisky, to ‘toughen up her daughter’s nipples’. It was what her mother had done to her.

Of course, the experience, tips and tricks of a granny who has ‘been- there, done-that’ can be an absolute life-saver. But it’s worth remembering that experience can be very personal; the body, attitude, knowledge-base and environment of the ‘advisee’ can be very different. Acknowledging this preserves the new mother’s own integrity. Ignoring this takes away her autonomy and her right to choose her own way. It takes self-awareness to hold back on advice; older women who bravely take responsibility for their own histories, be they proud, angry, sad or jubilant, who ‘own’ their own stories, aren’t usually so greedy to write another’s for them by giving it. On the other hand, unconscious mothering baggage and unfinished business can leak out in damaging ways.

“Whenever I fed him she just stared at my breasts and I could feel the envy and guilt because she didn’t breastfeed and the guilt came through in unsolicited advice, to help her justify the choices she made.” (Austrian mother)

It’s no wonder that some daughters give up breastfeeding earlier than they’d like so as not to ‘embarrass’ their mothers with comparison.

In hierarchical societies, where mothers expect to receive advice from elders, they may be more primed to accept it. In the West, with our flatter social structure, when grannies give un-asked for advice, it doesn’t feel respectful. Sharing up to date information and even well-examined experience can forge bonds, but advice, (“you should”, “you ought”) feels like a block to intimacy. New mothers often accept it for the sake of the relationship, but it can damage bonds between mother, baby, father and grandmother.

When mothers and daughters are both able to communicate about their choices and differences, it can be an affirming experience though:

“My mother has been very supportive of breastfeeding and I feel that it has brought her closer to me. She’s a big believer in routine and I am not, but we both respect each other’s different approaches and we both strongly agree that it is a wonderful gift to be able to provide for your own children.” (Scottish mother)

Without the ability to talk about mothering, much wisdom, learning and the potential for intimacy between the generations is lost. If we’re honest, we must admit that it’s not just grannies who give advice. We’re all guilty at times of packaging up our experience and doling it out to others.

As Mary Schmich of the Chicago Tribune perceptively noted:perceptively noted:

 “Advice is a form of nostalgia, dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it’s worth.”

So, if advice-giving is the villain, could a subtle shift of language be key to flattening the hierarchies between mothers and daughters, soothing the tensions and generating mutual respect? There’s no time like the present to start practicing better ways of communication and to take unwanted advice-giving out of the lexicon of mothering. I vow to monitor my ‘shoulds’ and ‘shouldn’ts’. I’m going to try to ditch my ‘oughts’ and ‘have to’s’. I think my daughters will thank me for it.

(Also published at Womenshealthtoday.blog June 2017)

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