From one of the country’s most recognizable journalists, Lesley Stahl of CBS's 60 Minutes: How becoming a grandmother transforms a woman’s life.
After four decades as a reporter, Lesley Stahl’s most vivid and transformative experience of her life was not covering the White House, interviewing heads of state, or researching stories at 60 Minutes. It was becoming a grandmother. She was hit with a jolt of joy so intense and unexpected, she wanted to “investigate” it—as though it were a news flash. And so, using her 60 Minutes skills, she explored how grandmothering changes a woman’s life, interviewing friends like Whoopi Goldberg, colleagues like Diane Sawyer (and grandfathers, including Tom Brokaw), as well as the proverbial woman next door.
Along with these personal accounts, Stahl speaks with scientists and doctors about physiological changes that occur in women when they have grandchildren; anthropologists about why there are grandmothers, in evolutionary terms; and psychiatrists about the therapeutic effects of grandchildren on both grandmothers and grandfathers.
Throughout Becoming Grandma, Stahl shares stories about her own life with granddaughters Jordan and Chloe, about how her relationship with her daughter, Taylor, has changed, and about how being a grandfather has affected her husband, Aaron.
In an era when baby boomers are becoming grandparents in droves and when young parents need all the help they can get raising their children, Stahl’s book is a timely and affecting read that redefines a cherished relationship.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.42(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.63(d)|
About the Author
From the Hardcover edition.
Read an Excerpt
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***
Copyright © 2016 Lesley Stahl
Life and Death
It’s never too late to have the best day of your life.
Throughout my career, I worked at suppressing both my opinions and my emotions. I was out on the streets of New York on 9/11 and held myself together. I walked the alleys of Sadr City and once raced to a café in Tel Aviv minutes after it was leveled by a suicide bomber without allowing my fears to surface. I’ve asked embarrassing questions without embarrassment. And I’ve sat opposite mothers of dying children, teenagers who had been abused, and grown men and women who had suffered the indignities of injustice—without breaking down in tears or exploding in outrage. I thought I had become the epitome of self-control.
Then, wham! My first grandchild, Jordan, was born on January 30, 2011. I was jolted, blindsided by a wallop of loving more intense than anything I could remember or had ever imagined.
At the very same time, my mother, Dolly, was dying. It was a disconcerting conjunction, to say the least. Although she had spent the last forty-five years complaining of one illness after the next, it was now for real. She might not live long enough to hold her great-grandchild. In no time my diligently buried emotions burst out like kettle steam.
Dolly had fallen and broken her hip, which set off her rapid decline. My husband, Aaron, and I were with her at the hospital when our daughter, Taylor, called from Los Angeles. All she said was, “They started.” Aaron and I kissed my mother good-bye, assuring her we would call as soon as we knew anything. We drove to her house for our clothes and on to Logan airport to catch the next plane to LAX. Our only child was in labor, four days early.
On the plane I fought off waves of fear: Would the baby be healthy? If something went wrong, would Taylor have to give up her career? For months I’d been pushing away such thoughts, those grandma gremlins. At the same time, I reproached myself for leaving Dolly. Would she be okay until I got back? We hadn’t had the kind of even-keeled relationship I have with Taylor. When Dolly turned ninety-three a few months before, I told her I never thought she’d live that long, and she said: “Well you don’t have to say it so regretfully, ya know.” Her dig, meant to be funny, was a reminder of the old rancor between us. As we both aged and mellowed, we became friends; now it pained me to leave her like that, in the hands of nurses at the hospital.
When we landed, Taylor was back home. She had gone to the hospital too early, and now she and our son-in-law, Andrew Major, were graphing her contractions on an iPad. I was sailing out of body. I couldn’t believe it: my baby—having a baby. How could this be? She was my special Taylor, calm and imperturbable as always. She was signaling that’s what she needed from me. I would have to quiet my nervous excitement.
At five the next morning, Taylor and Andrew raced back to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. By the time Aaron and I got there, Taylor was already in her “birthing room,” which was spacious and light with a panoramic view of the Hollywood Hills. And yes, we could see the sign! Monitoring tubes dangled; a nurse bustled about. Taylor had already been given an epidural, so we would have no Murphy Brown wailing, though I doubt Taylor would’ve wailed even if she’d gone without. Histrionics are simply not on her emotional keyboard.
