When my oldest son was 2, I got a "compliment" from my mother that still stings. We were visiting my parents, and I was sitting on the carpet in my old room reading to him, trying to get him down for a nap.
My mother walked in and snapped, "Well, aren't you a good mother." The comment wasn't approving but filled with something acidic. "Why don't you just put him down and leave him?" she said. "Let him cry. It's okay."
I didn't say anything then, but I figured that she must have felt jealous in some way. My mother raised six kids -- very well -- but she didn't have the time to indulge in such pleasures as reading at naptime.
Recently, however, we talked about the incident, and she told me that she'd been concerned that I was trying to do too much for my kids (I had a 4-month-old, too). "I hated to see you run ragged, trying to be this perfect mother," she told me. "You're still my daughter. I can't help but worry about you."
I feel better knowing that her outburst was fueled by concern rather than by bitterness. But it struck me that there's much about our own parents we misinterpret as we raise our children.
Like many moms, I'm keenly sensitive to what I perceive as criticism of my parenting skills -- especially from the two people I've spent a lifetime trying to please. The whole generational relationship is complicated because many grandparents are hesitant to "interfere," which can leave you filling in the blanks. "Parenting issues are a no-fly zone with me, unless either of my daughters raises a concern or question," says Sheila Kowal, a grandmother of three from Denver.
But understanding how your parents and in-laws really feel about their role in your family can help life run more smoothly. Here, what many grandparents wish (but may not be able to admit) their own children knew:
"We need an adjustment period, too"
Just as becoming a mom changes you in infinite ways, grandparents also morph into new beings upon the birth of your child. One of the main things they have to adapt to is realizing they're no longer in charge. (The transition may be hardest for grandfathers, since many of them weren't as involved as dads are now.)
"A new baby notches everyone into a different generation with different role models and boundary systems," says Arthur Kornhaber, M.D., author of The Grandparent Solution. "The reflex for grandparents is to treat the parent as the older sibling of the new child."
The best way to get through this period is to talk to your parents or in-laws about their feelings before the baby is born. Then allow them time to get with your program (and to get used to the idea that it is your program).
When Doris Cox of Blanco, Texas, sees her grandchildren at different stages, she would love to reminisce about raising her own kids, but dares not. "It's very easy to take what I say as, 'How we did it was the right way.' But the reasons I want to share are partly family history and mostly wanting my kids to know who I am," she says.
Many of us are more than a little insecure about what we're doing, and our relationship with our own parents may make us vulnerable to perceived slights. Especially if we're still fighting the same control battles that we had with our parents when we were teenagers. So if you get very huffy, make sure your thin skin isn't contributing to the problem. Take a deep breath and express your appreciation for their input. Then you can suggest (nicely!) that you have things under control.
Giving instructions on how to treat your kids can put you on thin ice when it comes to intergenerational relations. My mother still smarts over the comment one of my brothers once made when he and his wife were leaving their three children with her. "Now, Mom," he said, "no confrontations with the kids."
My mother, who isn't afraid to discipline her grandchildren, felt it implied that she was needlessly assertive. Besides, she was bruised to think she needed any direction at all in the child-rearing arena.
While it must be clear that you're in charge, it's best not to be unrealistic in your expectations. "You can sit down together and discuss the basics and rules," says Dr. Kornhaber. "Then you need to give your parents twenty percent wiggle room."
Often you can find a way to convey your intentions in a manner that isn't dismissive. My sister reports that she says, "This is what I do before Rachel goes to bed. This is what I do if she wakes up in the middle of the night." That way she's not giving our parents commands.
Shelly Keith of Cypress Mill, Texas, used to get frustrated when her in-laws did something against her principles -- say, serving canned vegetables instead of fresh -- but she's learned to be less rigid. "If I pay a babysitter, I expect her to do what I want," says the mom of three. "But I expect my mother-in-law to get my kids' needs met to her standards. If she gets them met to mine, that's a bonus."
"Just ask us to pitch in"
My mother-in-law is ideal in many ways. She's circumspect about infringing on our time and never serves advice with the lemon cream pie she makes us. But because my own mother is so, shall we say, forthcoming, I wasn't sure what to think at first. Was my mother-in-law really that interested in her grandchildren?
I now know that she eagerly wants to be involved in their lives. "My own mother-in-law was very critical of me," she recently told me. "And I promised long ago that I was going to be a good mother-in-law." For her, that means sitting back and waiting for an invitation to jump in.
