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Reflections of an Existential Grandmother

Posted on 24 Aug | 3 comments
Reflections of an Existential Grandmother

I have always defined myself as an existentialist. As a parent, this meant I was responsible for providing opportunities for my children so they could develop into unique individuals. I watched as they created their respective identities through the authentic (fortunately, more authentic than inauthentic) choices they made. It was easy to see my two children as individuals—my first child is a girl; my second child, a boy, was born four years later. My duty to be a “good existentialist parent” was relatively easy. Because my children were and are so different, I had no choice but to see them as individuals.

As a grandmother, I prided myself on being a “good existential grandparent” because I saw each grandchild as unique. I have not compared—each was special in his or her own way. I watched as each grandchild created his or her individual “essence.”

And then the twins arrived. Identical twins—named Hattie Christina and Mae Jacqueline for their grandmothers. The first challenge was to know which one was which. When they were newborns, they had Baby A and Baby B on their knitted caps. My daughter-in-law, Keri, painted Hattie’s toe nail pink so she could be sure which baby she had fed. As they matured, we could see subtle differences in appearance and their personalities. Keri could always tell them apart. There were times when my son would refer to them as “this one” and “that one.” I could usually tell them apart after I had spent some time with them but only when they were side-by-side.

I was impressed that my granddaughter Charlie, Hattie and Mae’s older sister, could almost always tell which baby was which. I finally found out she could tell the difference because Mae was dressed in outfits that had flowers on them (as in April showers bring May flowers). On one occasion, I caused considerable confusion when I made the mistake of dressing Hattie in flowers.

I think conscientious parents and grandparents try to treat children as individuals and not compare. However, there is something about having grandchildren who are identical twins that invites comparison. You want to make sure you are treating each one as the individual she is. For starters, you want to make sure you are calling her by her correct name.

I realized early on that if I called out “Hattie” or “Mae” they both would look at me and respond. Wanting to encourage in each granddaughter a sense of her own individuality, I knelt in front of Hattie and chanted, “Hattie, Hattie, Hattie!” Then with the other (an interesting existential term in this context) I repeated, “Mae, Mae, Mae.” To my horror, I learned I had confused the two and were teaching them the name of “the other!”

Again, not wanting to compare, I noticed that Hattie crawled first. Mae “clucked” (that little noise very talented babies make with their tongue), pointed, and gave “High Fives” more readily than Hattie. I asked, “What does Hattie do?” (Not wanting the baby named after me to be outdone by her sister!) Keri informed me, “Hattie doesn’t have to do anything—Hattie crawls!”

As Hattie and Mae mature, they are now more than a year old, I notice a few more differences each time I see them. I continue to ponder existential questions such as does the position “existence precedes essence” apply to them as much as other individuals who are not identical twins? I have concluded that yes, this tenet of existentialism applies to them. Even though once, before the egg split, they were the same being and have identical DNA, they will create their unique identities through the actions and choices they make and have already started to do so. As to the “Nature vs. Nurture” debate, I have decided both factors play an important role—as they do in any individual’s development.

Fortunately, Hattie and Mae have flexible parents who love them and have great senses of humor. Perhaps this is why they laugh so readily. They have an older brother, Will, who sings to them when they cry, and their older sister, Charlie, who plays with them. And, they have grandparents who look at them with awe and wonder—a feeling I think most grandparents share. But looking at two darling grandchildren born within seconds of each other is what a dear friend would say is, “beyond the beyond.”

The concept of “the Other” is a troublesome concept in existentialism. Sartre, in Being and Nothingness, discusses how we may feel dehumanized or objectified when caught in “the gaze” of “the Other”; we may feel alienated from ourselves. In The Second Sex, De Beauvoir used the concept of “the Other” to describe women as a minority in a male-dominated culture (this will never apply to our girls!).

