The tech’s first words, “Are you going to help take care of him?” are not the first words I hear from my raised-in-California friends. It is what I’m asking myself: when, how and how much? The tech’s accent tells me she’s an immigrant, and her implied understanding—my daughter’s baby is also my responsibility—fits with norms I hear from my friends born in Japan, China and India.
“My mother assumed I’d want her help,” explained a friend when I told her I waited to hear whether my daughter Jenny wanted help. For both this young Taiwanese woman and her mother, no question about grandma’s presence after birth. She stayed the usual duration I hear from Asians: one month. The help of Grandmother is deemed so essential that often I’ve heard of Asian women going back to their homeland to give birth so that their mothers can help. The husband remains here working.
Before my grandson popped out, my daughter asked of me a week’s stay. Of course! But the one-week hospital-stay their son required schooled the new parents in baby care and altered the timing of their return home. Both these changes make my staying with them less essential and less convenient and so instead I’m taking short trips; today is my third.
I’m still questioning myself, and her, about when to help. To try to understand Jenny, I reflect on how I felt as a new mother—a way to prepare myself. For me, a two-hour visit from my own mother after birth was enough; overnight would have been impossible.
I could only manage short doses of Mother’s presence because she was quick with advice, often ill-fitted. “Don’t waste money on diaper wipes—use wet tissue!” Now I wonder if my desire to limit our time together was as much my fault as hers. I know now—not then—that childhood anger lingered in my unconscious, partnered with fierce independence (call it pride?). I was prickly and irritable.
The relationships my Asian friends have with their mothers sound different, but I admit I’m not there to see. A gentle, helpful presence seems common in the first month’s stay: no advising or criticizing, but silently demonstrating how to swaddle, burp or soothe an infant or cooking and cleaning for them. That nurturing support is what I experienced from my Korean-American mother-in-law, Bessie, who flew here after each of my two daughters’ births.
During the months she spent under our roof, I recall only two soft-spoken suggestions: to swaddle the baby and introduce her to a love object, a “blankie,” a small, soft flannel blanket. I welcomed her words. On the afternoon I left her home with Baby while I shopped, I returned home to a hungry Jenny who’d cried inconsolably in her arms. Bessie imparted no blame. Topping that, her helpfulness with chores amazed me. One day I found her handpicking our carpet clean, on hands and knees.
While Mother moving in a for a month is the rule for the Asians I know, it’s more the exception among my friends of northern European ancestry. A blond-haired friend last night told me of her mother’s wonderfully supportive presence after birth, but the duration was one week–not a month. Why? Perhaps many grandmoms assume the freshly-formed family unit would find a longer visit stressful– not enough privacy and too much input from grandma. Perhaps the thought is, “I did this on my own after a week. You can too.” After all, if a woman has never received this kind of prolonged help from her own mother nor seen it practiced around her, it’s not a norm and can be difficult to give.
Perhaps it’s also because, these days anyway, American husbands are expected to fill in where grandmothers can’t. I hear more companies are allowing generous time off for fathers. A Stanford University researcher I know is taking a proffered six weeks of paternity leave. Good changes from twenty-five years ago, when my HP-engineer husband felt the need to return to work ten days after I gave birth.
Across the Pacific, it’s different. Surprisingly, in Japan a mother can receive a lengthy maternity leave. The government recommends three years, but whether that’s actually given is up to the individual company. One female employee of a Japanese medical technology company received three years’ unpaid maternity leave—with a promise to receive her job back. As for Japanese fathers, their wives laugh at the idea of them taking time off from work to help after a baby’s birth. They say the reason is both cultural and business related, but many wish for change.
And so I ponder my role. Given all the variables, precisely what is good in this particular situation? The father is there, eager to help. Our grand-baby is an hour away over a winding mountain road, a route clogged with commuters and beach-goers at key times; plus I have part-time work here and anticipate I couldn’t sleep well in their apartment. Yet I keep remembering my mother-in-law’s gracious gifts of time and work, along with others’ examples. Inspired, I want to help a lot, not merely in these weeks soon after birth, but when my daughter returns to her graduate studies.
Older women frequently tell me that grand-parenting is such fun. True, but there’s more. Wise grand-parenting calls for reflection. Generous grand-parenting requires listening for when and how to help.