On a Sunday morning in a bright classroom at Sunnybrook hospital, patient educator Kerry Grier cradles a baby doll against her chest and takes a deep breath before delivering her first blunt lesson.
“Advice from grandparents always comes from a good place,” she tells the room full of new and soon-to-be grandparents. “But it isn’t always the best advice.”
Grier can get away with saying this because she is one of them: a grandmother of two, mother of five. This isn’t about making anyone feel ashamed of what they did as parents, she assures them.
“Let’s just say we did the best we could at the time and give our children the space to do what they are being told is best practice without giving them a hard time about it,” she says.
This is Grandparents’ Class, a prenatal workshop developed a few years ago after Grier began noticing a pattern in her conversations with the parents of newborn babies. Sleep deprivation, breastfeeding and recovery from childbirth were among the most difficult hurdles they faced in the early months with a newborn; no surprise there. But there was another more unexpected challenge they often struggled to manage.
The problem was grandparents. Or, as Grier puts it, “Badly behaved grandparents.”
Grier knew the grandparents meant well, but the excitement of their children having babies was making them engage in all sorts of inappropriate behaviour.
They were showing up to the hospital uninvited, expecting to meet their infant grandchild minutes after the birth. They were “surrounding the bed,” trying to hold the baby before he’d even had a chance to latch. They were giving outdated advice — let the baby sleep on her stomach, don’t spoil him with too much attention — and getting their backs up when their daughters and sons explained the modern approach. They were showing up at their children’s homes to “help,” but instead just holding the baby for hours while the new parents longed for privacy or a fresh meal and clean laundry.
All of this gave Grier an idea. Sunnybrook offered childbirth classes, baby-care classes, infant emergency workshops — all in an effort to prepare parents for life with a newborn. Why not add a grandparent class? After all, much has changed since today’s baby-boomer grandparents cared for their own newborns 30 or 40 years ago.
“Becoming a grandparent for the first time is like revisiting an exotic country that you loved long ago, only to find that everything’s changed — the layout, the customs, even the language,” new grandparent K.C. Summers wrote for the Washington Post.
The idea of teaching grandparents about babies might have seemed insulting a generation ago — some may sneer even now — but grandparent classes are becoming a popular offering at hospitals and clinics in Canada and around the world as health-care educators recognize the value in getting grandparents on the same page as their adult children. In prenatal classes, today’s new parents learn the latest evidence-based recommendations in baby care. Since the latest is often the exact opposite of what their parents were taught, it’s no surprise tensions arise.
Grier teaches grandparents the same curriculum on safe sleeping, feeding and baby care that their children learn, while offering frank advice on respecting the new parents’ boundaries, giving space, and what is helpful and unhelpful.
What is unhelpful? Anything that creates drama, Grier says in a phone call a few days before class. “Feeling insulted that they’re not invited to be at the birth is a common one,” she says. “Grandparent wars. For example, ‘Why are her parents allowed to be in the waiting room or see the baby first, when we’ve been waiting longer?’ Or ‘This is our only grandchild, they’ve got six others.’ ”
Online parenting forums have entire threads devoted to complaints about grandparent behaviour. There are tales of grandparents who go out of their way to point out how easy things were for them — their children never cried, their children never had trouble feeding, their children were toilet-trained by nine months. There are grandparents who slip the baby a bottle of formula or cover him in blankets when Mom and Dad have their backs turned; grandmothers who secretly coach the baby to say Nana as their first word, rather than Mama or Dada; grandfathers who raid the new parents’ refrigerator, helping themselves to prepared meals intended to get the couple through the postpartum period.
One infamous online forum, dubbed DWIL — dealing with in-laws — has some of the wildest unverified accounts of grandparent behaviour on the internet. One set of grandparents threatened to report their daughter-in-law to child services if she drank coffee while pregnant. Another didn’t like their infant granddaughter’s name, so they called her Laura instead of Lauren. One very excited grandmother planned a baby shower — for herself.
Most of the grandparents who sign up for Grier’s class tend to be reasonable and well-intended. They’re eager to be involved without being intrusive, open to new ideas and keen to be helpful, marvelling at how things have changed without finger-wagging.
“Everybody thinks that they’re perfect parents, right?” says Judith Benson, 77, a few days before the class, which she’d signed up for with her husband in anticipation of the birth of their first grandchild. “That there’s nothing else to learn. But we’re very open. We’re very anxious to please.
“We know things have changed and we want to do things right. I think it’ll give us a little bit of credibility, too, with our son and daughter-in-law, in that it’ll give them more confidence that we know what we’re doing.”
But Grier has had some tough cases. “There was one woman I’ll never forget. During introductions she said: ‘My name is whatever and I’m here against my will. My daughter-in-law made me come and I don’t want to waste her money. But I’ve had three kids and they all survived.’ ”
Grier has a comeback for this classic grandparent line. “I’m super-happy that your kids survived,” she says, “but children of the same generation were way more likely to die than babies being born now.” Rates of sudden infant death syndrome, or SIDS, have fallen since the mid-’90s, Grier points out, when doctors started recommending that parents put babies to sleep on their backs. “A lot of things that we’re doing now are better than were done then, simply because we’ve learned from all the deaths of babies that were happening.
“People used to let kids wrestle around in the back of the car unrestrained while the parents were puffing away on cigarettes in the front,” she says. “So.”
Grier begins Sunnybrook’s three-hour Baby Care for Grandparents Workshop with a primer on what has changed since the grandparents in the room had their babies. Dads and partners are more involved now. Hospital nurseries are gone; babies room with Mom and remain as close to their parents as possible.
