Posted January 21, 2015:
The Vocation of a Grandmother

by Irma Zaleski.

A few years ago, during a visit to the North of England, I went to see Mother Thekla, an Orthodox nun and a spiritual mother to many people. During our conversation, she asked me whether I had ever thought of becoming a nun now that my children were grown up and I lived alone.

The question disconcerted me, but Mother Thekla’s questions are often disconcerting.

I answered that the thought had occurred to me, but I realized I would never choose to place myself in a position where I could not be available to my children whenever they might need my presence or help.

"I am glad to hear it," she said. "I am always somewhat puzzled when women, who already have children of their own, tell me they think they have a religious vocation. It is as if God, having given us one vocation, suddenly changed his mind and decided to give us another."

Of course, Mother Thekla did not mean that a mother must not, or should not, do anything else but stay at home to look after her children, that she should not be allowed to work or go to school.

In the final analysis, motherhood is not, perhaps, a question of this or that lifestyle, this or that way of organizing one’s everyday existence, or even one’s spiritual life.

(It is true that a woman who is already a mother may sometimes be called to a life of prayer or some other special work in the Church. Catherine Doherty is a case in point, but such a call is an exception.)

For most of us, it is a question of our basic, faithful, never-ending readiness to serve our children, to put their needs above our own, but also to respect them and their essential human freedom.

This applies even when—and especially when—it seems to us that our children do not want our help or even our presence anymore, when they insist on going their own way, seemingly throwing everything we taught them out the window.

Like all true love, motherhood—true mother’s love—demands from us the denial of self—selflessness. To be a mother means to be called to forget our own emotional needs, our own convictions of how things should or should not be done, our ambitions and desires, even our desire to help our children in the way we think we should help them.

Every mother, especially every mother of grown-up children, must know the pain of being on the sidelines, of being unneeded, the pain of separation and often the pain of keeping silent.

All mothers, sooner or later, have to learn the painful lesson that the most important thing we can do for our children may be to let go of them, to allow them to go their own way—perhaps the wrong way—without ever ceasing to love them and pray for them.

It is surely not only a pious platitude to say that a mother’s prayer is the greatest gift of her love.

When we pray for our children, when we surrender them, however poorly and halfheartedly at times, when we surrender their whole lives, all their needs, to God, we witness to our faith in his omnipotent love and to our convictions that our children’s lives do not belong to us, but to God.

Our prayer for them is our act of resignation of the right to control their lives.

Motherhood is a way of self-denial, of kenosis, emptying of self. A mother’s vocation, in other words, like every true vocation, is the path to holiness on which we have been placed by God. There cannot be a "higher" way for us.

A mother who cannot bring herself to such self-denial, who cannot bear to surrender her own needs, may become a dreadful caricature of motherhood—a tragic figure—a source of disaster for herself and for her children.

I have heard it said that a selfish mother, a mother who wishes her children to fulfill her, to serve her needs—whether she is aware of her real motives or not—is "more dangerous than an atom bomb."

But perhaps this is true of all human relationships. Perhaps more evil has been done in the name of selfishness parading as love than in any other way.

I have thought a lot lately about Mother Thecla’s words and have begun to see them from another perspective.

In May 1995, my daughter gave birth to a son, her first child and my first grandchild. I have spent much time since then in Toronto where they live, helping her as much as I can and in the process, bonding with my grandson, as the saying goes.

From the first moment of little Joseph’s life—I had the great happiness of being present at his birth—from the moment when I first saw his little face pop out into the world, and a few minutes later when my son-in-law gave me his tiny body to hold, something tremendous and wonderful happened in me, something was done to me and will never be undone. I became a grandmother.

Since that moment, many things have happened: sleepless nights, hundreds of washed diapers, hours of walking with Joseph hanging over one very sore shoulder, visits to a doctor, countless consultations—in person or over the long distance telephone—on the state of his tummy, the miracle of his first smile, the meaning of the latest noise he has learned to emit, a little mysterious white blister on his lip, or a tiny red spot just below his belly button.

I have returned home several times with a certain sense of relief at the prospect of a quiet, empty house, my own comfortable bed, seeing my friends again and getting back to my work.

But also, each time, sorry to be away from my grandson and not to be able to share every moment of his new, exciting life, thinking of when I could decently go to Toronto again. One does not want to be a pestering grandmother, but still….

And so, I have realized that the grandmother’s vocation is only a continuation, a further extension of the vocation to motherhood.

Grandmother still loves her own children and is as deeply affected by what happens to them as ever. But her mother’s love has now expanded to embrace her grandchildren and later, perhaps, her great-grandchildren and all those whom God will send her to love, to serve, and to pray for.

Grandmother, perhaps even more clearly than the mother, is called to be an image of God’s undemanding, non-judgmental love—to learn the secret of non-possessive love.

She must not interfere, must not impose her own demands or expectations, her own ideas, or even her presence.

Grandmother comes when she is invited, leaves when she is no longer needed. She is never indispensable.

Or at least it is so in these times when many families are scattered all over the globe, when to earn a living, it is often necessary to move to another town or even another continent.

Often grandmother is left behind, alone, however bonded with her grandchildren she may have become, however often she has been asked to look after them in the past, however indispensable she may have seemed to be. Grandmother has no control.

I am lucky to live only a three and a half hours drive from Toronto, to be able to visit my grandson fairly often, hopefully to have him come to visit me every summer and to spend Christmas together.

I also have my own busy life, my friends, my work. And yet I sometimes feel sad and lonely. I wish I lived closer; I wish I could be of more use.

But I remind myself that my vocation to be a grandmother was not given to me to make me feel better or to give me an interest in life

Like all mothers, I must try to forget myself, to be ready to help whenever I am needed, but always to be ready to let go, to pray and to love.

And I think that if I learn to love my grandson like that, if I learn to surrender him always to God, I shall find that my love for him will grow and expand to embrace not only all the other grandchildren God will let me have, but all those who in whatever way may enter my life.

A true grandmother is one whom God has taught to love the whole world.

Irma Zaleski, a friend of Madonna House and also a former neighbor of many years, wrote this article after her first grandchild was born. She now has five of them.

Irma is a writer of several spiritual books published by Novalis Press (Toronto) and many articles.


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