I have a dear friend and long-time writing partner who told me she felt an unexpected physical response when her grandson cried. Since I’m in Hawaii, I asked her to share her story today:
I didn’t know I wanted grandchildren. I’d raised three children and was ready to live footloose and fancy free. And then my married daughter called us and said, “We’re pregnant.”
Other grandparents told me I would love having grandchildren. They spoke of getting to love on babies and being able to hand them back when they were tired. I laughed, imagining it to be similar to the experience of watching my nieces and nephews while their parents went out on dates.
And then he came. The moment I held my grandson, I whispered, “I love you.”
When I spent time with my grandson—especially when I was watching him without his parents—I found it impossible to think about anything else while in his presence. My focus fine-tuned on him. When he cried, I felt like crying. When he smacked his lips, I felt an intense thirst and rushed to get him a bottle. I’d recognize the sign of growing discomfort before a single cry, and would head it off with a well-placed back-rub to get a burp.
Granted, I’ve always had intense levels of empathy, but this was next level, something I’d never experienced, even with my own children.
So, I did a search and found I wasn’t alone. Many articles reflected on a study that used MRI scans to show grandmothers experienced emotional empathy for their grandchildren but only cognitive empathy for their own children. Here’s just one of those articles referencing the study.
One professor theorized that the super levels of empathy started out of necessity. Grandmothers needed to care for the children while parents provided the tribe with food and safety. Another said the researcher wanted to see if he could prove that his mother “loved” his children more than him. When I told my daughter about the study and the difference in mother’s and grandmother’s love, she said, “I knew it!”
After some reflection, though, I don’t think it’s loving more. Seems to me it’s providing grandmothers with a gift to help compensate for the fact we’re older and wear out faster now. Ha! But it might be more than that…
I started my own journey into motherhood when I was twenty. And while I didn’t regret the choice to become a parent at such a young age, I keenly remember the hard parts that went with that decision. There was no margin for money, for time, for easing into a career.
I remember needing to go to a doctor when my eldest was a baby. As I sat in the waiting room, I completely relaxed from the stresses of new motherhood. Reading those few magazine articles felt like the longest and best vacation I’d ever had. I knew my baby was being well-cared for because she was being watched by Grandma. And when I returned from that necessary appointment, I felt ready to be a good mother again.
Now, at this stage of life, I finally have margin again. There’s margin to read ten books to my grandson in one sitting, margin to sit and play toys for a couple of hours and cheer him on when he’s discovered a new skill. I’ve noticed he will watch my mouth when he recognizes a word but can’t say it yet, and I have margin to say it slowly again and again until his babble comes close enough that we’re both clapping in delight. Even with this intense empathy for my grandson, I know I’m going to make mistakes, just as I know I did in motherhood, despite trying my best. Except, unlike being a young mother, I am keenly aware that being perfect is impossible and forgiveness and grace are easier to ask for.
Shortly after my grandson was born, I read a book called Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus. In it, the author points out the importance of thinking in terms of “we.” The Lord’s Prayer, she pointed out, is a communal prayer, as were most of the Hebrew daily prayers. I thought that was interesting, as I so often prayed individualized prayers. We come to God alone, but we are not meant to stay alone.
In early motherhood, I was desperate for community because I needed it to survive. In early grand-motherhood, I’m eager for community, in part because I’ve learned that I have margin to share.
It’s been a reminder to me that we all need community, grace, and forgiveness in all stages of life—and if we have any margin, we can share it whether we have grandchildren or not.
Do you see any place that you have margin where you used to not have it?