On Becoming an Elder

Mackenna--a couple of hours old.

The other day I was listening to a talk radio show on becoming an Elder.  The host was asking her guest, an Elder woman, “How do we know when we have become and Elder—and what does it mean?”

I have been wondering that myself.  I’m 57 years old and a grandmother to eight grandchildren plus five grandchildren through my husband.  Last week I went to Lincoln, Nebraska to be present when my daughter Lisa had a baby.  My place there felt uncertain.  In a way I was just the babysitter.  Lisa had a homebirth with a midwife, her two assistants, the daddy (Brian) and my other daughter Nichol who is both a Doula and a childbirth educator.  There was no question that in matters of birthing, Lisa was well attended.  My “job” was to care for two year old Kaden during the birth.  It was a beautiful experience, and baby Mackenna entered the world in the gentlest way possible.

I stayed for a week following the birth.  I watched Kaden, played with grandchildren, did light cleaning and cooking and yet there was so much more I wanted to say and do but somehow felt tongue-tied. I felt the strong desire to take my place there as an Elder woman to my daughters and their families, but somehow backed away.  It seemed many of my attempts to offer help or advice were received as criticism.  I wanted to take responsibility—to offer ideas and wisdom, but ended up sometimes feeling like an interloper.

When I was a young mother, visits from my own mom were sporadic, about once or twice a year.  She also was not a part of my daily life.  We spoke on the phone, wrote letters (yes, actual letters), but in those we shared mostly the highlights.  When she would come for a visit, I wanted more than anything to hear her reassure me that I was a “good” mom.  I think my need for her reassurance was probably an indicator of how much I needed her help.  Unfortunately, any help she offered I would take as disapproval—magnified by ten.

I remember one time when she came she rubbed Thomas’ head and said, “Maybe Grandma should take you out to get a nice haircut.”  Now, when I think back to that simple little offer, what I heard was, “You look like a little ragamuffin.  Doesn’t your mommy take care of you?”

Another time she said, “Doesn’t this poor child have any decent shoes?”  Ouch again.  I heard this as a bad mommy blast.

When we are young and solely responsible for the care of these little ones, we are terrified of not doing it right. I think of earlier cultures where young families were surrounded by elders—aunts, uncles, grandparents—and the family itself was rocked gently in a cultural cradle of traditions and rituals.  Times have changed, and yet we grandparents still have much experience to contribute, experience that comes from learning from our own mistakes.  It is painful to watch your children sometimes make the same mistakes and feel mute to say a word to help.  Some part of me carries guilt about keeping my distance.  I think it is very difficult for us to take a place as Elder when we live in other cities far from the daily lives of our children.  Like me, many grandparents do not live close to their families.  We both like the freedom of this period of life—and we feel guilty

I realized that the words I most wanted to share with my girls them have nothing to do with whether they are doing it right or wrong.  I am cheering for them every step of the way and am deeply proud of all they are doing.  In fact, the most valuable lessons I wanted to pass to them are so simple that they almost seem not worthy of mentioning.

Here is one.  I think of an airline stewardess—an odd analogy—but go with it.  The oxygen mask drops and the stewardess says we should take the oxygen first and then administer to the children.

As young mothers, we should take the oxygen—and whatever we need most—first.  Then turn to our partner and make sure he is breathing and getting what he needs.  And then we should tend to the children.  If Mom and Dad took 15 minutes two or three times a day to look into each other’s eyes and let the supporting love and energy flow between them, then everyone, children included, would feel good.  A little massage doesn’t hurt either.

Children are naturally loud, fussy, needy, demanding, and sometimes obnoxious—and sometimes so sweet they make you melt.  But it is so important NOT to let them take charge.  One of my early constellation teachers, Bert Hellinger, said children need to know that Mommy and Daddy are BIG and they are small.  It is the right order of things.  When children are allowed to get too big, they lose their place.

Who is the boss?  They want and need to know, and when that is firmly established, they feel loved and secure and can relax.

I want to say to all young parents, “Don’t get frustrated, get firm.”  When we waffle and try to be friends to our children, they get worried about who is the boss.  I have seen so many children whose behaviors spiral up and out of control because they can’t see who is boss.

If you are firm, you will not damage their spirits; you will free them to be children.  They won’t have to worry about who is in charge.  Being firm is easy if you form a good pattern of taking a stand, staying with it, and enforcing whatever consequence you have laid out.  Not being firm allows energies to get so high that frustration and then anger take over.  Angry is not firm.

It goes like this.  I am the parent.  You are the child.  End of discussion.

Child goes, “yeah but yeah but yeah but,”

Repeat out loud.  I am the parent.  You are the child.  End of discussion.

And when there are siblings, they can be taught to act as the “elder” child to the younger ones. “I am the big brother.  You are the younger.”  We can teach these older siblings to use the power of place in a strong and responsible way, not in a bullying, tyrannical way.  It is their job to be bigger, wiser, stronger, protective . . . of the young ones.

Now, I return to my own place in this line.  I am the grandmother—the Elder.  No, I am not there 24-7 to help you take the hits that life can hand out, and I have some regrets about that.  But I am here.  I see.  I have a responsibility.  Let me have my say.

Practice gentleness with yourself first—then with your partner.

When you take care this way

The gentleness will spill over onto your children

and they will be happy.

And remember, I am the parent.  You are the child.  End of discussion.

And one final thought.  Don’t worry that you will run out of time to do all the things you want to do in life.  There is time.  You don’t have to crunch it all into this moment.  Relax.  Enjoy.  Breathe.  It is a good time.


Somebody’s grandaughter, daughter, mother, grandmother, auntie, sister, wife, partner, friend

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