i, Ma. Can I ask you for a favor?” Ruchi’s voice was a bit tentative. This was a request I was not going to like.
“Sure, Ruchi.” I braced myself.
“Well,” she began, “it’s like this. My mother-in-law offered to take the three older ones while we move, and she said that maybe …maybe you’d take Avi and Chanala.”
The words were coming out in a rush. “It’s going to be impossible to get the boxes packed and out of the apartment while they’re around, and my mother-in-law said it doesn’t make sense for the kids to be home while we’re in between the apartment and the new house; they’ll just get underfoot and anyway it’s dangerous with the movers around and all the stuff lying around and I won’t be able to finish the packing and get everything put away where it belongs. Just for a few days, from Monday until Thursday. Then we’ll go to my in-laws for Shabbos HaGadol. Do you mind?”
“Of course not, darling,” I heard myself say. I didn’t even think for a second before reciting the words; I was just following the script of the good Jewish mother. What mother would say no when her own daughter asked her to watch her own grandchildren for a few days, even if it was just before Pesach? Especially when my machateineste Shirley was taking the older three and hosting the whole family for Shabbos HaGadol.
So why did I feel blackmailed?
“Thanks so much, Ma,” Ruchi was saying. “Shimon will bring Chanala to you Monday morning. You know her nap schedule, right? And Avi’s bus will drop him off at your corner at about 2:30. You should be outside from 2:15, just in case.”
“Don’t worry about a thing,” I soothed Ruchi. “You just deal with the packing. Moving is a huge job.”
“So what was I supposed to say? Her shvigger offers so kindly to split up the kids, and I should be the bad one who ruins the whole plan? Of course I said yes!”
The frying pan clanged against the stove grate, and my husband Zalman’s hands involuntarily flew up to cover his ears. “You could have said no if you didn’t want to,” he observed, as he sipped his tea.
I waved the frying pan menacingly. “How could I not want to? It’s my daughter asking for help, and she’s asking me to do less than her mother-in-law is doing.”
“So what’s wrong?”
Slam, went the cabinet. “You want to know what’s wrong? I’ll tell you what’s wrong. When we moved into our house, did it ever cross my mind, or your mind, to ask our mothers to help? For that matter, would it have ever occurred to us to dump our kids on our parents because we wanted to go away on vacation, or because we were tired and overwhelmed? We knew how hard they worked to raise us and put bread on the table, and we never asked them for anything. Never! When my mother came to me after I had a baby, I stayed up the night before and scrubbed the walls so she wouldn’t see the fingerprints. When we went to them for Pesach, we showed up Erev Pesach in the afternoon and walked home after the Seder because they couldn’t handle the noise. And I cooked most of Yom Tov and brought it along!”
“Is that what you want your kids to do for you?”
“NO!” Now I was yelling. “I don’t want them to scrub the walls for me. I don’t want them to walk an hour in the middle of the night. But I also don’t want to be a babysitting drop-off service! I have a life! I have a job! I need to make Pesach! And I don’t want to be made to feel guilty because my machateineste absolutely adores the grandchildren so of course we’ll split them up for three or four days.”
“Shh, Bayla, calm down.” Zalman pulled out a chair and motioned to me to sit down. “Tell Ruchi that you’ll give her money to pay for some extra babysitting and help.”
“No, no. I can’t do it.” I slumped into the chair and buried my head in my hands. “I’m just being a baby. I have to learn how to be a good grandmother, and now’s as good a time to start as any.”
’m 57 years old. I raised and married off nine beautiful children. I cooked and cleaned and did laundry and wiped noses and refereed fights and sang songs and played games and read books. All with a smile (at least most of the time).
My friends all kvetched when they sent their youngest child off to nursery school, and later first grade, and later yeshivah or seminary. They said they felt so lonely, so useless, so bored. Not me. I loved my empty nest. I loved being able to wipe out the sink in the morning and come home in the evening to a still-clean sink. I loved the peace and quiet. I loved being able to sit down to supper with Zalman, turn off the phones, and relax.
It wasn’t that I was burnt out. It was just that I felt that I had graduated and moved on to a new stage, one that I planned to enjoy thoroughly, after devoting 25 years to being home most of the day with my kids.
I’m not one of those people who goes gaga any time they see a cute kid. I’m an adult person. I teach seminary girls and give adult education classes to nonobservant or semi-observant women who are interested in learning more about Judaism. When my kids were younger, my teaching schedule was much more limited — I taught three mornings a week and learned once or twice a week with women who were becoming baalos teshuvah.
I was able to be a good, patient mother to my children when they were little because I valued my role in molding the neshamos Hashem had entrusted me with, not because I’m naturally drawn to newborns and toddlers. Unlike many of my friends, I found that I enjoyed motherhood more as my children entered their teenage years and developed minds and opinions of their own. Here were people I could relate to and share ideas with, not just feed and dress and bathe.
My oldest son, Betzalel, moved to Yerushalayim after his wedding. I flew to Eretz Yisrael after the birth of each of his kids, and played the part of the doting grandmother to everyone’s satisfaction, including my own. Betzalel and his wife Miriam came to us for half of Pesach those years, as did my next son Gershon and his wife, and I basked in the nachas of having these lovely young couples and their adorable kids.