She seems to have been born with something called hyperthymia. Roughly translated, it means “perpetual happiness.”1 This is one reason we have always had such a good relationship. I have a daughter who didn’t go through the usual teenage miseries or years of hating her mother (I confess to both). We had no melodrama; doors weren’t slammed. She was so even-tempered as a child, I was worried. “It’s just not normal,” I told Aaron. “She must be repressing. Her head’ll blow off one day. She needs to see a child psychiatrist.”
“What’ll you tell him?” he asked. “‘My daughter suffers from being too happy’? Are you kidding?”
Eventually I talked to a shrink myself, who assured me there really are people out there, including teenage girls, who are never moody. Imagine.
So Taylor’s equanimity in the birthing room seemed normal. When the contractions accelerated, it was my stomach that churned: “Where’s the doctor?” I asked the nurse, with an edge. “Why isn’t he here?”
“Oh, we never wake up the doctor early on Sunday,” she explained.
As Taylor lay in bed, uncomfortable but composed, Andrew, Aaron and I followed her cues and forced ourselves into a state of artificial nonchalance. But we are who we are: just as I was about to let loose my pent-up anxiety with a bellowing, “Where the hell is the goddamn doctor?,” in he sauntered, like a reporter meeting a deadline by seconds.
“You’re doing great,” he assured Taylor. “I’ve been monitoring you at home on my iPhone.” Good golly. Look how far we’ve come from house calls. Now doctors treat you from their beds.
He walked Andrew over to the window to show the father-to-be his cool contraction app. They chatted and swapped other new apps like two friends in a bar until Taylor said: “Hey, fellas, over here. Isn’t this my show?”
Fifteen minutes later, the doctor announced: “Showtime!” And asked, “Will your parents stay?”
To my disappointment, Taylor said no. So Aaron and I slouched off to the empty waiting room. It seems that many of the births at Cedars-Sinai are Caesarean, by appointment, something Taylor was offered but passed on. Doctors like their Sundays off. As far as we could tell, only one other baby was born in the hospital that morning.
We paced and twitched and checked our watches every three minutes like actors before the curtain. Aaron and I already knew that it was a girl, and that her name would be Jordan, a name beginning with J after my brother, Jeff (who died in September 1999). I’d gone with Taylor to several doctor appointments, had heard the astoundingly strong heartbeat at just ten weeks, and at three months I’d watched little arms and legs float and wiggle on the ultrasound screen.
We weren’t in the waiting room very long before the doctor appeared. “The baby’s perfect,” he told us. “Out in less than forty minutes. An easy birth as these things go.”
We ran back to the birthing room to see Jordan for the first time, swaddled in Taylor’s arms, a little bundle weighing six pounds, fourteen ounces. I thought: A whole new person, and she’s mine. I was so pumped, my heart was on a trampoline. And there was my daughter, soft in a way I’d never seen. Was this my tomboy who wouldn’t wear dresses? She was now a Giotto Madonna.
Andrew was stretched out on the bed next to her so they could pass the baby back and forth. A pair so suddenly a three- some. At one point Andrew took Tay’s face in his hands and kissed her lips twenty times.
Andrew has a temperament as steady and unflappable as Taylor’s. They had met when he was working for Rob Lowe on The West Wing and she was a production assistant at a small movie company called Middle Fork. Her boss asked her to hire a new assistant. Andrew applied. Taylor loved his looks—he’s often mistaken for Tobey Maguire—and she thought he was funny, which he is. She especially loved that he could tell stories about The West Wing, her favorite television show. She hired him on the spot.
A few years later he found a better job as a television writer in New York. Taylor told him it was okay with her as long as he moved in with Aaron and me, which he did, living with us in our small apartment for more than a year. The first few weeks were inevitably awkward. When Aaron and I had plans for dinner out, for example, we would call Tay in LA to see if Andrew wanted to join us. She’d call him in his bedroom, which was next to Aaron’s office, where we were waiting for an answer. She’d call us back. “Yup, he’d love to.”
The crazy three-step communication system (we didn’t want him to have to say no to our faces) didn’t last long. Within a few weeks Aaron and I were feeling we had reconstituted our family with an only child. Well, almost reconstituted. I’ve discovered that no matter how warm the relationship, there’s always a certain etiquette when you deal with an in-law, a trace of formality.
On the day of Jordan’s birth, I loved him like a son. Everything was unceremonious and comfortable. Since he and Tay had come to the hospital early, I kept urging them to take a nap. They laughed and teased me—I guess it was pretty obvious that all I wanted was to hold Jordan. Have her to myself. I thought about what one of my friends who had just become a grandmother told me: “All I wanted to do was lick the baby’s face!”
When it was finally my turn, I felt I was growing a whole new chamber in my heart. I nearly swooned, staring at her like a lover. I’d never seen anything so delicate and beautiful, so sweet, every feature perfect. And it’s not that I didn’t see her three chins.
This is what I didn’t expect. I was at a time in my life where I assumed I had already had my best day, my tallest high. But now I was overwhelmed with euphoria. Why was she hitting with such a force? What explains this enormous joy, this grandmother elation that is a new kind of love?
At first I wondered if it was from seeing my child become a mother. Or maybe I was subliminally realizing the forwarding of my bloodline, that my DNA had transferred to the new generation. Was I hearing little cries of joy from my genes—“I am fulfilled!”?
One friend told me that what struck her was that the seed of her grandchild was already in her daughter’s body when the daughter was a fetus in her body. What an extraordinary thought, Jordan developing in Taylor when she was in my womb.
All I knew for sure was that I was in unknown territory. This was very different from the day Taylor was born. Hers had been a Caesarean birth, so for several days I was a woozy patient on serious drugs. It was Aaron who changed her diapers, wrapped her up in blankets, and walked her around the room. Now, as a grandmother, I was in perfect health, clearheaded, and not at all pleased whenever Aaron asked for his turn. What, hand her over?
When I did, reluctantly, Aaron held his granddaughter in the palm of one hand. This Texas-tall 230-pounder began muttering soft baby talk. I decided it was a good time to call my mother, still in the hospital three thousand miles away.
“Jordan’s here! And she’s perfect!”
But Dolly yelled at me, snapping me into a different reality. “Get me out,” my mother demanded. “They don’t do anything for me here.”
“What do you need?” I asked.
“I want to turn to face the door.” But turning would put her on her bad hip. I felt so helpless. I tried again: “Dolly, you have a great-granddaughter.” But she just continued to chastise me for leaving her. This was a dark shadow on the day. My mother was unable to appreciate what she had so long yearned for.
Dolly had not wanted to be a grandmother. She thought it would mark her as old. But by eighty-five, she’d become what none of us ever foresaw: a sweet little old lady (for most of the time). With her transformation came a craving for a great-grand- child. She wanted it so badly, she once hung up on Taylor when she had to admit: “No, Dolly, I’m not pregnant yet.”
I, on the other hand, wanted to be a grandmother from the age of forty-five—when Tay was only ten. The tug for a grand- child was real and persistent. It made the arrival all the sweeter.
An hour after the birth, Taylor and Jordan were moved into a cramped single room overlooking a concrete wall. Jordan slept at the foot of Tay’s bed, a collapsing pink balloon tied to her plastic bassinet.
Thinking up a name for her had been an ordeal. It actually started with a disagreement over a name for Taylor and Andrew’s puppy. Aaron proposed Gilley; I was pushing Gertrude. But they wanted a strong unisex name and finally settled on Sydney.
When it came to my grandchild, the process was a long wrestle. “I love the name Violet,” I said.
“I hate flower names,” said Taylor.
Aaron switched to cities: “Paris?”
“Paris Hilton. No way.”
Aaron tried again. “Dallas.”
“Dallas Major? Come on. It sounds like a stripper.”
My turn: “I have a wonderful friend named Vijay. I love that.”
“They’d call her Vagina.”
I proposed BJ. “She’d be Blow Job.”
Wisely, Taylor kept their choice secret until three days before she delivered.
Then there was the issue of what Jordan would call us. I told Taylor I’d like to be “Granny.”
“No way” was her reaction. “It sounds frumpy.”
I still liked it but was told that no matter what I decreed, the baby would call me whatever she called me. I thought that was nonsense. My mother wanted to be called Dolly, and all her grandchildren complied.
What if the baby tried to say my name? How would Lesley come out? Then it came to me: Lolly! It would come out Lolly— if I told her so. So I would be Lolly, and Aaron would be Pop. That’s what he called his dad. We would be LollyPop. Cute, huh? Both Jordan and I had new names.
As a grandmother for only a few hours, I was enveloped in newness. I supposed I shouldn’t have been, but I was startled when a lactation specialist dropped by. “Taylor, you’re going to breast-feed? Really?” This was something neither I nor most of my friends even considered. We were in the first wave of women invited into the workplace under the banner of affirmative action, thinking we had to prove we could do our jobs as well as—and just like—the men. They didn’t breast-feed; we didn’t breast-feed.
