Anna Quindlen’s No. 1 Rule for Grandparents: Butt Out

Nanaville
By Anna Quindlen

In the short time that she has been a grandmother, Anna Quindlen has learned many things. But most of all, she’s learned to butt out.

“Hang back,” she warns readers of “Nanaville,” a collection of witty and thoughtful essays about the stage of life she entered at 64, when her elder son, Quin, and his wife, Lynn, had a baby, Arthur. No matter how tempted you are to dispense to your children what you think is wisdom and to correct what you think are their mistakes, you must, at all costs, resist — or risk banishment from your grandchildren’s lives. “Be warned: Those who make their opinions sound like the Ten Commandments see their grandchildren only on major holidays and in photographs.”

Quindlen, the best-selling novelist and former New York Times columnist, speaks from a position of privilege, as she admits. Unlike millions of other American grandparents, she isn’t needed to raise, house or nanny her grandkids, nor is she needed to support them or their parents financially. Unneeded, she must make herself wanted.

Her quest to do so is often amusing and sometimes poignant. Early on, while Quin is traveling for work, she takes charge of Arthur for a night to relieve her exhausted daughter-in-law. The baby awakens at 2 a.m., whereupon she feeds, burps and rocks him. “He is warm and somehow companionable; it feels as though we are the only two people awake in the big city.” But when she returns him to his cradle — on his back, as his pediatrician and his parents require — he protests loudly, and she fears he’ll rouse Lynn, who’s sleeping in a nearby room.

[ Read Lesley Stahl’s essay “Grandbabies: The Great Reward for Aging.” ]

So she brings him into bed with her and places him on his stomach, the way she used to do with his father. Limbs splayed, head turned to the side, he dozes off. But this creates a quandary for Quindlen. Flip him over and he’ll wake up. Call it a night and, according to a consensus that she finds less than convincing but doesn’t dare breach, he could suffocate, both because he’s on his tummy and in her bed.

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The only solution, she determines, is to leave him be but watch over him, raptorlike, all night long. For three hours, until he awakens for another feeding, she lies beside him with her eyes wide open, tracking his every breath.

Quindlen isn’t always so saintly, thank God. When Arthur’s nanny moves away, his parents decide to put him in “something they referred to as a preschool.” Quindlen and her husband don’t think he’s ready, and, violating what scholars of grandparenthood call the “norm of noninterference,” she tells Quin so.

He pushes back hard. “He was not rude or meanspirited, but it was clear he wanted his mother to back off.” And as it turned out, she was wrong — not just because she overstepped, but on the merits. “Arthur loves preschool and has thrived there. On the mornings when I take him, he runs in to see his friends. He has grown so much. And so have I. I have strong opinions. Ask and you shall receive some useful version of them. Otherwise, I will try to be as quiet as the house at naptime.”

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