GROWING PAINS: Live-In Babushkas Put Moms Out of Work

I have said many times that my mother-in-law has a heart of gold - it sometimes takes a bit of heavy excavating, but it's in there somewhere. But we do have this little hiccup in our relationship in that she can never forgive me for marrying her son and being the one to bring up her grandchildren.

The attitude to child-care - particularly that of the older generation - is so different here from mine that I inevitably do everything wrong, from nursing them too long and potty training them too late, to being too lax in disciplining them.

To begin with she would clutch her head, roll her eyes and tell me in outraged tones that I was mutilating the children by doing things like putting them in baby slings and not feeding them red meat every day. I would bite my lip, retreat and sulkily not visit for a week. Which is when I realized that herein lay my strength: babushkas need their grandchildren like drug-addicts need cocaine.

Her grandchildren are the most important thing in the world to her so I can understand how heartbreaking it must be to have someone like me entrusted with the task of caring for them. Especially when by all Russian rights it should have been her.

Babushkas expect to have their vnuchki, or grandchildren, handed over to them as soon after birth as possible for 24-hour care. Kolya and his brother were brought up by their babushka, and she coped so totally that when she died quite young, my mother-in-law discovered that she had no idea how to even cook her children a meal.

Having all but missed out on her own children's upbringing, she moved right in as soon as our daughter Sasha was born. If she heard Sasha crying at night she would burst into our bedroom without so much as a knock, to pluck her out of the marital bed. "I'd nurse you if I could," she would say hugging the baby lovingly to her bosom, "but babushka has no milk."

Talking of feeding, I know an American woman married to a Russian whose live-in mother-in-law secretly fed her breast-fed grandson with supplement bottles, because Russians don't believe breast-milk alone is sufficient.

However, you have to forgive them in the end, because they're only doing what they think is best. Last weekend we were sitting round at Sunday lunch and my mother-in-law raised a toast to the vnuchki. "My dearest wish would be to see you all grow up," she said, growing a bit maudlin, "but my fortune-teller says I haven't got long to go."

Wanting to cheer up the proceedings, Sasha, whose New Year wish is to have a portable CD player, asked babushka what her wish was."To see you three children as much as possible," she said, "because you're my whole life." Which didn't faze her husband or son in the slightest. It's just the way babushkas are.