22/05/2009 10:42 AM IST | Updated 17/11/2011 2:32 PM IST

Are You The Left Out Grandparent?

I'm sitting downstairs feeling useless while my daughter-in-law and her mother scurry about, attending to the new baby girl. I have been a grandmother for five days, and this is my first taste of Mother of the Father Syndrome.

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So I'm sitting downstairs in the living room feeling useless while upstairs my daughter-in-law and her mother scurry about, attending to the new baby girl who has just arrived home from the hospital. I have been a grandmother for five days, and this is my first taste of Mother of the Father Syndrome.

Don't get me wrong. I adore my daughter-in-law and I'm confident the feeling is mutual. We love taking long walks together and chatting over endless cups of mint tea. If we weren't related by marriage, we would be good friends. I am close to her mother, too.

And yet.

There is a mysterious transmission of accumulated wisdom and babycare know-how that seems to pass along bloodlines from maternal grandmothers to their adult daughters. No doubt this is biology at work, and paternal grandmothers are simply not part of that intimate loop. Still, I successfully raised a child myself and so when my daughter-in-law turns primarily to her mother for advice, I'm caught off guard. Feeling like a third wheel on a hot date is not something I anticipated.

In fact, I only realized I felt this way about two minutes ago when I poked my head in the door of the baby's room. Mother and daughter were hovering over the wriggling infant, animatedly discussing diaper rash. Having nothing pithy to add to the conversation, I backed out of the room. They didn't seem to notice.

My ego is bruised slightly, but I console myself with three thoughts. The first, which I will not admit to anyone else for fear of ruining my chances of ever being asked to take care of my granddaughter, is that my own babycare skills actually feel a tad rusty. When I briefly had the baby to myself in the hospital, I was so terrified of accidentally dropping or suffocating her that I left the door open so that if anything untoward happened the nurses would hear me shrieking.

The second thought that soothes my insecure grandmother soul is that the baby will never know -- or care -- which of her two grandmothers was most on the ball about diaper rash, burping, or gas.

But third, and most important, my daughter-in-law's reliance on her mother is not a rejection of me. As the primary caretaker of the baby, at this early stage of parenthood, when her life -- and body -- are in a state of red alert, it is natural for her to seek refuge in her greatest comfort zone -- her own mother. It's not about you, I admonish myself.

The truth is, I am lucky. Yes, I sometimes feel jealous of The Other Grandmother. Yes, I sometimes feel as though I'm back in junior high when I start obsessing that my granddaughter will love her more. Still, in our extended family, which includes step- as well as biological grandparents, everyone treats everyone else with respect. I know that this is not always the case.

Oh, the stories I hear!

I have one friend, a paternal grandmother, who has been kept at arm's length since the day her grandson, now 2, was born. "We will tell you exactly when you can see the baby, and for how long," this woman's son told her over the phone from the hospital. The time allotted for her visits turns out to be one hour each week. She's never been permitted to hold her grandson and has yet to spend time alone with him, although the maternal grandmother is a household fixture. My friend, who previously considered herself close to her son, is furious, confused, grief-stricken.

It kills me to reinforce stereotypes, but in families where the paternal grandmother is made to feel like chopped liver, it's usually the daughter-in-law who calls the shots. In the new book I edited, Eye of My Heart: 27 Writers Reveal the Hidden Pleasures and Perils of Being a Grandmother (Harper, 2009), Claire Roberts writes: "My grandkids seem to have great affection for me. But to my son's wife, I am the dreaded abominable mother-in-law." E-mails between Roberts and her two granddaughters, ages 10 and 13, are closely monitored by their parents and the girls undergo a debriefing worthy of the CIA whenever they've spent time with Roberts. She explains that they "understand that there's 'a situation' with Gramma and their mother -- and, therefore, with their father, too.

Sometimes it's not the daughter-in-law, but her mother who asserts herself as Number One Nana. In another essay in the book, Judith Viorst (author of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day) relates this story: "A friend of mine complains that whenever she takes her son's children on an outing, she gets a thank-you note from the other grandmother, full of appreciation for the time she has spent with the boys and services she has rendered to the family. Though these thank-you notes are gracious, oh so gracious, they leave my friend feeling peeved and patronized. For the way this woman competes, she says, "is to treat me as if I'm some sort of helpful assistant rather than someone who's on a par with her.'"

Okay, so maybe my mother-of-the-father ego gets roughed up a little every now and then -- whose doesn't? Still, I never forget that I'm one of the lucky ones. I count my blessings daily for not being among the hapless half Margaret Mead described when she wrote: "Of all the peoples whom I have studied, from city dwellers to cliff dwellers, I always find that at least 50 percent would prefer to have at least one jungle between themselves and their mothers-in-law."