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January 25, 2000


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Desi grandparents in America

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Padma Ramachandran

Grandparenting in the past used to be simple. Your daughter came home for the delivery and stayed on for a few months. You could rally friends, relatives and servants who would help you take care of the young mother and child. After four months, the new father arrived to take his wife and child back home.

Nowadays, desi mothers-to-be have neither the time nor the inclination to come home to India for their delivery. They want their children to be American citizens by birth. So every year, there is a retinue of us old folks who come from India to help their daughters give birth in America.

The first time I became a grandparent way back in 1987, I boarded the Air-India flight with great trepidation. Although I had gone abroad many times on official work, this trip was daunting. I was surrounded by equally diffident 60 year olds, fiddling with their seat belts and fumbling to understand the new accent. When I landed in New York, I feared that I had arrived rather late, for my daughter was overdue.

Yet she did not deliver until after a fortnight, after the nurses had advised me to take her for long walks to induce labor.

The day after my granddaughter was born, I rushed to the hospital eager to learn everything about taking care of a new baby from the nurses. I wanted to learn how to give the baby a bath in a plastic tub instead of putting the baby between my legs as we do in India. I had taken a notebook to make detailed lists of the names of baby lotions, baby soaps, oils and diapers that I could use. I had questions about the use of baby formula. But the nurses brushed me aside and asked for the baby's father. In America, they said, the father was the one who needed to take care of the baby since the grandparents went back in a matter of days.

Grandparents are a luxury in this country, they said.

When it was the second confinement in America, I had to rush from India as my daughter was heading for a premature delivery. My grandson was born three weeks early. My daughter was home before I could reach America.

It was time to learn again. I had to have a good stock of diapers and manage them using an inventory control model. In my daughter's tiny New York apartment, there was never enough space if you bought too much of anything.

It was too cold to run out and get emergency diapers on the fly. I discovered that it was more important to have diapers than, say, milk. Since the laundry machines were in the basement, I learned to carry the baby, a few coins and the apartment keys in one hand while I dragged a sack of dirty laundry with the other hand. Once, I dropped a coin while getting out of the elevator. When I went downstairs, I discovered that I didn't have enough quarters for the laundry machine. Back I came, up 26 floors, with the baby and apartment keys to get more coins.

Although I think I am a fairly organized person, I was constantly mystified by the things I lost in the laundry room. An orange sock and one of my favorite handkerchiefs disappeared into the depths of the laundry room, never to be found again. Thank goodness, those initial days of fright are behind me. My daughter now has a laundry room inside the house and more important, her babies are grown now.

Today's the grandparenting problems are different.

Although she is a very warm and loving child, I am sometimes unable to penetrate my granddaughter's mind. She insisted one day that I was not to come near her at the computer, saying that she was doing something 'secret'.

My imagination knew no bounds. What was my granddaughter, who was on the threshold of her thirteenth birthday, doing for hours with the computer, I wondered? Was she e-mailing mysterious men? Was she reading something that she shouldn't? My mind was overrun with scary scenarios. Later, she came out with a huge smile on her face. I discovered that her 'secret' was a beautiful wedding anniversary card that she created for my husband and myself on recycled paper.

The card referred to my love for peas -- with an anniversary wish for 'two peas in a pod'!

Conversations between my grandchildren and myself are spirited debates. I try to explain the Indian point of view while they counter with American rationalism.

For instance, I always talk about the need to keep up our Indian rituals and the need to learn our native tongue, be it Tamil or Hindi or Gujarati. My grandchildren ask me, "Of what use are these rituals and language to us?" I must consult other grandmothers in similar situations on the kind of reply they give and how they manage to sustain their grandchildren's interest in our culture, language and lore.

Part of it is lack of time. I find that my grandchildren here reel under heavy doses of homework. Like most adults, they are sleep-deprived and so arrears of sleep have to be made up on weekends. They also look forward to 'sleepovers' at a friend's house or invite their friends to come to their home. Their world is shut then, to the dearest of grandparents. I cannot participate in their whispered giggles, shared jokes, teen magazines and their jargon, most of which I don't understand. It makes me long for the time when my grandchildren were little and interaction with them was a lot simpler.

When my granddaughter was three, it was next to impossible to get her into her winter clothes, for the apartment was well heated. It was another story training her to get into the car seat and buckling her up. She would wriggle in and out of her car seat and the only thing that kept her in place was the fear of cops. Just as we made children in India afraid of gypsies, parents in America make their children fear the cops.

Every house that I go to has heaps of Barbies and other dolls, Barbie dresses, doll houses, and stuffed toys. If the house has boys, then you see heaps, literally heaps, of cars, motorcycles, Nintendo games and now, yes you've guessed right, it's Pokemon-cards, videos, the whole works!

One mother told me, "It's okay, Auntie, if its not Pokemon, it's Beanie Babies, or Ninja Turtle. We don't know what's next, and it's difficult to resist peer pressure."

I come across many young mothers who are weary of continuous housework that never ends. Visiting grandmothers, who come to look after the kids, also have to learn to cope with multiple jobs that need to be done at the same time. If they can drive cars, then ferrying children to soccer, basketball, tennis games, piano and violin classes would be a big help.

But grandmothers like me, even while in robust help, do not wish to drive here in case something terrible were to happen on the road.

Compared to all this, grandparenting in India seems a lot simpler to me. The floor is fine for little ones to learn to keep the head steady or move forwards or start walking on. No separate beds or room or toys aplenty. Not much chance for computer or other games.

And they fall back on their grandparents -- which we accept with pleasure. We can read to them, talk with them, play with them, all the things we could never do to our children when we were stern parents trying to infuse values and discipline.

The saying that you wish the grandchildren came before the children isn't said for nothing. And this holds good, whether it is India, England or the US.

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