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Becoming a Mom, Becoming a Grandma

Perri: When I went into labor with my first child, I called my mother. This may be the most old-fashioned thing I've ever done. On some level, I suppose, I wanted someone in the room who had been through what I was going through. And maybe my impulses were partly generous -- I wanted her to be there to see her first grandchild born. But mostly, I think, I just wanted my mother. I was scared of the pain, scared of something going wrong, scared of the way my life was about to change. So I did the obvious thing. "I'm in labor," I said.

"Can you come?" I was in Massachusetts; she was in New Jersey. "I'll come as fast as I can," she said.

My mother had her babies quickly. In her first labor, with me, they never got her into the delivery room. My brother was similarly speedy. Only my sister, who was born breech, took a little time. I felt somewhat entitled to the same quick delivery, but my own first labor went on all evening, all night, and well into the following day. We walked, endlessly, up and down the hospital corridors. I'd stop for a contraction, hanging on to Larry or my mother or a door frame, and making appropriate noises. Then we'd keep walking. My mother and Larry spelled each other -- they took turns taking naps. I resented this deeply, but in spite of my completely reasonable irritability, I was glad to have my mother there. She was cheerful and encouraging and happy to walk and talk. The only thing that made her a somewhat less-than-ideal delivery-room attendant was that every so often she would look at the clock in perplexity and say, "Perri, I just don't remember it taking this long to give birth! Are you sure you're doing it right?"

Sheila: If becoming a grandmother was easy, getting to Massachusetts in midwinter to attend the actual event was really hard. My husband, Mort, drove me over icy roads to the airport, where I shamelessly crashed a line of standbys boarding the last and only Boston-bound plane of the night.

"Sold out," I was told, but I pleaded Perri's belly so eloquently, the airline people found me a seat. On the flight, my thoughts drifted. Perri will be a mother... Larry will be a father... The kids are having a baby!... How will she manage medical school?...

A young woman across the aisle was knitting a pink bootie. She made me feel guilty. I'd tried, but I'd never learned to knit. I'll take lessons, the airborne, heroic me resolved. A grandmother should be able to knit. But in my heart I knew I would never learn. My fingers are twigs in the presence of wool and needles. Okay, so instead, I'll read to the baby! I made a list in my head of all the wonderful authors whose books I would buy: A.A. Milne, Dr. Seuss, Maurice Sendak, Beatrix Potter.

At the hospital

I arrived just as Perri and Larry were leaving for the hospital, and insisted on carrying the overnight bag. It was unexpectedly heavy. "I thought you were only going to stay overnight," I said. Perri hates to stay in hospitals as a patient.

"I am," Perri said. "Those are just my nightclothes and some stuff the childbirth course recommended."

At the hospital I was impelled to snoop. Their childbirth course had been a mystery to me: I sought clues. I found a large bottle of champagne, copies of Little Women and Pride and Prejudice, a Crock-Pot and various soft cloths to be warmed in it, a cassette player and homemade tapes, potato chips, lingerie, toiletries, and a small stuffed bear -- all the crucial assists needed at childbirth.

I'd arrived in excessively good time. Turned out we had the next seven hours to talk and walk nonstop. "Ah, Perri," I comforted her repeatedly. "Soon, soon!"

Exhilarated by the whole experience, I thought back on Perri's own precipitous entry into the world, on a spread of old newspapers during a tropical downpour in rural Trinidad. I'd ridden out the cramps in an old broken-down car on terrible back-country roads. I was excited and astonished and scared. Oddly, the whole scene distracted me from my pain -- there were too many other things to think about.

How I would have liked to help Perri now! She needed an exotic setting, or a broken car to worry about. But her labor just went on and on. Vainly, I sought to distract her with bad jokes and feeble puns. It was okay because no one was listening to me anyway. Benjamin was born without anesthesia or complications and was incomparably beautiful. And tiny -- I'd forgotten how small new babies were. The nurse standing next to me said, "Congratulations, Grandma."

"Thank you. Easiest thing in the world," I replied. And it was.

I had a grandson! First I felt incredulous, then relieved, and then euphoric. With difficulty, I controlled my excitement and behaved decorously, befitting my new rank. Mort, who'd driven up from New Jersey, and I were dispatched to buy the birthday dinner, glorious burgers from a favorite local restaurant, Perri's medium-rare with mozzarella and mushrooms. We sloshed through the snowy streets. Look who's a grandmother! I told him.

