Book Review: Who Gets to Name Grandma: The Wisdom of Mothers and Grandmothers, by Carol L. Covin (aka the Granny Guru)

When Dorothy was about 3 months old, my mom and I had the following hilarious conversation when I arrived to pick D up from my mom’s house after work:

Mom: She must be just about big enough for rice cereal. Has your doctor talked about starting her on cereal yet?

Me: Ummmmmmm…. I’m not sure when we’re starting cereal. I’ll look in the What to Expect the First Year book.

Mom: You know about baby rice cereal, right?

Me: (confused, because this seems like a really obvious question) Yeah, it comes in a box in the baby aisle.

Mom: I’m asking because when I suggested rice cereal to T this morning, he got really quiet, and then he said, “You mean Rice Krispies?”

To her credit, my mom insisted that I should not tell Tyler that she had revealed his confusion about what whether Rice Krispies constituted an appropriate first food; she and T’s parents have been tremendously helpful, kind, and respectful of boundaries since D was born. No relationship is perfect, but on the whole, we feel incredibly grateful to have them as part of our girls’ everyday lives.

My girls have grown up very close (geographically and emotionally) to their grandparents. We have traveled with T’s parents, both sets of grandparents help with childcare and the preschool commute, and the girls are already looking forward to our annual trip to the cottage on Lake Michigan with my parents and siblings. So when Carol Covin (the Granny Guru) contacted Mama Nervosa, asking if we might be interested in reviewing her book, I jumped at the chance. Negotiating parent/grandparent boundaries is part of our everyday life—and though we have been lucky not to have much conflict, I very much appreciated Covin’s approach to these issues.

The book is based on interviews with mothers and grandmothers and covers a wide range of topics: safety, food, babysitting, discipline, visiting etiquette for grandparents near and far. I particularly appreciated that Covin emphasizes that parents and grandparents need to approach difficult conversations with respect, compassion, and goodwill. Although the book is divided into short articles addressing each topic specifically, the core of most of the advice is: Remember that you are talking to a person who loves this child and wants them to be happy and healthy, just like you do. Know what issues are nonnegotiable (car seats, food allergies) and what issues allow flexibility. Respect each other’s experience, knowledge, and right to make decisions in your own space and time. All solid advice.

Covin encourages grandparents to offer stories and advice thoughtfully and respectfully, keeping in mind that in many ways they are building a new relationship with their own children as their children have become parents. This point really resonated with me; although my relationship with my parents (and to some extent my in-laws, because I have known them for so long) is of course built on shared history, the experiences and conversations we have had since I became a parent have reshaped our connection. We have a different appreciation of each other’s strengths, a perspective gained by the triangular relationship of watching each other care for my girls.

As you might expect, much of the book focuses on how to establish healthy boundaries and maintain balance. Covin writes about grandparents who visit too much and grandparents who would rather play tennis, parents who expect on-demand baby-sitting and parents who want to be first to pick up the baby; in all cases, Covin encourages parents and grandparents to talk about how they build can strong, positive relationships based on a shared understanding of what it means to be a grandparent. Let go of your assumptions and your petty frustrations, focus on what really matters, explain what you need clearly, honestly and respectfully, and work together to create the relationship that works best for your family.

Each article begins with a quote from a mother or grandmother and includes a sidebar with Granny Guru’s Grains of Wisdom, a short piece of advice distilled from the larger discussion of the issue in the article. My personal favorite is from the article about spirituality and religion; the article begins with a quote from a grandmother who wants her grandchildren to grow up with a faith in God. Here is Granny Guru’s Grain of wisdom:

Religious upbringing: what is a parent’s responsibility? To give children the tools they need to see them through life’s vagaries. If spiritual, if family, if neighborhood or culture. What is larger than our own personal lives and interests? What ties us to the larger family of the world? What sustains us when life is not fair? (p. 87)

Covin acknowledges that faith can provide comfort, community, and ritual, but also makes clear that each person has their own spiritual journey. I love the way she reframes what could be an intense conflict, and I could imagine a parent or grandparent using the language from that “grain of wisdom” to redirect the conversation. Yes, we all need comfort and connection and community and an understanding of our place in the world; no, that doesn’t have to come from a church.

Although Covin doesn’t specifically address issues facing blended families or queer families, most of the advice seems all purpose enough to be applicable to a variety of family forms. I only found myself disagreeing vehemently with her once (she quotes a grandparent who spanked her grandchild with a spatula for swearing, and focuses on the importance of teaching children appropriate language but never mentions that it is never okay to spank another person’s child). On the whole, the book offers thoughtful, useful advice, and Covin is respectful of the perspectives and experiences of parents and grandparents. You can also check her advice and writing out at her website.

2 Responses to Book Review: Who Gets to Name Grandma: The Wisdom of Mothers and Grandmothers, by Carol L. Covin (aka the Granny Guru)

  1. OMG — rice krispies!! Hilarious. This baby cereal thing must have been a generational deal. I know my Mom and all her sisters were formula fed, and I was FF’ed. I did not have strong intergenerational support for my choice to breastfeed, simply because the experience wasn’t there. I think that’s a real sticking point because something that should be in that continuum of mothering the mother/teaching the new mother can become a big point of contention and emotion. It all worked out — I had great peer support — but I’m sure this can be a roadblock for some families. This book sounds neat! Wouldn’t it be a great gift for new grandmothers, or on Mother’s Day for expecting grandparents?

  2. The book would be an aweome gift for new grandparents– the tone is very friendly and accessible, and the advice is respectful and reasonable. You could definitely use the language to have a smoother conversation about what might be tricky issues.
    My mom did some combo of formula and nursing, I think, but her general philosophy is that babies shouldn’t be hungry, and she’s not overly worried about who feeds them or how they are fed. When Lucy was refusing to nurse, she did offer the helpful wisdom that even though this seemed like a crisis of enormous proportions, it was probably not going to feel that way weeks, months, and years down the road (I think she actually said, Honey, this is not going to matter when she’s in kindergarten.). I’ve had great peer and sibling support for breastfeeding.
    I think it would be fascinating to do interviews with women about breastfeeding and generational issues– has somebody already written this book? They must have.