During my pregnancy I was aware that my mother and her contemporaries were colluding over what they wanted my baby to call her. Apparently, it's a thing now for grandparents to choose their own names that set them apart from the typical and totally normal "Grandma" and "Grandpa," treating the act as though it were a rite of passage. It kind of seemed like a waste of time because I was always under the impression that names that deviated from traditional grandparent names (like Meemaw, Gammy, Yanna, etc.) were invented by toddlers who were still really shitty at talking. But I also thought it couldn't hurt to let them have whatever fun this activity provided them — until I heard what my mother had decided she wanted my kid to call her.
The growing trend of self-naming grandparents has been attributed to the huge wave of baby boomers whose kids are having kids. The working theory is that they think of themselves as too young and too active for the traditional names, which conjure up images of gray-haired, bespectacled old ladies knitting in rocking chairs. Blythe Danner said as much when she requested that her firstborn grandchild call her Woof instead of Grandma. Woof! WTF? (Fortunately her granddaughter Apple had the good sense to dub her Lalo instead.) And then there's Goldie Hawn, who resisted "Grandmother" because it was a "word that had so many connotations of old age and decrepitude." She decided that her name would be "Glam-Ma," a term that has since turned into a recognized alternative name for "Grandma," legitimized by Urban Dictionary and inspired hundreds, if not thousands, of delusional, self-involved women to annoy young mothers with their moniker demands.
Personally, I believe that the fear of being labeled "old" is just a manifestation of a larger issue: The narcissism that has helped define boomers. They are, after all, the "Me" generation. Prior to this fad, "choosing a name" had always been all about the parents and the baby. By ceremoniously self-naming, grandmothers are insinuating themselves into that long-held tradition, thus making a pregnancy not just about the parents and the baby, but about them, too.
It's not something that offends me, but let's get real. I mean, even when my mother compliments me, it often goes hand-in-hand with a pat on her own back. If I'm pretty, it's because I look just like her. If I'm successful, it's because she provided the encouragement. If I'm an avid reader, it's because of all the bedtime stories she read to me. If I have good manners, it's because of how well she raised me. She's not wrong. But she's also not altruistic — which, ironically, was a character trait I'd always associated with grandmothers. In that way, I guess, she's already broken the shackles that bind her to the stereotype.
Whatever the reasons — agism or narcissism — it's definitely a practice that is established enough to warrant The New Grandparents Name Book (published in 2009) as well as articles in places like AARP and Grandparents.com that offer suggestions for "hipper options" like G-dawg, Miami, and Salsa. Because nothing conveys "youthfully chic" like confusing a 60-year-old woman with a Flavor of Love contestant.
Still, I didn't see why I should discourage her from an activity that would make her feel like she was more involved in my pregnancy. I would overhear her discussing the matter with my mother-in-law (whose name had already been established when her step-grandchildren were born) or her own friends and figured she could have her fun with this. She's always managed to be fashionable while simultaneously demonstrating tasteful restraint with everything from home decor to cosmetic procedures. How bad could it be? I would soon learn.
I was eating brunch at my baby shower when one of her friends approached me to say hello.
"Are you excited that your mom finally decided on her grandma name?" she said as she leaned in to kiss me on the cheek.
"Oh? What is it?" I asked, wincing, knowing that there had to be a good reason why my mother hadn't told me herself.
I almost choked on my French toast I was laughing hard. A baby can't say something that difficult! She'll be like eight or nine before she's able to do the neck roll and finger snap that's required of its proper pronunciation.
"Is she a grandmother or an all-girl R&B group from the '90s?"
Her friend defended the choice, since she apparently was complicit in it, "We found it on the internet. It's Irish for 'grandma.'"
Except, it's not. First of all, Irish is an ethnic group, not a language. "Seanmháthair" is Gaelic for "grandmother." But I'm pretty sure that most Irish people don't call their grandmothers that because it's too formal. I guess my mother — who has never actually been to Ireland — decided to shorten (butcher?) it to Seany (pronounced Shaw-nay) so it would have fewer syllables or something.
Later, when I confronted my mother about it, she made a show of unsuccessfully repressing a smile and walking away. It's her default reaction whenever my sister, my father, or I discover one of her (typically innocuous) secret schemes that she intentionally doesn't tell us about because she knows we'll object.
Naturally, I couldn't let the absurdity of the name and the way that she invented it slide, and thus "Shaw-nay" became the joke of our family. My mom was duly embarrassed and tried to rewrite history, as though she didn't even want that name in the first place, she was just kidding. She wanted to be "Grandma" all along.
But it was too late. It stuck. When my baby was born, we'd derided "Shaw-nay" so much in the previous weeks that it actually began to have positive connotations of laughter and the kind of jovial bonding that a family can only achieve through sharing a target of ridicule. So ultimately, while her methods are untraditional and mostly inadvertent, by being the glue that brings us together my mother is doing a pretty good job as a matriarch. Or a grandmother. Or a dowager. Or whatever you want to call it.
Image by Jim Cooke, source photo via Brian Eichhorn/Shutterstock.