The next time

Perri: When I got pregnant again five years later, I thought the obvious thing to do was to put that same team back together. I had high hopes for a more rapid second labor, one that wouldn't allow time for spur-of-the moment 200-mile journeys, so I asked my parents to come when the baby was due. My mother would assume her delivery-room duties, I figured, and my father would take charge of Benjamin.

This time, we needed to schedule an induction, so we all went to the hospital together. Larry and my mother were the delivery-room team, while my father and Benjamin wandered in and out. I got an IV; I hated the IV. I was convinced someone was going to put the wrong thing into it. I got an internal monitor; I hated the monitor. I was convinced the doctor and the nurses weren't paying any attention to me at all because they were too busy looking at the damn tracing. I was a model of the unselfishness of motherhood!

Benjamin spent some time in the delivery room making an endless array of geometric crayon drawings. We hung some of them up, and thanked him profusely. We all watched a peculiarly compelling episode of Divorce Court in which the man claimed he was divorcing his wife because she was a transsexual. Understandably, Benjamin lost interest, and he and my father headed out to explore the cafeteria and the gift shop. And that was just as well, because after a rather long hanging-around-nothing-doing-okay-let's-up-the-dose period, the pitocin kicked in and labor began in earnest.

I have, it turns out, a reasonably high threshold for pain -- and I combine that with an intense paranoia about all medical interventions. I was trying to do this without anesthesia again, though I had been warned that the pitocin would make the contractions more intense. And as they got more and more intense, I thought back on the endless first labor.

"I don't think I can do this for another ten hours," I confessed between contractions, remembering that long, long night.

"I have news for you," my ob said. "You're going to have the baby in about ten minutes."The conversation paused while I ululated through a contraction. "Ten minutes I can do," I said.

And that's how my daughter, Josephine, was born, and as she was making it clear that she regarded nursing as serious business, in came my father and Benjamin, to share the moment. And once again we had those favorite ritual hamburgers.

Sheila: Being a grandmother is a strange and wonderful avocation. I can enjoy the kids without feeling responsible for them. I am once removed from all the crises and decisions. My job is mostly to admire, to sit in the second row and hope, and cheer, and celebrate. I am shameless about claiming genetic credit for my grandchildren's talents and achievements except in athletics, music, and mathematics -- because I'd be laughed out of town.

The third time around

Perri: The third time around, Larry and I made an elaborate plan. When I went into labor, we'd page the sitter to take the kids, now 11 and 5½ or pick them up from school, as the case might be. We'd call my parents, but after Josephine, we were out of the business of scheduling deliveries.

Well, I got my wish -- I got my mother's labor. I'm going to have this baby really soon, I kept saying to Larry. It was about five p.m. The children were at after school and would need to be picked up, so we paged the babysitter -- she was stuck in rush-hour traffic. I called my parents, now in New York, and told them to start driving. We grabbed our hospital bag and Larry drove madly to the school. I added to the madness by remarking at intervals, "I think I'm going to have this baby really soon!"

We collected the children, who squabbled in the backseat. We drove to the hospital. "Do I have time to park?" Larry asked. "No," I said, "let me out first." So I went in alone and took the elevator up to the maternity floor. I remember leaning against the wall during a contraction, wondering if anyone had ever had a baby in there.

It wasn't quite as quick as that, though it was pretty quick. Larry parked and brought the children up to maternity, where we explained that no, we weren't one of those let-the-children-deliver-the-placenta families, our sitter was stuck in traffic. The nurses set the children up to watch TV and read in the next room.

We also had time to set up our cassette player, and Larry put on an Elvis tape. When one of the nurses came in, he apologized for the loud music and asked if we should shut the door. No, said the nurse, we like it -- it's so much better than those whale songs that people keep playing!

But there was time for only a couple of numbers. Anatol Elvis (it could so easily have been Anatol Elevator) was born quickly and relatively easily. My parents arrived soon after. I was sorry my mother had missed the birth, though greatly relieved to have finally experienced her brand of quick-and-easy labor. And my father, of course, knew exactly what to do -- he'd barely admired the baby before people were handing over their hamburger orders. "Medium-rare," I said, "with mozzarella and mushrooms."

From Every Mother Is a Daughter: The Never-ending Quest for Success, Inner Peace, and a Really Clean Kitchen, by Perri Klass and Sheila Solomon Klass. Copyright ©2006, by Perri Klass and Sheila Solomon Klass. Published by Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc.