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Grandmothers Who Were Never Mothers

What happens when the stepchildren have children.

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illustration of baby with arms up wanting to be carried by grandmother
Molly Snee
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I grew up assuming that someday I’d have children. I’d be a mom. But choices collided with circumstances and, well, it never happened. What I did do was marry a man with kids. Randy’s daughter, Charlotte, was 11 at the time of our nuptials, and Jeremy was 8.

Now grown, these step fruits of my loins have produced their own children, making me a grandmother.

From the get-go, I was afraid of making a mistake, self-conscious that any screwup on my part would broadcast: What do you expect — she’s an amateur. The last time I changed a diaper was while babysitting at age 12. Back when large, dangerous pins were involved.

Like me, never a mom, Mackie Rosen was nervous at the prospect of grandmotherhood: “Nobody wants to be the grandma who dropped the baby.” Rosen watched YouTube videos to build her skill set. She enrolled in an online infant CPR/first aid class. “I always thought caring for kids was supposed to be instinctive, but there’s so much to learn,” she said.

That’s for sure. Tummy time builds muscles. Screen time damages brains.

“My mom stuck me in front of the television five minutes after I was born so she could have nap time,” I told Jeremy. “I turned out fine.”

“No comment,” he said.

When Charlotte and family visited from Denver, seeing all their car seats, shoes, monitors, changing pads, sippy cups, diaper bags, trucks and balls spread out in every nook and crevice of my white-upholstered living room resulted in several childish tantrums. Mine. Charlotte even lugged along her own blender to make smoothies.

“We own a blender,” I said.

“Not this brand,” she informed me.

Hers was larger than the children’s heads.

I’d tell you the names and ages of my grandkids, but their parents would have me flogged. These kids were barely out of their mothers when we were informed: Never post photos on the internet. “I see plenty of grandkid photos on Facebook,” I said, eager to show off my grandkids.

“Those are irresponsible grandparents.”

My learning curve has improved.

The first time I tried feeding grandson number 1, I asked, “Is he latching yet?”

“You have to put the bottle in his mouth first,” Charlotte said. “Face up or face down in the crib?” “Up, Linda! Definitely up!”

I now know that little babies grow into little tattletales.

“Okay, we can turn on the television, but don’t tell Mommy” soon evolves into, “Hey, Mommy! Guess what we watched!”

And, yes, it may be insulting if nobody ever turns to you when a diaper needs changing, but upon greater reflection, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I asked some of my fellow stepmoms-turned-grandmoms if they feel as “legitimate” as the biological grandparents.

“I do when it’s just us — my husband and the baby’s parents,” said Sally Brophy, whose grandson is 16 months old. “But when the other grandparents are around, I can feel second tier.”

“The kids are grand,” Cynthia Herrli said. “But they’re not mine.”

“At times, it feels like I am on the outside,” said Lisa Ansis, grandmother to a 5-year-old. “But it’s mostly in my own head. Our grandson doesn’t know the difference.”

That might be the happiest realization of all: Little kids don’t know from second marriages and remarriages, divorces or separations.

When Charlotte was first pregnant, I spent an inordinate amount of effort debating what this future person would call me. As the stepmom, I was last in line for the land grab taking place for monikers.

“Bibi,” one of the names on my list, was snatched up by the first Mrs. Randy. At the baby shower, Charlotte’s grandmother said to me, “I plan to be GG.” “But you’re already Nana,” I said. “GG — it stands for great grandmother.” Two names? She was going to use up two names?

That wasn’t fair! But whatever the kid called me, I’d be a grandmother, not a step grandma.

“For me the greatest gift is that I’m not step anything,” said Lolo Falk, who now has four grandchildren. “From day one I was just another of the people in the kids’ lives who loves them.”

Helene Ellison agreed. “I always call my husband’s kids ‘step kids’ out of deference to their mother, but I love that I don’t feel any need to call my grandkids step.”

My official grandma name is now Noni. I opted for Coco for a while, liking the Frenchness of it. Until I remembered I wasn’t French.

Next I went for Bubs, deciding it sounded hip … until my Brooklyn nephew informed me: “That’s not hip.” So I’m Noni. Even though I’m also not Italian. I can’t help but wonder if I’d have been good at being a mom. Would I have raised fine upstanding citizens? Little credits to humanity? How would it have felt to be called Mommy? I’ll never know.

But the day Randy and I got that excited first phone call that Charlotte was in labor, and that moment when we first rushed into the hospital room to meet this sweet new member of our lives, my heart skipped a happy beat as I heard Charlotte say, “Come and meet your grandson.”

Noni’s Recommendations

• Consider yourself a full-fledged grandparent. That’s how the grandkids see you.

• Change a diaper. At least once. It builds confidence.

• Give yourself a grandma name. Going by your first name puts you back into the step zone.

• Buy tissues in bulk. Prepare yourself for copious amounts of snot and drool. Then be grateful you can say, “They didn’t inherit that from me.”

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