With Taylor and her friends, it’s a given. She had taken a class on it, but now, on her first try, she said, “I forget everything. Neither Jordan nor I know what to do.” I was of no help. It did cross my mind: Thank God I didn’t put myself through this.
The second feeding went a little better, though Taylor told me: “It doesn’t feel good at all.” She was supposed to nurse twenty minutes on each side, but it took ninety minutes since Jordan wasn’t getting the hang of it, and Tay was wincing with pain. “She’s given me a hickey already.”
Jordan began to cry. “So sad,” said Tay. “She probably hasn’t had anything to eat at all.”
Unlike tiger cubs, our babies are feeding incompetents in need of aggressive tutoring. The lactation nurse drizzled formula on the nipple to spark Jordan’s appetite. That’s when I congratulated my- self once again for abstaining. I would’ve been a nervous wreck, which the baby would surely have felt and internalized. Ha! I thought. Taylor is calm and centered because I used a bottle!
I called Dolly again; her nurse told me she wasn’t eating either.
On day two Taylor was in major pain and deeply worried about her baby getting nourishment. When she asked to spend another night in the hospital, I said good idea. The baby nurse wasn’t coming for four more days, and Andrew was exhausted. When Dr. Laid-Back ambled in and slumped in the chair, Taylor complained that she couldn’t get herself up and out of bed. She didn’t tell him how inadequate she felt about the breast-feeding. In any case, the doctor said that since she didn’t have a medical reason to spend another night in the hospital, the insurance would only cover one night.
“It’ll cost you three thousand dollars to stay another day.”
When he left, we decided to make up our minds late in the day. If Taylor still wanted to stay, Aaron and I would pay for it.
Whenever Taylor rested, I walked around the little room holding the baby or Aaron rocked her on his shoulder while Andrew snapped pictures. Jordan looked much better today. Her eyes were not as puffy. Were they swollen yesterday? Gee, hadn’t noticed. I had thought she was perfect and gorgeous yesterday. Well, she was gorgeous and perfect that day. That’s for sure.
A new lactation specialist, Deborah, came and stayed an hour and a half. It was just what Taylor needed, patience and tenacity. Deborah “trained” Jordan onto Tay’s breast and showed how to pump the liquid out and breathe deeply to set up a rhythm. She taught Tay how to judge when Jordan was satisfied by how taut or relaxed her little arms were.
After forty-five minutes, voilà! Jordan was feeding. Deborah told Taylor this was much faster than most because she was calm, saying, “My other mothers get so tense. How does it feel?”
“It feels good.” Jordan was slurping and Tay was triumphant.
Deborah said, “After feeding, put the baby’s skin next to yours. That’s her favorite place on earth right now. Enjoy it, because in five years it’ll be Disneyland!”
After Tay rested Jordan on her chest, she lifted her up against her knees and looked at her in such a tender way, I again wondered: Who are you? She kissed Jordan’s eyes, then held her high in the air and just stared up at her. “You know,” I said, “this is the first time you’ve ever played with a doll!” We laughed. It was true. “I’ve never seen you be so affectionate,” I said.
“Andrew’s changed me,” she told me. “I married the perfect person.”
Late in the afternoon, Taylor, whose favorite outfit as a kid was dark green overalls, put Jordan into a little froufrou dress. She had decided not to stay another night. So we packed up a dozen bags of diapers, receiving blankets, a diaper bag present from the hospital, adult diapers for Tay, a rented lactation pump, and Jordan—swaddled in a white blanket.
It took two cars to get everything home. Andrew drove theirs, Tay in the back with Jordan in a car seat, Aaron and I following in our rental with all their stuff. We stayed with them till ten that night, helping unpack, seeing to dinner, giving the two of them time to rest. With a newborn, you really do need eight hands. Only a few generations back, a new mother had bevies of women around helping out: their mother, aunts and cousins.
In our hotel room the next morning, I began to wonder at the abrupt change in my daughter. This was the girl who preferred playing sports to tea parties and was scrupulously undemonstrative. Literally overnight she had mutated into a tender, doting cooer. Was there an explanation, an article I could read? I approached this like a 60 Minutes project, going online to dig around. The first thing I found was a reference to a book called The Fe- male Brain by Louann Brizendine, a neuropsychiatrist. I pulled it up on my Kindle and read that personality and behavioral changes like Taylor’s are normal in new mothers, because childbirth activates something called oxytocin, the mothering or bonding hormone. The sucking, the touch, the baby smell trigger the sprouting of what Brizendine calls “love circuits” in the brain. She says a woman is altered from within. It’s like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and it’s powerful enough to change what even the most career-oriented woman thinks is important.