Hospital stays are no longer routinely a week-long affair; mom and baby are released as soon as possible after the birth and continue their recovery at home. Babies are put to sleep on their backs, never on their stomachs or sides. Bonding and the importance of skin-to-skin contact are emphasized. Breastfeeding is strongly encouraged.
Don’t be offended, Grier warns, if your children don’t want you at the hospital for the birth. “Birthing is a very intimate process,” she says. “It’s not a spectator sport.”
This gets a chuckle from the room, a group of 14 that includes a collection of grandmothers and grandfathers of different ages and backgrounds; some single, others partnered; some retired, others still working. The baby dolls that have been placed in front of each couple, which are weighted and feel much like the real thing, are here for fun; there is no diapering practice in this class.
Once the new parents are home with their baby, Grier says, remember that they are in recovery. “It’s very important that the help given is the help that’s needed, not the help we want to give,” she says. “The help you want to give is hand over that baby, and I’ll rock her to sleep. The help that’s helpful is liberating those parents from their peripheral activities — like laundry and walking the dog and cooking and things like that — so they can get to know their baby, get breastfeeding established and nap when the baby naps.”
When Louise Ross, 67, learned last year that she was going to have a grandson, she was thrilled. “I couldn’t wait to get my hands on him,” she says.
Ross, a retiree and first-time grandmother, planned to fly from her home in Toronto to visit her son and his wife in San Francisco. When her son suggested a date three weeks after the birth, Ross was initially taken aback. She’d hoped she could be there when her grandson was born.
“I thought, my god, he’s going to be riding a bike by the time I meet him,” she says.
The desire new parents have for space to recover and bond with their new family in privacy was something Ross learned to understand in Grier’s grandparent class. New moms today leave the hospital soon after the birth and continue their physical recovery at home. Dads and partners, rather than going straight back to work, often have some kind of parental leave. It’s an intimate time for the new family and many wish to spend that time alone together, a desire Ross came to understand and embrace.
Ross’s son, Scott Parish, 37, was well aware of the tensions that can surface between new parents and their own parents after a grandchild is born, having heard cautionary tales from friends. “On one side we had this huge desire to involve her as deeply as possible,” Parish says of his mother. “We know that that’s so good for our son. And we know that that’s so good for her, and it’s really helpful for us. So we had that motivation to make it work. But we anticipated there might be some challenges.”
Parish feels that his mother’s enrolment in the grandparent class kickstarted a healthy conversation about boundaries and expectations, topics he might otherwise have felt uncomfortable introducing.
The timing turned out to be perfect. The visit was a success, says Ross, also known as “Grandma Ouise,” who now visits her 10-month-old grandson, Jules, as often as possible. “And he wasn’t riding a bike.”
At their best, grandparents can “contribute greatly to family functioning and well-being in their roles as mentors, nurturers, caregivers, child care providers, historians, spiritual guides and ‘holders of the family narrative,’ ” says a 2019 report from the Vanier Institute of the Family, a charitable organization dedicated to understanding family life in Canada.
The grandparent relationship can have lifelong benefits for a child so long as all the adults get along, says Nora Spinks, CEO of the institute. It’s no surprise tensions can develop, Spinks adds, given how families have evolved and how parenting has changed in the past half-century as a result of new science on child development.
“Fifty years ago, the only parenting advice you got was over the backyard fence, or from your own mother. And it was mostly women and they’d talk to each other.” Back then, Spinks says, “a parent felt they were doing a good job if they were raising kids who grew up big and strong.” The idea was “eat your veggies, drink your milk, go out and play, be independent, and you’ll be successful.”
“Thirty years ago, it was all of that and build self-esteem.” Today, it’s even more. “Grow up big and strong, but also eat healthy, eat organic. Build self-esteem but also build better brains. It’s not just play, but it’s ‘brain development play.’ It’s not just learn manners, but it’s learn ‘self-regulation’” — strategies for managing disruptive and impulsive behaviour.
“And the grandparents are going ‘What?’ They come from the generation of suck it up, shake it off, move on.”
Spinks points out that today’s new parents did not spawn the professionalization of parenting; it started decades ago, when they were children, but they live under the pressure of it.
One thing the younger generation may not appreciate is that becoming a grandparent is a major life change that may unleash deep feelings about life and mortality, says Paula Farsalas, a childbirth educator at Michael Garron Hospital, where she teaches a grandparent class.
“When you’re becoming a grandparent for the first time, there’s excitement and there’s a future ahead of you, the future of watching that child grow up. But it also means that we step to the head of the line. We are the next people who are going to fall off this planet,” Farsalas says.
“There’s tremendous emotion in becoming a grandparent,” she says, because it means facing the reality of getting older. “And I think that emotion can sometimes come out as anger.” It’s a complicated time because both sets of parents — the young and older — are going through a major life change, Farsalas says.
“We don’t necessarily remember the life change they’re going through and they don’t necessarily have any idea how our life change is impacting us. I’ve learned it’s something you can’t really appreciate until you’re in it yourself.”
There’s a story Farsalas often tells her classes about how her perspective shifted after she became a grandma.
“Between the very first grandparents class and the second grandparents class, I found out I was going to be a grandmother,” she says. “And all the things that we talk about in the class — how to help without imposing, leaving dinner on the doorstep — I found it hard to do myself.” She wanted to visit right away and hold the baby, but knew that her son and his wife needed space to get to know their child. “I didn’t necessarily do everything that I thought was the right thing to do,” she tells her classes. “But I listened to my children and I learned.
“When our children have children,” Farsalas says, “they want support and love. They don’t want us to parent their children. They are the parents. We are grandparents.”
Amy Dempsey is a reporter and feature writer based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @amydempsey