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Elizabeth Lesser

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On Becoming a Grandmother

Posted: 10/22/09 09:40 AM ET

I've always looked younger than my age. In grade school I was little and chubby: "baby fat" is the humiliating phrase I recall. In junior high I was the last girl to wear a bra, both because I didn't need one and because my mother was a feminist. Her mortifying counsel was to enjoy being free from the constraints of female undergarments for as long as possible. I did everything I could to appear older in high school, but gazing at the yearbook today, I look about 12, while the other girls on the page seem to be in their 20's.

Sometime post-college, I began to enjoy my mistaken identity. As the years piled up and the career escalated and the kids came along, I got a kick out of being carded when ordering a glass of wine. And on days when I felt like a like a wizened old witch, it helped to be mistaken for the babysitter.

My youthful appearance was a fluke of my DNA. I did nothing in particular to earn it-no special face cream or 8-glasses-of-water-a-day routine. My father went to his grave with a full head of brown hair and a physique that would put most 30-year-olds to shame. My mother was trim and fit up to the day she died.

Recently, I think I've started to look my age. I no longer get shocked responses when I tell people how old my kids are or that I founded my organization more than 30 years ago. "What, like when you were 10?" people used to joke. I haven't heard that one in a while.

Sometimes I miss it. Looking younger than I was had the effect of convincing me that I really wasn't 40, or 50, or what I am now--a 57 year old woman with wrecked knees, which may not be a problem, because as one of my jollier friends says, "We're on the down escalator now."

But something wonderful--even transformational--happened last week. Something that made me once and for all want to be exactly who I am, and how old I am, wrecked knees and all.

I was strolling my grandson in the streets of Berkeley.

"What a cute baby," a passing stranger exclaimed. "How old is he?"

"Five months," I replied.

"Your first?"

"Yes, my first grandchild!" I said proudly, preparing to launch into my rant on the joys of being a grandmother.

"Oh," said the woman. "I thought you were the mom."

"Me too," said her friend.

Normally, that kind of comment would make my whole day. But this time, I didn't want to be confused for baby Will's mother. I didn't want to be a 30-something harried, worried, sleep-deprived mom-in-training. Been there, survived that. No, I was Will's grandma, and I wanted the world to know it. And in that moment, I caught up with my chronological age and realized I could appreciate--even enjoy--the rest of the ride down the escalator. This is the gift that grandmotherhood is bestowing on me. I'm becoming comfortable with aging. I'm discovering that being an elder is not just about my face sagging and my waist expanding; it's also about mentoring and mellowing and receiving some long sought-after gifts:

THE GIFT OF WISDOM

When my children were born I feared they would remain infants eternally and that I would never sleep through the night, would always feel slightly stupid, and would permanently smell like sour milk and poopy diapers. But now I know that life with children defies logic: the days are unbearably long, but the years fly by. One moment your little guy is teething and then suddenly, he's graduating from college. That kind of perspective would have been so helpful to have as a parent. Instead, mothers and fathers are lost in what seems like a vast wilderness, while grandparents see a straight line through the woods. Therefore, when I am with Will, I hang on to each gummy smile and every repetitive stroll around the block, because I know how precious and fleeting infancy, toddlerhood, childhood, and even the teen years are. I finally feel wise.

THE GIFT OF UNCONDITIONAL LOVE

Religion, philosophy, greeting cards, self-help books-they all tout the power of love. Being a chronic and earnest spiritual seeker, I have tried to love selflessly in all my significant relationships. I came closest to feeling and activating unconditional love as a mother; I frequently have given it as a friend, and sometimes as a colleague; I fail at it at often (OK, daily) as a wife. But with my grandson, blissful and bountiful unconditional love flows from my every cell. I have so much of it I fear I'll drown the poor little guy, so I have to give the excess away. I put Will in the stroller and parade up the street to get my morning coffee, exuding grandmotherly abundance. I give the woman begging in front of the bank several dollars; I cheer up the grumpy barista guy; I buy flowers for my son and daughter-in-law. When I am across the continent at home in New York, I can still feel the chains of love that connect my grandson and me. I'd do anything for the little guy, and if it weren't for those pesky parents, I might even overdo it. But that's my job this time--to celebrate the mere existence of another human being; to focus on what's already perfect about him; to help him see himself as I see him. What a gift to experience--at least once in this lifetime--the full power of unconditional love. And it feels as good as the saints and prophets advertise it.

THE GIFT OF CONNECTION

The birth of my grandson has connected me deeply and vividly to my ancestors across the divide of time. I look into Will's eyes and see my parents and grandparents--even though they are no longer with us. Somehow, I miss them less, seeing them in Will. Mother Teresa said, "The problem with our world is that we draw the circle of family too small." It appears that grandchildren, as tiny as they may be, have mighty powers of expanding circles and connecting people across bloodline and generations. Noting the graceful shape of Will's little fingers, I recognize my ex-husband's beautiful hands and I feel a renewed bond with him and his parents and their parents. And often when he flashes his crooked little smile, I see my daughter-in-law's father--Will's other grandfather. Now I understand that we are truly family--all the ancestors, all the grandparents, all the uncles and aunts and cousins on all sides. Will's birth even has magical powers associated with it: my husband--stepfather to my sons--has become a full-blooded grandfather! He says he took one look at Will and threw the whole step-grandpa thing out the window.

THE GIFT OF GRADUATION

When I'm with my grandson, little vignettes of my sons as babies play like old home movies in my mind. When he reaches for a toy, or squirms when I try to dress him, or cries when I put him down for a nap, long forgotten memories spring to life. The memory of a mother is a jumbled, pathetic thing; mine was poor to begin with, and motherhood dealt it an almost fatal blow. It must be a trick of nature, a way of perpetuating the human race: if mothers forget how hard those first few years are, they'll have another baby, and another one. When I think back to those hazy days of young motherhood, what I now recall is being overwhelmed. There never was enough time in the day or room in my brain to finish a thought, complete a job, or give my full attention to anyone or anything. Sure, there also was the sweetness of my babies' smiles, the uniqueness of their souls, and the thrill of their development, but there was no time for committing the details to memory. Being around Will is giving me an almost visceral opportunity to reconnect with lost remembrances of parenting past. I'm reliving my mother-role, and at same time, I'm letting it go. I am finally accepting that my sons are fully formed dudes who stopped needing to be mothered years ago. I know, duh. But better late than never. I've already felt a shift in our relationships. We're becoming colleagues, friends, fellow travelers. My sons have Will to thank for my (absurdly delayed) graduation from motherhood.

A friend asked me if becoming a grandmother made me feel old. I didn't know what to say. It's not that it makes me feel young. Rather, it makes me know what matters; it wakes me up; it enlivens me. Joseph Campbell said that people are mistaken looking for life's purpose in concrete and noteworthy ways. The only purpose there is, he said, is to feel "the rapture of being alive." That's what I feel as a grandmother. I am hooked up to a mainline of rapture in the form of a baby.

Elizabeth Lesser is the cofounder of Omega Institute and author of Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow and The Seeker's Guide: Making Your Life a Spiritual Adventure.