I just got back from the funeral of a fifty-four-year-old mother who left behind a grieving teenager. His father told how the boy wanted to ask his mother for forgiveness, on her deathbed, for all the stubbornness typical of a seventeen-year-old. He was already forgiven.
Although my parents are much older and I am long past my teenage years, when I heard this father’s words, a possible separation from my parents quickly crossed my mind along with a strong desire to not have wronged them. Fortunately, I still have time to change something and make this remaining time beneficial for both parties.
Grandparents are grandparents, parents are parents
The most frequent moments of tension between me and my parents arose after I became a mother. Every sweet or chocolate Grandpa gave the grandchildren or every extra minute they were left in front of the TV caused me frustration. There were occasions when I scolded my parents for not following my child-rearing methods. I even considered not taking the children to see them until they do as I think is best. By using my concern for the children as an excuse and assuming the responsibility of a mother, I was actually punishing my parents—until I understood.
All that grandparents want is to see their grandchildren happy. Even if, for me, the happiness of my children does not consist in eating sweets, for their grandparents, things are different. Often, for them, there is no balance between now and years from now… Their time is getting shorter, happiness must be seen now. That spark in the grandson’s eyes when he opens the chocolate, and that skip when the TV is about to be turned on are all that matter to them. So, I’ve decided that as long as my children’s lives aren’t in danger, I won’t make a big deal out of an extra piece of chocolate every now and then.
As the children grew older and could speak for themselves, my attention turned to raising them to be responsible. Let them set the boundaries because it’s about them. If the child says he doesn’t eat wafers but is excited when he peels a banana, any grandparent will buy bananas next time. Things now happen between me and my children, not between me and my parents. Grandma doesn’t make them watch TV if they don’t want to. If they choose to play a board game or read something, no one will force them to sit on the couch to watch a series.
When it comes to raising our children, many times as parents we want to set ourselves apart from our parents in terms of discipline and nutrition. We get irritated when our parents say things like: “That’s how we raised you and look at yourself now—you turned out fine!” because we know they can do better than that. However, we only show irritation in certain directions. Instead of focusing on sweets or screen time, I should probably turn my attention to the parenting patterns I’ve inherited and need to change.
How do I act when I get angry? What do I think about my children? What do I think about my role and position as a parent? How good am I at resolving conflicts, at accepting my children, at punishments, or rewards? How do I give them space and time? How do I teach them accountability? What’s behind my excessive desire to clean? How do I set boundaries? How do I know those boundaries are good? How do I know that the way I perceive my children’s obedience is correct?
Too many photos
Although they have adapted to the digital age in which we live and have their phones full of photos and videos of their grandchildren, my parents also keep physical photos everywhere in the house, in all shapes and sizes. Some are mundane, some are “dated”, and there are so many of them—too many for me.
On the walls, on the shelves, on the desk, on the refrigerator, everywhere, there are pictures of their children and grandchildren. On the shelves among them you can see a dictionary from our childhood, a book from college, a magazine in which we wrote an article or in which one of us gave an interview. They are kept so clean and tidy, as if they are the most precious objects in the house.
Looking carefully at them and trying to discover their purpose, I understood. It’s their way of keeping their life around them. It’s their way of telling everyone about the joy of their life. It’s their way of being proud of what they leave behind. And when our children look at them and ask questions, the grandparents—or even us, the parents—tell them another episode of our family’s history and thereby pass on to them values and pieces of identity. So, from time to time, each of us adds a frame to their collection, without any of the old ones disappearing.
“You haven’t called lately…”
For my whole life, my mother and father have been the ones who watch over me, and not the other way around. For decades, I called them mostly when I wanted to ask something, to leave the children with them for a few hours, to ask my mother to cook for me or my father to fix his grandson’s bike—in addition to finding out how they were doing, among other things.
As their powers waned and I didn’t have as many reasons to call them and they didn’t have as many opportunities to feel valued, I needed to become intentional about giving them a call. Even though I thought about and prayed for them every day, the daily whirlwind excused me in my eyes for neglecting them and for not calling them frequently.
The slalom between children, home, work, shopping, and church often made me postpone getting in contact with my parents until the next day. As time goes by—and especially in a time of a pandemic—their interaction with other people has decreased, so their life happens only around their children and grandchildren.
When my mother’s first words are: “You haven’t called lately…”—without reproach in her tone, but only desire—I understand that, although for me it’s only been two days, for them it’s so many minutes that they spent waiting; moments when they feel alone, maybe even abandoned. And, moreover, I understand that by taking care of my parents’ emotional needs, my children will understand from me what respect for parents means.
Visits don’t happen only when I have free time; they’re planned. My kids schedule a weekly video call with their grandparents, and I’m around when they call for a quick hello amid the giggles of their play. Even if the topics of the discussions are repetitive, I have learned to pay attention to details and listen, so that I do not feel like I am wasting time on trifles. I have learned to listen to my mother’s heart and the way she relates to and experiences everything in her life, and thus every discussion becomes relevant to me as well.
It’s no longer about COVID, it’s about her desire to live longer or the fear of dying too soon; it’s no longer about the war, it’s about the fulfilment of time; it’s no longer about not leaving the house when dad is in the hospital, but about the fact that she feels alone and helpless. I no longer keep track of and get annoyed by all the details about what some random person did, but I try to understand her concern or indignation.
Even if sometimes I feel that we are not on the same page or that we do not have the same understanding of how life happens, I need to remind myself that this is not what it is about. Discussions with older parents are no longer necessarily an exchange of opinions about vaccines or politics, but opportunities to listen to each other without feeling judged.
“Take this jar too”
For some years now, the physical distance between me and my parents has been several hundred kilometres (at one point it was thousands). So, the moments when we are together are much rarer than they would like and they end with much bigger packages than I would prefer—at least three kinds of pies, cabbage rolls, cakes or compotes, so that I have something to give to the children when I return home. And there is always that extra jar of jam tucked in the bag, by the door, just as I’m leaving.
If I tell them that I cook too, that the children don’t eat jam, that they made the compote too sweet, the jam jars turn into two or three apples and a sandwich for the road. And then I understand that there is something more beyond the gesture. It’s their resources of time, energy and money, it’s the concern for me, it’s the desire to make my life easier, it’s part of them. Even if I would be relieved if they stopped giving me things, I am convinced that I will miss these moments years from now.
Although they will have the same menu for an entire week, I will direct my children’s attention to the good food that only Grandma can make, praying at each meal for her health and then calling her to say, “Thank you for the meal!” I am aware that every phone call like this will convince her even more that next time there should be even more packages, but this is how I learn to receive with joy what she still has to offer and to be grateful that there is still someone to take care of me in the minutest details.
A mother once told me that her child cannot make as many mistakes as she can forgive. I am convinced that this also applies to my parents. However, I wish I wasn’t guilty of giving them opportunities to feel neglected, or blamed, even in the most subtle way, or placed at the bottom of the priority list.
Although sometimes it is burdensome to divide myself between the duties of mother, wife and daughter, my children receive a model of life by looking at the way I relate to my elderly parents on a daily basis, not only in moments of crisis. Looking at things from this perspective, I take responsibility twice as decisively.
Simona Condrachi is a mother and daughter at the same time and discovers deeper meanings in her parents’ behaviours that she initially considered infuriating. A version of this article first appeared on ST Network, and is republished with permission.