What I was seeing in Taylor was beginning to make sense. The hormones cause a new mother to literally become “addicted” to her baby.2 They also produce a hypervigilance, a sometimes irrational fear regarding her infant’s safety.
My reading was interrupted by a call from Taylor. She had just heard from the baby nurse that she had a cold and felt it wasn’t a good idea for her to be around a newborn. The plan had been for Aaron and me to stay another night or so. I felt a need to get back to my mother. I was now her only child. Plus my unfinished projects at 60 Minutes were piling up. But how could I leave Taylor and Andrew without any help? It was one of those either/ors that decides itself: Aaron and I would stay in LA. Together we would be the baby nurse.
I realized this was an opportunity to atone for the choices I had made as a mother. When Taylor was young, I was the CBS News White House correspondent, a demanding job that often had me working late or going off on trips with the president for days at a time. The nurse’s not coming was a chance to make up for my maternal absences. What was to be one more day turned into a week and a half, during which I babysat Jordan whenever she wasn’t being nursed so Taylor could get some sleep and I could get my Jordan fix. When Tay was nursing, she would get into a big, comfy armchair in the baby’s room with something called a Boppy pillow—a doughnut for Jordan to lie on while she suckled. And I would sit with them in a state I’m not that familiar with: total peace.
Introducing Jordan to Sydney, their black Labrador, had to be carefully choreographed. Andrew had already given the dog one of the baby’s onesies so she would be familiar with the little intruder’s scent. When we arrived home from the hospital, we barricaded Sydney in the kitchen to keep her from the baby, all of us fearing aggressive sibling rivalry. Tay and Andrew had rescued Sydney a year before as a test, to see if they were nurturing enough to be parents. Until Jordan arrived, she was their spoiled only child.
When Andrew brought Sydney into the baby’s room, she moved slowly. Taylor whispered soothingly as the dog edged up to the Boppy and sniffed. She then sat down and stared, trying to figure things out. Incredible. The dog seemed to realize this was momentous. How’d she know? She got up and went back for an- other whiff, lifting her nostrils up to the side of Jordan’s head. And that was that. Satisfied, she lay down at Taylor’s feet and went to sleep.
And yet I wouldn’t say we were living in paradise. Jordan couldn’t settle down after her evening feeding, so we all took turns walking her around. Did she have colic, as Taylor had? Aaron said it was too early to tell. But she did fuss and quiver with stomach pain. After Taylor gave her a sponge bath, Andrew rocked and sang to her until he finally lullabied her to sleep.
But all too soon it was time for another feeding. The nursing schedule was every three hours, for an hour. Taylor, my baby still, had a rash on her tummy, and her breasts hurt, so she was icing them with cartons of ice cream.
The next morning when I called my mother, she was more lucid. One of her nurses set up a computer for Skyping, so Dolly got to see Jordan for the first time, as she arabesqued her skinny little arms. Dolly was riveted. It was wonderful. But I noticed that her smile was crooked, and she was listing to one side. It occurred to me she may have had a stroke.
Later that evening Andrew’s parents, Barbara and Roy Major, arrived and seemed to enjoy the same raptures over Jordan we did. They’d flown in from Kansas City for just a few days, both having full-time jobs: she a paralegal at her brother’s law firm, he a drafting coordinator for a steel company. When she held Jordan, Barbara assumed the grandmother stare, that gaze of soft-eyed enchantment. Roy fell under the same spell. We kept passing our little baby around from Roy to Aaron, to me, and then to Taylor and Andrew and back to Barbara. Jordan was always in someone’s arms.
This is another new territory for grandmothers. We find our- selves having to share the new center of our life with basically strangers. The sharing part can be difficult. Handing Jordan over to Barbara was wrenching; then again, passing her to Aaron or Taylor was hard too, and I know Barbara felt the same. The only time we willingly gave Jordan up was when she pooped. “Here Tay! Andrew!”
