Late motherhood's surprise gift (National Post, April 14, 2004)

As a postmodern Jane Austen might observe: It is a truth universally acknowledged that a middle-aged parent in possession of married children must be in need of a grandchild.

I am expecting to be a first-time grandmother in late May. Of course, I am thrilled. And yet it's just as well that pregnancy is nine months long, because even a happy change entails mental adjustment. The news wasn't a surprise. Both our son (the father-to-be, in Toronto) and our daughter respectively have been married for several years. Both they and their spouses are well-established in promising careers. Both have homes.

It was time for someone to have a baby. My impatient, unsubtle husband was offering cash incentives for the first grandchild. I, on the other hand, usually blithely unconscious of where "my own business" begins and ends, had been curiously non-interventionist on this subject.

Why wasn't I champing at the bit to be a grandmother? After all, my daughter and daughter-in-law are in their thirties. Biological clock and all that, what? Many of my peers have been grandparents for years. Every one of them goes glassy-eyed and bliss-sodden in recounting the multiple joys of grandparenthood. The new baby is the welcome assurance of family continuity. Grandparents are allowed to unleash pent-up nurturing love without the responsibility of child rearing. Family celebrations take on new meaning, and every day offers fresh, exciting evidence of young lives in visible bloom. It's a consummation devoutly to be wished, no question.

So why was I less consumed with envy of my friends than I normally am when they have something I know would be a joy to call my own? It has nothing to do with age-related vanity. Even the plastic surgeons from the TV show Extreme Makeover haven't the skill to elicit a comment like, 'Oh, but surely you aren't old enough to be a grandmother.' For I clearly am!

Yet I confess that along with the excitement of the announcement I experienced a tiny pang of loss. Why? I eventually realized that while I was going to gain a grandchild, I was at the same time going to lose the peer friendship of my adult son and daughter-in-law. I don't mean I am going to lose their love, their respect or their pleasure in my company. I mean that once the baby is born, our primary relationship will revert back to that of parent and child, rather than the adult friendship we have enjoyed for so many years now.

Historically, my approaching grandparental status -- and that of my whole generation -- is an anomaly. Our children are so old when they marry (if they do at all) that we have an extra 10 or 12 years of their independent adulthood in which to forge a relationship unprecedented in history on a generation-wide scale -- the solidly established "role-free" friendship between a middle-aged parent and a still childless but fully matured child.

For most of history, children were barely past the age of adolescent rebellion and career preparation (if that) when they married and soon after became parents themselves. Until recently, unmarried women of 25 considered themselves virtual spinsters. Today, they only start to worry at 35. Parents used to go from guardianship through guidance counselling to patriarchy within about 10 years. There was no time for pure adult friendship to blossom, ripen and mature.

So while the modern trend to late motherhood does have its drawbacks for today's parents -- infertility issues, responsibility into old age -- for my generation it has been a surprise gift. For years, my relationship with my son, then with his wife, has been collegial and recreational. We vacation with each other. We socialize as we would with our age peers: exchanging -- or debating -- cultural and political ideas, leisurely wining and dining, laughing (our shared family humour a huge social advantage). All very grown-up, wonderfully satisfying.

I am also lucky in having my daughter (and her husband) not five blocks away here in Montreal. We were always close, but in the last 10 or 12 years of her independent adulthood we have forged an especially congenial friendship. I'm still a mum, she's still my kid, but we are also each other's work and life counsellors. And we're each other's favourite "play" companions. If she'd had children early, as my generation did, I'd be her favourite ... well, babysitter -- and, of course, her friend, too, but with one main topic of conversation.

For once babies arrive, they are and remain the cynosure of everyone's attention. I will be a doting grandmother, I'm sure. But my kids will be totally focused on parenting, and all other relationships will take a back seat to their new role. This is exactly as it should be, of course. Still, I'll sometimes wistfully remember my extra-long ride in the passenger seat up front.

© National Post 2004