‘When I was your age’: Getting to the heart of grandparent guilt

I recognize the difficulties of holding down the fort alone when my daughter's husband is in the reserves. Then why make her feel bad by saying how things are easier for her than they were for us?

The i2/4 BABY button system has been okayed by the Transport Ministry (photo credit: SHUTTERSTOCK AND KAFTOR)
The i2/4 BABY button system has been okayed by the Transport Ministry

Ever since the dawn of civilization, parents have quashed their kids’ complaints by saying that things were much more difficult when they – the parents – were youngsters.

Some caveman dad surely admonished his cave-offspring to stop complaining about the cold, because when he was their age, fire wasn’t even invented yet: “You think this is cold? That was cold.”

The modern version of this goes: “When I was your age, I had to walk to school, in the snow, without shoes, uphill both ways.”

For immigrants to this country with Sabra children, the line is: “You think you have it rough, when we came here, we had nobody. Nobody. What do you think that was like?”

The Wife and I have resorted to that line many times, and even more frequently now that two of our children have small kids and tell us how difficult it is sometimes, how exhausted they are, and how they are dying for just a couple of hours off.

They aren’t complaining – my kids aren’t complainers – just venting. No matter, I seize the opening.

“Imagine having to deal with the kids all the time, whether you’re sick or healthy, without any family around to help, without a Saba or Savta around, without aunts and uncles, without any possibility of respite. All by yourselves. Think about that. Now that was tough.”

“We know, Abba,” comes the automatic reply. “We’ve heard it a million times.”

But, apparently, not enough, because my daughter – the mother of our four-month-old granddaughter – had the temerity a while back to vent about her husband having to go into the army reserves (miluim) for two weeks. As a result, The Lass informed us that she and her baby will be moving in with us during that time.

“Two weeks,” I scoffed at the length of her husband’s stint in the reserves. “That’s miluim? I used to go in for a month at a time, and that was before there were cell phones, when there was only one working phone on the base, when I barely spoke Hebrew, and with no one to help your mother who was pregnant while mothering three little kids, two of whom had chicken pox. Now that was tough.

“I know, Abba, I’ve heard it a million times.”

I’M NOT exactly sure why I told my daughter this. I love my daughter immensely, realize that it’s not easy having a newborn, and do recognize the difficulties of holding down the fort alone when the husband is in the reserves. Then why make her feel bad by saying how much easier things are for her than they were for us?

Why? Just because. To keep her honest. To magnify our feat of aliyah in her eyes. To provide perspective.

Also, because that’s what family members, or at least our family members, do: make each other feel guilty. My folks did it to me, I do it to my kids, my kids do it to one another, and – I’m sure – they will do it to their children.

How am I so sure? Because my daughter has already honed the skill. More than once while she stayed with us during her husband’s reserve duty, she said loudly to her baby so I could hear: “Don’t worry, Saba loves you, even if he isn’t paying attention to you.”

I chuckled when I heard that for two reasons. First, because I realized that I had taught my daughter well. Second, because of the utter absurdity of the comment. Not paying enough attention? I’m letting y’all live in my house for two weeks, holding the tyke when she cries, feeding her a bottle from time to time – that enough attention for you?

DON’T MISUNDERSTAND, I loved it, at least most of it. It was a delight to hear the cooing of an infant again, to get her to smile, to see her move her legs and stretch her little limbs. I felt that my daughter, by staying with us, was doing me more of a favor than I was doing her and secretly hoped her husband would go to miluim more often.

But where I come from, the United States of America, this degree of grandparent involvement is not necessarily a given. In Israel, it is – which is one of the beauties of the country.

Here, a daughter gives birth, and the norm is that she goes to live with her mother for a couple of weeks. A son-in-law goes into the army leaving a wife and infant baby? They move in with her parents. That’s just the way it is. Grandparents here seem to be much more hands-on than grandparents in the States, or at least grandparents in the area and milieu where I grew up in the ’70s.

I grew up with only one set of grandparents, the other set having been killed in the Holocaust. And the set of grandparents I did have lived on the other side of town, and were busy running their business empire: Keinon Tailors and Cleaner. Not an empire, exactly – just one small store, but they worked in it day and night. I never remember sleeping overnight at their house. I’d see them on the holidays and every few weeks on Sundays before The Ed Sullivan Show came on.

And my experience was not unique. A friend said that his wife was in graduate school when she had their first kid, and they needed someone to watch their child on Wednesday afternoons. When they asked his mother if she would do it, she replied: “I’d rather go to the matinée.”

Here, the culture is different. Here, society’s expectations are different. Here, that reply wouldn’t cut it. Here, it would be expected for the mother to step up and pitch in, even offer to babysit both on Wednesdays and Thursdays. If not, she would feel guilty.

And if she would not feel guilty on her own, then – at least in my house – her kid would channel a trait she learned from her father and make very certain that she did.