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Should grandparents have a say?

Jasmine Abdullah* is fresh out of the delivery room. After four hours of labor and a nine-month wait, she finally has her baby girl in her arms and is about to feed her for the first time. Her mother stands on her right; on her left, her mother-in-law. For the first time, she helps her newborn latch on to her breast. Her mother is rushing her with stressful criticism over the baby’s inability to find the nipple. On her left, her mother-in-law grabs her breast and tries to help her.

Abdullah says, “A moment which was supposed to be intimate and special turned into a joke because of the amount of people in the room and the grandmothers’ participation in it.”

Sherine Ibrahim, who has been working as a Montessori trainer for over 13 years now, says many parents complain of helplessness in the face of grandparents’ involvement with their children.

With greater access to information, more parents trust their doctors and parenting literature, moving away from what their parents considered sound parenting.

Family politics in a society with close-knit family ties are complicated as the younger generation, namely new mothers, are detaching themselves from their parents as they embark on motherhood themselves. Grandparents, however, struggle as they are forced to step back and watch their own children raise their grandchildren. The debates in one household over the smallest details are never ending.

Aleya Ragai, a first time grandmother, recalls discussing with a new mother in her family the proper age to start potty training.

While Ragai acknowledges that her children are from a different generation and “have their own mind,” as she puts it, she says, “We raised our children like this and they were fine,” referring to the debate on what age one should start training their babies to use the toilet; the “old” opinion being that one should start as soon as the baby can sit up straight, while the “new” school believes you should not start until the child is two years old.

Abdullah, like most mothers, needed to stay with her mother for the first two months in order to get help with the sleepless nights and coping with the changes that she went through with becoming a new mother. While she believes the time spent at her parents’ house was needed, she felt they had many setbacks as well.

For example, she takes her parents to appointments with her pediatrician in the hopes that they will be convinced she is making the right decisions for her baby.  

Grandparent involvement impacts multiple aspects of a child’s life, including diet and behavior.

 “With grandparents you often see two extremes: either they punish and hit using old methods, or they spoil their grandchildren,” Ibrahim says.

Both types are harmful to their grandchildren’s wellbeing, believes Ibrahim. She hosts several parenting sessions, as well as Montessori trainings. In her Montessori classes, one grandmother was very dedicated to the program and when asked, she told Ibrahim it was to use with her grandchild. However, that is not always the case. “Although grandparents are around, they do not feel the need to attend these sessions because they are not the primary caregivers,” says Ibrahim.

Grandparents may sometimes be oblivious to how much they contribute to their grandchildrens’ future. Ibrahim says the way grandparents deal with them affects decisions the children make.

“My children learned things from my parents I would never be able to teach them,” Dalia Mohamed* says. However, the situation reached a point where she felt “there was no way out.”

That was when she decided, after living with her mother since her children were born, that it was time for her and her husband and children to move to a place as far from them as possible.

Abdullah’s father uses language she does not approve of, while he thinks it is funny. She fears when her daughter starts speaking, she will use this kind of language, yet Abdullah cannot say anything so as not to offend him.

Laila Mansour* says her parents’ and in-laws’ involvement with her children’s lives may include setting certain benchmarks, depending on their own interests. Her father, who is into sports, may challenge her son, pushing him into his own field of interest while her in-laws, being academics, may set high standards for her son’s academic achievements.

Mansour says she makes it a point for her children to see their grandparents at least once a week. This allows the influence that they would have on her children to be controlled. However, sometimes when things get too technical she finds her hands tied. Mansour’s in-laws are doctors, and she finds that when they have an opinion on what her and her husband should do with their sick child, she has to do what she is told.

In the past, grandmothers have often had the final say in how grandchildren are raised. Now, more parents try to explain themselves when using parenting techniques that are unfamiliar to grandparents, as they attempt to diplomatically manage situations that are inevitable in Egypt’s family-oriented society.

*These names were changed to avoid family problems.

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