The Rise Of The Stay-At-Home Grandma: A Mother & Daughter In Conversation

I know there are some couples who are over-the-moon excited to become parents, but that wasn’t exactly true for my husband, Ken, and me. We talked about parenthood for years before we finally made the decision to start a family. There was a good deal of hand-wringing over how it would impact our marriage, our freedom, our youth, and our finances. Like many women, I was also very worried what becoming a mother would do to my career.
“What else are you going to do with your life?” my mother asked one day, matter of factly. “This is your next big adventure. Besides, I’ll retire and take care of your baby.”
The idea of my mom, who worked full-time as a pharmacist when I was growing up, giving up her career to tend to my baby’s every need didn’t exactly line up with the way she raised me. My mother was a career woman in the era of “having it all” and the “mommy wars.” She was among the first generation of women to disrupt the workforce en masse. My younger brother, Martin, and I were raised in part by an eclectic mix of babysitters, after-school teachers, summer camp counselors, neighbors, and a beloved bachelor uncle. And while this wasn’t a complete novelty in the upper middle class neighborhood in Cincinnati where I was raised, it certainly wasn’t the norm. To this day, some of my favorite stories to tell about my mother are the times she forgot to pick me up at the roller rink after school, or the time she sent me back to class and made me take the bus home after I threw up on the first day of 7th grade. For years I told these stories to paint a picture of myself as the neglected daughter of two hard-working, ambitious, professional parents. This, I believe to this day, gave me grit.
“I always wished I had my mom around to help me when you were little” my mom told me at the time of the offer. “This is something I want to do for you.”
Grandparents who help raise their grandchildren aren't unusual — a 2015 Pew Research study found 22% of Americans grandparents provide regular childcare for their grandkids. But it's interesting to see the upper middle class white career women who rejected stay-at-home motherhood in the '80s and '90s embrace the stay-at-home grandma title. On Park Slope Parents, the infamous Brooklyn-based parenting community, there is an active grandparents group; there are the “accidental New Yorkers” who are “retiring” to live closer to their kids and grandkids; and esteemed newswoman Lesley Stahl — famous for a long career covering politics for CBS — even wrote a best-selling book about, of all things, becoming a grandma.
In the moment of making one of the most profound decisions of my life, I found my mom’s offer more comforting than working at a company that offered fully paid maternity leave benefits or having a partner who does more than his fair share around the house. Suddenly motherhood felt doable in a way that it just hadn’t before.
But it also raised new questions: What do I make of my mom’s decision to drop her career at the height of her success to care for her grandchild: Did she feel guilty for working when I was young? Was this a trick to get me to have a grandbaby? And was there a chance she’d love the baby more than me?
I talked to my mom about her decision to give up her career to raise my son, Des, and if she’s seen the working world change since she was in her 30s raising two kids and trying to juggle it all.
Lindsey: I always assumed I would work after I had kids. That’s partly because you led by example. It’s partly because we need the money! And it’s partly because that’s really become the cultural status quo. Yet, it wasn’t really the norm when you became a mom. Why did you pursue a career? Dad was a doctor; you could have stayed home with us if you wanted to.
Mom: I didn’t have to work when you were growing up. But I worked to contribute to the financial stability of our family. I’ve always felt that it isn’t fair for one person in a relationship to have to be the sole breadwinner. I wanted to share in that responsibility for earning money for our household. I also think it’s important to have your own money — society isn’t very kind to people who don’t. But I also worked because I found it really fulfilling. For me personally, I needed outside stimulation. Your father was really happy when I went back to work because he knew I needed that extra socialization. We celebrated with champagne and king crab. He was very supportive of me working.

I also think it’s important to have your own money — society isn’t very kind to people who don’t.

