When Mom Becomes Grandma

How motherhood changes your own mother-daughter relationship

When I called my mom to tell her the news, I imagined we would interact like characters in a phone company ad.

Me: I’m pregnant!

Mom: What wonderful news, dear!

As violins swelled, we would bask in the warm glow of mutual motherhood, closer than ever.

In real life, my mom wrote her own script. “I’m not ready to be a grandmother,” she announced. She swore she wouldn’t bore friends with baby snapshots. She offered to help me out but warned, “I’ve forgotten how to take care of babies.”

My friends had similar disappointments. We all had dreamed that getting pregnant would bring instant intimacy with our mothers but discovered it would take work — and time. The transformation in my own mother-daughter relationship began when I was cooing, cuddling and admiring every inch of my new baby boy. Suddenly, it struck me: My mother had probably felt this way once about me! It suddenly seemed ridiculous to hold on to every mistake she had made. As my friend Susan put it, “Raising a kid has made me see how hard it is and how I shouldn’t have been so mad at my mother.”

Cutting Some Slack

Beverly Hills, Calif., clinical psychologist Lynn Dannacher, Ph.D., concurs. “A lot of women begin to cut their parents some slack,” she says. When you have a baby, it’s natural to re-evaluate your own childhood. Of course, not all parents’ ratings go up. “In some cases,” Dannacher says, “new mothers become angrier when they look back at their mothers’ decisions.” She suggests that you set aside feelings of having been inadequately raised. But if those feelings begin to interfere with your role as a mom or daughter, try discussing them with your mother. If that doesn’t work, consider a few sessions with a therapist.

Sometimes the problem lies in the present, not the past. Child rearing has changed in recent decades, and your mother probably hasn’t kept up. She may be appalled by natural childbirth, disapprove of how long you breastfeed or say that you’re spoiling the baby if you pick her up when she cries.

Guiding Grandma

Dannacher recommends pre-empting unwanted advice by making your boundaries clear. “You can tell your mother something like, ‘I’m looking forward to being a mom, but I appreciate your years of experience. Can I come to you when I want help?’ It shows respect but also sets limits.”

“Think about what you want,” Dannacher says. Is your mom the right person to accompany you on doctor visits? Shopping for baby furniture? Would you like her to be there as soon as you come home from the hospital, or would you prefer to have some time alone with your baby beforehand? Your mother may need guidance from you; after all, this is a big change in her life, too.

My mom, despite her protests, quickly got used to being a grandmother. She remembered how to take care of babies, and now she shares with her friends all the cute things her grandson says. I’m finding that it’s a pleasure to share his life with her, because she’s someone who understands being a mother.