Many grandparents can be categorized as "Help When Asked" types, according to Don Schmitz, author of The New Face of Grandparenting. "Grandparents tend to believe that if they're not sure how to help, they are better off not being involved," he says. "When you ask them to lend a hand, their role is clearer and they don't feel as if they're interfering."
So if you're feeling overburdened, be specific when you ask your parents and in-laws for help. Giving them the chance to pitch in (or even turn you down) is a lot better than trying to guess what's on their minds.
Most grandparents also like to be asked for something else: their thoughts on child rearing. But many grown kids hesitate to do so. They're afraid that they're laying themselves open for a sock to the gut or simply feel their parents' experience doesn't apply today.
"I rarely ask for advice from my mother," says Jane Lee, a mom of one in San Leandro, California. "I'm Korean-American, and she grew up in Korea. I do carry on some traditions, but it's a different world now. Plus, I'm a working mom and she wasn't. A lot of things I'm dealing with she never had to."
But by not comparing notes, you may be missing out on a font of acquired wisdom and insight. "You can ask in a more general way, 'What did people do about this when you were raising kids?'" says Dr. Kornhaber. This type of question doesn't mean you have to do it their way, but it will bolster your relationship: Grandparents will feel that you appreciate their hard-won experience.
"Don't sweat the small stuff"
Your mom and mother-in-law have seen the whole process, from diapers to diplomas, and may know that some of the concerns that make us break out in a cold fret -- such as a child not learning to read as quickly as his friends -- don't necessarily make or break the child.
"I've learned over the years that you need to let the little things slide," says Ruth Thomas of Greenwood, South Carolina, a grandmother of nine. "I wish my four kids could learn that." Or, she adds, at least pay attention to what she thinks is a five-alarm problem -- say, having good manners -- and what's not -- the way children want to cut their hair, for instance.
"Don't expect us to be perfect"
The ideal grandparent is one with infinite patience and selflessness, but, of course, our parents are only human. That means they're not always cheerful, even around their grandkids, and they're not always willing to drop everything for them.
Before I had kids, I remember being surprised to hear that my father had yelled at my niece during the long drive to my house. Everyone got out of the car grumbling. "Her whining was driving me crazy," my normally jovial dad said. "You know Daddy has no tolerance for noise," my mother explained as she walked in behind him.
And, of course, many grandparents have active lives outside the orbit of their grandkids. This is why babysitting and how much grandparents are expected to do can be such a thorny issue in some families.
"I adore my grandchildren and have them over all the time, but I wish my kids understood that I need three or four days' notice to plan around the babysitting. I'm not going to give up my garden club just so they can meet a friend for lunch," says Thomas, who says, of course, she'll drop anything if someone is sick.
"We're jealous sometimes"
Even grandparents are susceptible to the green-eyed monster when it comes to "the others" -- that corresponding pair of grandparents they're tethered to via the grandchildren. Recently, my mother confided in me that she heard the other grandparents of one of my nieces were giving her a big chunk of money for college. "I thought for an instant maybe we should be doing that too," she says. "But then I think how much we do with our grandkids and remember that it's all right."
This type of jealousy doesn't have to be a problem. In the case of grandparents who live in vastly different tax brackets, it's a good idea to set a limit on gift giving, whether on the number of gifts or the amount spent. Otherwise, the less well-off grandparents may feel they can't compete with their fat-checkbook counterparts.
"We do think you're a good mom"
Many of my friends report that they rarely, if ever, get positive feedback from their parents about how they're raising their kids. "It would kill my mother to say I am doing a good job as a mom," says a friend who admits she'd like nothing more than to hear this. At the same time, many grandparents I spoke to told me that they think their children are turning out admirable grandkids. "In many ways, my kids are more conscientious parents," says Doris Cox. "I've kind of mentioned this to them, but I've never really sat down to tell them what a great job they're doing. I don't even know why, really." When it comes to raising kids, we all know that pats on the back are rare. Why not tell your mom and dad that you need their praise, admiration, and respect, and then see what they do, experts suggest.
In the name of journalistic research, I decided to try it. Instead of silently craving approval, I blatantly requested it from my mother. "Oh, haven't I told you that you're doing a good job?" she asked, surprised. "Maybe then I don't think you are."
My heart froze, until she laughed. "No, I think you all are fantastic parents," she said warmly of me and my five brothers and sisters. "I should tell you that more. You'd think I would remember how thankless a job it can be. But I've got fourteen incredible grandkids, so I know their parents must be doing the right thing." She paused. "And if you weren't, I'd set you straight."