L: So if you needed the outside stimulation, why did you decide to retire and take care of my baby? I was really excited when you first brought up becoming a stay-at-home grandma, but I was also a little worried you would be bored.
M: There are many reasons I wanted to help you. But mainly when I had kids, my mom lived very far away. And I always wished that she lived closer, and I had more support — rather different support. I mean, I had great daycare, and you guys were wonderful kids, and you were healthy. I had it easy in a lot of ways. But family is really important. So I decided a long time ago that when you got pregnant and had a baby, I was going to stop working and take care of it. And I thought that would help you in your career. That's why I did it. To help you.
L: I think we got lucky because you and dad moved to New York for dad’s job. Do you think you would have done it even if you guys were living somewhere else?
M: No. I wouldn’t have. We really do what dad’s career is dictating. And I don’t see dad quitting his job to move to New York so I can take care of your child. We just happened to be really lucky to be in the right place at the right time.
L: Did you ever invite Nanna to move to Cincinnati to help you out?
M: Oh, I did invite her! She and your grandfather didn’t trust us to stay in Cincinnati because there was always a chance we’d move for your dad’s job. But they had their own lives and their own home in Dallas. I also don’t think she would have wanted to stay home all the time with you guys. She worked, too. And they really needed the money.
L: Is taking care of Des what you thought it was going to be?
M: I don't know what I really expected it to be. I'd really forgotten what it was like to stay at home with a baby, and taking care of your baby in those early days really reminded me why moms go to work. Child care is really, really hard, and it's kind of boring — at least, before they can walk and talk and really interact. I don't mean that in a bad way. But it's hard work, and you're by yourself most of the time. There's a certain bit of loneliness. Part of the problem with taking care of a child all day by yourself is that when your husband, or your partner, gets home, you put all of your needs on them. And that's a really stressful thing for them, too.
But I will say, now that he's approaching two years old, it's magical. Every minute of every day, it's magical because he's a little person and he's entertaining and he's curious and he's smart and he’s just wonderful.
I just hope I’m able to help a little bit. I know I walk out the door at 6 p.m., and you guys are on your own in the evening, but hopefully it’s a benefit. I don't know.
L: It’s a huge benefit. I feel incredibly lucky that you take care of Des. It’s a little crazy. I still can't quite believe you retired!
M: I'm so glad I did it though. I have a relationship with Des that I would never have if I hadn't done it.
L: Do you love him more than you love me?
M: That would be like asking me if I love your brother more than you and that can't be answered.
L: I'm surprised how jealous I am.
M: That doesn't surprise me at all. I was really jealous of you and my mom. In fact, one time I left you with my mom when I went on a trip with your father, and when I came back, you were all her baby. I was so jealous, I said, "Give me my baby back! That is not your baby, that is my baby!"
L: I’m not worried that Des will love you more than he loves me. I get jealous of Des. I want you to worry about me and pay attention to me. I always want you all to myself. I don't like to share. And now I have to share you with Des, who takes up all your attention!
M: That's true. You have always been that way.
L: Your mom worked, but I think of you as being among that first generation of professional working moms who were really breaking down barriers in the workforce, and normalizing the idea of women having careers and families. What kind of pressures did you face?
M: I never really felt like I was discriminated against on the basis of being a woman. Maybe I was naive, but I was always pretty lucky at work and did really well at work. But, about 10 years into my career at the VA, I took a year off. Your dad went on sabbatical in Europe, and at that point, I just couldn’t do it anymore.
At the time, you were 16, and Martin was 11. You both had a lot of extracurricular activities, and I just couldn’t keep up. I always felt like I was forgetting stuff and running late, and your dad wasn’t around to help out. When you were 2, somebody told me that it would only get harder as you got bigger. And that’s true. When your kids are little you tell them where to go, you take them there, and they stay until you come back and get them. They have no choice. But when they get older, they have all the activities they want to do. A lot of working moms rely on stay-at-home mothers to help them, but that’s a precarious situation to be in because they aren’t working and you are. I never liked to ask other people to pick up the slack for you guys.

When you were 2, somebody told me that it would only get harder as you got bigger. And that’s true.

L: Do you think it's harder to be a working mom these days? Do you think it's changed at all from when you were in your 30s and having me and Martin and working full-time?
M: To be honest, I don't think it's any different. I don't think it's any easier because you've bonded with your child, you love your child, and that's more of an animal instinct in some ways, than a rational one. And I don't think that’s ever going to change for people. I was lucky I had a husband who would change diapers and who was willing to participate in child care. But I don’t think that men helping to raise kids is enough. As a mom, you're still the person who's trying to control everything — even if you get other people to help you, you're still the one who has to make it all happen.
I also think that work is just as demanding, maybe more so, because the boundaries between work and home life are thinner. You can take your computer home and you can read your emails off of your phone. But even when you guys were little, and I would leave work, it would take me a good hour to transition from thinking and worrying about work, to thinking and worrying about you. And you guys knew that. Martin used to turn my head and say, "Pay attention to me." I don't think it's changed. I think it would be hard to change it, to be honest. Some of those things are just not changeable.
L: Now that I work and I have Des, I realize how much you did.
M: One time you said something to me about how easy I had made it all look. And I thought I had done you a disservice. Because it wasn't easy.
L: It's funny because I said that before I had a baby. But now that I have a baby, and I look back and remember things about our childhood. Am I allowed to tell the story about you putting all the toys in the garbage bags?
M: Yeah, I guess you can but...
L: I think about that story now — how you got upset one night because the house was messy and put all of our toys in big garbage bags and threatened to throw them away...
M: You understand, right?
L: I understand. It's never ending. I live in a two-bedroom apartment, and you had a big house.
M: Right, right. And it can get out of control. The toys are out of control.
L: I think the thing that was hardest for me when you first started taking care of Des was letting go of the house being perfect when you'd come.
M:I know you were always really worried that I would be judgmental of your house. I've also tried to back off a little bit on what I do 'cause I don't want you to think that I'm just coming around behind you. But recently I’ve been trying to do more. Because I know that for you to come home to a house that's been trashed or looks as bad as it did when you left in the morning is also kind of demoralizing.
L: Do you think there's a piece of you that decided to stay home and take care of Des as a way to assuage any guilt you had working when I was growing up?
M: No, I don't have any guilt. When you asked me that question a while ago, I thought, "Guilt?" Guilt implies that I feel like I did something wrong.
The only time I ever felt guilty as a working mom was because other women made me feel that way. They made me feel like I should be staying home and doing what they were doing. But when I look at you guys today, who you are, what you do, you're wonderful people, you're smart, you have been exposed to a lot of things.
I didn't feel that you didn't have something that you needed. Maybe I felt that I didn't have something that I needed, but not you as a child. But it's like everything else, I wanted more. I wanted my mother to be there.
L: Did you ever feel like your career suffered because of us?
M: I thought my career suffered because of your father not because of you guys. We moved around so much, and it's hard to have a two-career family. But not because of you kids. Maybe it took me longer to get to where I wanted to be, but I ultimately fulfilled my career objectives. I got to the final job that I wanted to be in, and I got to do it for as long as I wanted. And I was happy with that. I have no career regrets.

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