I had a bunch of teenagers at home to entertain and babysit for those first grandchildren, who were still celebrities in our house in those years. I didn’t care if the grandkids dripped their sippy cups and scattered crumbs all over my freshly cleaned floor, or if their parents asked me to watch them for a couple of hours so they could go out. I knew that after Yom Tov, the kids would go back home, the house would look respectable again, and life would go back to normal.
When Ruchi, my first daughter, got married, it was different. She lived close by, and she was always popping in — for supper, for Shabbos, or to “shop” for groceries in my pantry. After she had her first baby, Simcha, she frequently dropped him off for me or her mother-in-law to watch. Her mother-in-law, Shirley, lived a few blocks away, and she just loved to watch Simcha, who was her first grandchild. I wasn’t as thrilled, to be quite honest, but of course I had to pretend that I was dying to babysit Simcha, because I didn’t want Ruchi to think that her own mother loved her baby less than her shvigger did.
Even so, I was hopelessly out of my league. Shirley was the ultimate Bubby, showering Simcha with gifts, clothing, and attention. Sometimes, when she went grocery shopping, she would pick up Simcha on her way “just to have someone cute in the shopping cart.” Inwardly, I rolled my eyes at Shirley’s largesse — why did a six-month-old need a tuxedo for Purim, pray tell? — but feeling threatened by the competition, I valiantly tried to prove myself a worthy grandmother, even if it meant that I had to buy Purim costumes for all five of my grandsons.
More kids got married, and there were more eineklach than aunts and uncles. I got older, and I had less energy. Hosting everyone for Yom Tov became — well, if not a burden, then at least a marathon. I’m just not one of those super balabustas who can juggle an extra 10 or 20 people with aplomb. I found myself getting frustrated with the endless cooking, with the constant influx of people traipsing through the house at all hours of the day and night, and most of all, with the mess.
This is your nachas, Bayla, I told myself through clenched teeth year after year. Enjoy it.
The year that Ruchi moved to her new house, leaving two-year-old Chanala and four-year-old Avi with me the week before Pesach, was the year I snapped.
It was the croutons that did it. After a long day of trying to keep Avi and Chanala out of trouble while I was cleaning the kitchen for Pesach, I finally got the two of them into bed, and I collapsed onto the couch for a ten-minute rest before tackling the pantry. I picked up a magazine, absently running my fingers between the cushions of the couch as I read, just to make sure that Julia, my cleaning lady, had done a thorough job the day before.
When my nails got stuck on something hard, I knew I had struck — gold? Chometz? What’s small and square and yellow and crunchy?
“Osem soup croutons!” I hollered as I leaped off the couch. “Avi! Chanala! Where did you find croutons?!”
Cool it, Bayla! I commanded myself. Bubbies aren’t allowed to yell. Anyway, what’s the use of waking up the kids? What’s done is done.
After that, I gave up on Pesach cleaning until Shimon picked up the kids that Thursday, which meant that I had Friday and Sunday to finish cleaning, turn over the kitchen, do my shopping, and cook for four families before bedikas chometz Sunday night. With no one around to help me, I was up all night Motzaei Shabbos, and suffice it to say that I wasn’t smiling on Sunday morning when I picked up Betzalel, Miriam, and their seven travel-weary kids from the airport.
Nor was I smiling on Erev Pesach when another nine grandchildren and their parents showed up at my door. I spent most of the Seder sprawled out on the couch with a migraine.
For the rest of Yom Tov, I cringed each time I heard a door slam, followed by the inevitable, “Shh! Bubby has a headache!” When Ruchi came for the second days, she took one look at my tight-lipped face and wondered, “Is everything all right, Ma?”
It was not a very pleasant Yom Tov for anyone.
After Pesach, Zalman insisted that we draw up new ground rules to prevent a repeat of that miserable Pesach. We resolved that from now on, we would host a maximum of two families at a time, and none during the two weeks before Pesach. We also decided that Bubby’s babysitting career was officially over. Next time any of the kids asked me to watch their kids, I’d offer to pay for a babysitter, unless it was an emergency.
Today, I probably wouldn’t win any Best Bubby awards. I don’t host huge family seudos on Yom Tov, Shabbos, or any other occasion. I don’t watch my grandchildren so that their parents can go away for a few days. I don’t even babysit for a couple of hours.
I’m going to be there for my children for as long as I can, for as long as Hashem gives me koach. But they’re not kids anymore, and they don’t need me to be there for them in the way they needed me when they were little. Baruch Hashem, their kids have parents, and although I’m happy to lend a hand when my children and grandchildren need me, I don’t have to be a mommy to my grandkids the way I was to my kids, and I don’t have to overextend myself in a way that will make me stressed and resentful. I don’t have to offer to take the grandchildren whenever my kids want to go away, nor do I have to feed the little ones breakfast Shabbos morning or let them color on my walls.
I used to feel intimidated by my machateineste Shirley, bless her soul, but now I’m just happy for my eineklach that they’re lucky enough to have such a wonderful bubby. I like to tell stories to my grandchildren and schmooze with them and play games and make jokes, but I don’t want to be rocking infants anymore or doing carpool. I was happy to do those things for my own kids, and now I can choose to not do those things anymore. Just because other bubbies do those things doesn’t mean I have to. I’m a different kind of bubby, and that’s okay.
And you know what? My children respect me for it. Sometimes they grumble about me being in retirement, but on the whole, I think they like the idea that their mother is a person.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha Issue 452)