I can only guess what it was like for them, as red-state, church- centered Missourians, having their son marry a blue-state-of- mind girl whose mother was on 60 Minutes, with all that that implies, and whose father worked in Hollywood. But Aaron and I liked them immediately for their warmth and decency, and be- cause they had given Andrew such wholesome values. The four of us spent the next few days giving Taylor and Andrew time to sleep. Aaron and Roy talked sports; Barbara and I swapped stories about being working moms and about our mothers. We found we had a lot in common.
On their second day in LA, I decided I could get a little work done, so I went to San Jose to interview John Chambers, the CEO of Cisco Systems, for a 60 Minutes piece on corporate taxes. When I told him about Jordan, out flashed pictures of his grand- kids. This was how I was introduced to the secret society of grans. We’re instant compatriots. If you want to break the ice with someone who’s in the society, all you have do is ask, “So how old is yours?” This was actually used as a tactic during the 2015 nuclear negotiations with Iran. As The New York Times reported, one of the logjams was broken after the US nuclear scientist at the talks gave his Iranian counterpart gifts for his new grandchild.3
In various surveys, nearly three-quarters of grandparents say that being a grandparent is the single most important and satisfy- ing thing in their life.4 Most say being with their grandkids is more important to them than traveling or having financial security.5
A few hours later, I was back at my post as baby nurse, having yearned for Jordan the whole time I was away. Now in my arms, Little Miss Dainty farted. Music! And pooped. Perfume!
To be honest, Taylor and Andrew performed most of the baby- nurse duties, like changing diapers and bathing. Aaron and I were more like the maid and butler. We ran errands, kept the pantry stocked, ordered and picked up takeout, and of course held the baby as much as we could. It didn’t escape me that while Taylor was going through some kind of metabolic conversion into this über-nurturer, I was mutating into the hausfrau I never had been.
Hausfrau, and supplicant. In a book of essays by grandmothers called Eye of My Heart, Barbara Graham writes that she felt as though she was auditioning for the role of grandmother. Yes. That’s what it felt like. Am I doing a good job with the baby? Does my daughter approve? So while I was marveling at Taylor’s sudden aptitude for mothering, I thought she was loving my loving her daughter. I thought I would get the part.
Ten days after Jordan was born, Taylor suited up, tying her daughter onto her chest in a Moby wrap, and took the dog and me out for a walk. I was leaving the next day, so as we strolled along, we discussed how she was going to manage her maternity leave without her father and me. Taylor and Andrew would be on their own. I begged her to at least hire a maid and suggested that, once she went back to work, she consider hiring a part-time assistant to help pay the bills and keep her life in order. I had just read an article about working moms who do all the bill paying, errand running, housecleaning, food shopping, cooking—and have no time for the baby.
Taylor laughed at me. “Mom,” she said, eyes rolling, “I’ll pay the bills and run my errands online on my lunch hour. I’ll get things delivered through Amazon.”
“Okay, okay,” I said. I am so twentieth century.
Our last night in LA, we ordered a pizza and watched televi- sion, Jordan right there with us, propped up in a little rocker on the coffee table. I thought: This is the best of the best. I was filled with gratitude that Tay was letting me be part of it. Letting me help her. Love her. Hold the baby. Become a real grand- mother. What a gift. I was really needed and it felt so damn good.
When Aaron and I landed in New York the next day, the first thing I did was call Dolly’s doctor. Without much of a preamble she said, “Your mother has a lesion on her brain. It’s a tumor on the right side, accounting for the weakness on her left side.” It’s why she was listing. “Your mother is near the end of her life,” the doctor told me. “She’ll sleep more and more now and just fade away. What she needs is palliative care.”
I was numb. Shocked. My mother had cancer that had metastasized into an advanced stage. Eight years earlier, when Dolly was eighty-five, she had been diagnosed with lung cancer. I begged the doctor not to tell her. She would have been terrified. She was unaware all that time and had had no symptoms, till now.
The doctor offered to help arrange for hospice care at home. After my dad died in 1994 my mother stayed on in their big house in Swampscott. I loved being there, looking out on the ocean. At night when the moon was bright it cast a path of diamonds that danced right into Dolly’s bedroom window. She would want to be there.
I kept thinking how cruel it would be if she never got to meet and hold Jordan.
When I hung up, I turned to Aaron: “I’ll be an orphan like you.”
“I miss Clyde every day,” he said of his father.
“Do you miss the responsibility for him, the burden?”
“I miss everything.”
The next morning I woke early with a heavy sadness. While I repacked my suitcase to go to Swampscott, I called Dolly’s nurse, who assured me she wasn’t dying. Not yet. It would be weeks, if not months.
