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The Mom-Grandma Gap

When my first child didn't want to sleep through the night  -- and we're talking a 2-year-old here  -- my mother mentioned more than once that she just couldn't remember any sleep problems with me or my brother or my sister. I don't think she meant it as criticism, but in my tired and somewhat vulnerable state, here's what I heard:

I did it right, and you're doing it wrong.

I grew pretty touchy about this. After she made a few more puzzled comments about how perfectly I'd slept through the night as a baby, so why should I be having so much trouble with my son, I started telling her that, hey, guess what, her grandson is now sleeping through the night! Yup, we're fine, no more problems.

I suppose that almost all of us, especially with a first child, measure ourselves against the parents we know best  -- our own. Sometimes we swear up and down to do it differently  -- I'll never yell at them the way Mom yelled at us; I won't feed them junk food; I'll never deny them hugs; I'll never, ever hit. But often we look to our own parents and the way we were raised as proof that things will work out and the kids will be fine: "I mean, we all turned out okay, and if they could do it..."

As a pediatrician, I have to say that there's nothing more awkward than being caught in the middle of a disagreement between a mom and her mom over a child-rearing issue. Even so, I'm willing to advise anyone who comes in and tells me, "My mother says that we should vitamins, rubbing her down with alcohol when she has a fever, putting shoes on him even though he's too small to walk." I'm ready to pronounce: Do give vitamins if you want. Don't ever rub down with alcohol. Shoes are unnecessary but potentially cute.

I'm even happy to discuss the bigger issues: My mother thinks we're spoiling him, that I shouldn't go back to work, that we ought to have him tested for ADHD. It's my job to help the parent tease out the truth from the hubbub of family resentment, sensitivity, and innuendo. And if I can send a parent home feeling even a little bit reconciled with a grandparent, my job's well done.

Most of the areas of contention fall into a few broad categories: feeding, bedtime, and discipline. But you can't jump to the conclusion that you know exactly how the lines will be drawn. I've had grandparents bound and determined to overfeed babies, but also those who were concerned that a parent was allowing so much junk food that a child was getting fat. There are grandmothers who take a dim view of nursing because you can't tell whether the baby is getting enough milk and those who feel that breastfeeding is the only way to go. There are grandparents who disapprove of parents who are reluctant to set limits and grandparents who live to indulge, so they see any limits as suffocating and cruel-hearted.

So Who's Right?

Who's usually right? Well, it's probably about fifty-fifty whether it's the parent or the grandparent in any given situation who comes closer to pediatric conventional wisdom. Grandparents do have a certain amount of experience on their side  -- but then, what was gospel 60 years ago may no longer be what any doctor would advise now.

I do my best. I go for the gray area whenever it's legitimate. But sometimes that's not doable: Alcohol rubs are out. Breastfeeding is good. And I'm always mindful of the need to bolster the parent's authority. Sometimes that means saying to a grandmother, in her daughter's presence, that there are different ways of doing things, but this is her baby and she has to make the decisions.

There's nothing as powerful as a parent's love for a helpless infant. It's what carries you through all those interrupted nights and exhausted days. Sometimes, I think, a grandparent looks at a grown-up daughter and sees that same helpless infant who needs guidance every step of the way. And then when that child has a baby of her own, it can be hard to accept. It means viewing your adult child as a mature authority figure who can take proper care of the most important infant in the world. Maybe there's also a tiny ignoble wish to see the doctor lean forward, shake an admonishing finger, and say, "Listen to your mother! She knows best!"

And that, of course, I can't do. But I do identify with the sentiment. I occasionally feel that I spend my days giving out good advice, which is then ignored, and I've wished for a divine admonishing finger and a thundering voice: "Listen to your doctor! She knows best!"

That's not going to happen either. So in a way, we're in the same situation, Grandma and I: We have to make our suggestions in a supportive, subtle, convincing way. We can't rely on personal authority or threats or bullying or the divine right of grandmothers  -- or doctors.