As for feeling “dehumanized” or “objectified” when they gaze at one another, at this stage of their development, I am not sure Hattie and Mae have a sense of their individuality or “the Other”—or where one begins and the other ends. As they mature, I hope they will view each other as unique women—who have created their individual identities. I also hope they will see “the Other” as a special friend—one who has been there from the very beginning!


De Beauvoir, S. (1989). The second sex (H. M. Parshley, Trans.). New York: Alfred A. Knopf. (Original work published 1949)

Sartre, J.P. (1956). Being and nothingness: An essay in phenomenological ontology (H.E. Barnes, Trans.). New York: Citadel Press. (Original work published 1943)

-- Christina Robertson

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Comments and Discussions

Loved to read your articles

Loved to read your articles and the comment grandmas. My tenth grandchild was born this summer, through my oldest daughter (who already had eight, which includes one set of fraternal twin boys)! I get to see the nine just ten days at Christmas, and may be a week or so in the summer, as they live in California, and I live in Alberta. During the last seven years I have been musing about the arrival of all these children, a wonderful blessing. I suspected that they chose to come here to this plane and to this family. Now, I’ve finished reading Gina Cerminara’s book, “Many Mansions: the Edgar Cayce Story on Reincarnation”, I feel even more convinced. If you haven’t considered reincarnation as part of the solution to quite a number of the questions of existence, this book gives great insight into those questions. Over the last few years I’ve got into energy psychology/medicine and had some very interesting experiences in which complete strangers have somehow known things about me that I’ve never even told my best friend. It takes awhile to shift embedded paradigms but its possible when you open your mind to receive new ideas and when there’s so many coincidences that you conclude in the end that they can’t be coincidences. With regard to one of my grandchildren, I usually call her “My angel” (she's six). One day she arrived on the doorstep with a brooch that was an angel, and told me how she’d been given this brooch and how her mother called her “angel “too. Then she said the words, “May be I am an angel” or something very like that. I had always thought she was actually an angel (it just means messenger), sent to help the two individuals who were her mother and father, and who had some serious problems to resolve (she’s not one of the nine I mentioned earlier, but another offspring’s child). She has such a sweet nature, so unlike what we often see from the parents, that as grandparents we have been incredulous. Out of the mouths of babes come important statements, and we can learn a lot from them. In Cayce’s “readings” children are equal with adults, and the children often may be more perceptive. Who will lead the wolf, the lamb, the leopard, the goat, the calf, the lion? A little boy (Isa. 11 v.6.).
My twin grandsons are best buddies ( four years old now) but very different from each other. One is a quiet and thoughtful redhead, the other an outgoing and sociable blonde. Its interesting to consider which one was conceived first, and how obliging was one to the other on space in the womb. The first one arrived safely, but the second one to exit was touch and go with a low Apgar score, but he has caught up wonderfully well very quickly.
I could write much more, as grandparenting is such a wonderful time, but I won’t. Thanks for bringing this topic up.

Thank you for what you wrote

Thank you for what you wrote regarding being an existentialist grandmother. I'm a grandmother also. Your stories and images made me smile, reflecting the uniqueness and joy of your family as well as elements common to those of us doing our best to be good existentialist/humanistic parents. In addition, your stories reminded me of the bitter-sweetness of mortality and the Joy of living: as one generation extends into the next through all manner of contribution, instilling values, encouraging authentic expression and responsibility (and able to respond to life), I at least have had to balance all that with living through the children. Raising children, godchildren, and now my grandson has had me mature into living my own authentic life with them, not through them. I have had to become all that I hope and ask of them. What an incredible gift and exchange that is. Thank you for reminding me of that through your stories.
Deborah Merchant

Dear Deborah, Thanks so much

Dear Deborah,

Thanks so much for your comments. I think being a parent and grandparent requires us to clarify our values and develop into the best human beings we can become so we can encourage our children and grandchildren to do the same. If you are rearing your grandson full time, or devoting a significant time to his development, you deserve a lot of credit! I agree it is important to have our own lives so we are not tempted to live through our children and grandchildren. I wish you and your family all the best!

Christina Robertson

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