Not only had I left my mother, I had also left my work at 60 Minutes. Several projects were in limbo. So I decided to take a few days in New York to work—as I often do—on two or three pieces at the same time, including a story about Scott Brown, the Republican who was running for Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat in Massachusetts, and one on corporate taxes.
I was so stressed that night that I woke up at two a.m. worrying about organizing a funeral, dealing with my mother’s financial affairs, selling her house. Then, with a pang of panic, I remembered she had given me the key to her safety-deposit box at her local bank, where she kept all her jewelry. I had no idea where I had put that key.
I woke up again the next night at two a.m., mad with remorse over not being with Dolly and frantic about the lost key. What if there was no way to access the bank box? Would Dolly’s rings and necklaces sit there in perpetuity?
That morning Aaron and I were finally leaving to see my mother in Swampscott. As I was packing, an image came to me of my old green purse. It was like the answer to a crossword puzzle popping into your head a day later, out of nowhere. I found the purse, dug around, and there it was. The lost key!
When we got to her house, Dolly looked haggard. She was gray, her hair now just a few white strands. You could see that her left side was paralyzed. We helped her into a sitting position and got Jordan up on Skype. Taylor had dressed her in a pink onesie with monkey feet. Dolly touched the screen and smiled. I wanted to cry. My mother seemed like a little girl now. Mercifully, she was in no pain and still unaware she had cancer. Her mother, my dad and my brother all died of it. And now my mother.
Watching over Dolly in that beautiful house where I had grown up, I had time to think about my being a grandmother. This was a relationship I wanted to savor, and put ahead of the demands of my job or anything else tugging at my time and attention. I now had a new first priority.
But there was something more at work here, something mysterious welling up inside me. It wasn’t that I hadn’t been told that becoming a grandmother was the best thing that ever happens to a woman. But what I couldn’t get over was the physicality of my feelings. When I got into bed at night, I would pretend I was holding Jordan in my arms. I was infatuated. Dare I say it? It felt like—ardor.
Was I, like Taylor, going through some hormonal changes? As I would do on a story at work, I found a phone number for Louann Brizendine, author of The Female Brain, and called her. She couldn’t have been more gracious as I explained that I was trying to understand my grandmother feelings. Why, when I looked at Jordan and held her, I felt I was floating, that I was on a high. “I know it sounds hyperbolic,” I said, “but I feel like a lover. I keep wanting to burst into song!”
She laughed but explained that in all of us the brain pathway for baby love is the same as the pathway for romantic and carnal love. “The baby brain circuitry came first. Sex piggybacked on it.” She said there’s a good reason we use the same words for baby loving and eroticism.
So, I wasn’t crazy, and I wasn’t alone. Before she got off the line, Dr. Brizendine told me that when a grandmother holds the baby, her brain, like a new mother’s, can also be drenched in the bonding hormone oxytocin.6
Aha! There it was. We grandmas literally, actually fall in love.
Table of Contents
Over the River and Through the Woods 1
1 Life and Death 7
2 Granny Nannies 29
3 Natural Enemies 61
4 House in the Bronx 89
5 Working Grannies 113
6 Macho to Mush 143
7 Step-Grandmothers 181
8 Hope Meadows: A Road Trip 199
9 Chloe 223
10 A Call to Arms 251
What People are Saying About This
Lesley Stahl brings the keen reporting we know from “60 Minutes” to the story of grandparenting. Amazed and delighted at the joy she experienced with the arrival of own two granddaughters, Stahl set about finding out why that was true. Her wise answers, both scientific and practical, provide useful information not only for grandparents and the children they cherish, but also for the wider society. This is a wonderfully fun read about an important subject. --Cokie Roberts, author of We are Our Mothers' Daughters
Lesley Stahl, one of America's most well-respected journalists, uses her reporter's instinct and grandmother's heart to take a bold look at life's most joyful relationship in Becoming Grandma. Stahl's wisdom, experience, and boundless love for her own granddaughters bring stunning new insights into this classic bond. I loved this booka must-read for every family. --Linda Fairstein
An ode to mimis, bubbes and nanas everywhere...Lesley Stahl reports from the fascinating front lines of modern grandparenting. --Pamela Druckerman, author of Bringing Up Bébé
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Great book for any new grandma or grandpa! Very entertaining and insightful! Always liked Lesley Stahl as a reporter and now love her as an author.