They all told me, “you’ll just love it.”
“There’s nothing quite like it,” they crowed.
The spurious assertions of the fallen in a shameless attempt to lure new recruits, no doubt. Like the first kid into the pool who bursts to the surface and assures the others: “the water’s really nice once you’re in.”
Not so fast, I thought. After all, the role of grandparent is clearly one designed for the elderly.
I wasn’t entirely sure how well I’d adjust to grandparenthood when my firstborn announced her pregnancy two years ago. I was thrilled for the parents-to-be, but I was only fifty-six for Heaven’s sake; I’d barely had time to wallow in a proper mid-life crisis. This would surely pose a serious threat to that infamous spell of lugubrious self-absorption.
With a couple of married daughters pushing thirty, it’s true, the outcome may have been foreseeable. But still, the insidious betrayals of age I’d so cleverly disguised with exercise programs and backward baseball caps would now most certainly be laid bare. How is a quinquagenerian holdout to perpetuate the geriatric charade once exposed to all as a … grandad?
It is from this perspective I was as surprised as anyone to hear myself volunteering to trade a robust retirement golf schedule for three-months of looking after my one-year-old grandson to bridge a short-term daycare gap.
My personal discovery of the grandparent-grandchild dynamic arrived in generational installments. As a Canadian, born of Irish and Scottish immigrants, the relationship with my own grandparents was stuffed into a handful of holiday visits on one side of the pond or the other. In a time long before Skype, it was only my maternal grandfather I’d met more than once and actually come to know. Treasured memories, precious little time.
For my own children, there was a much greater opportunity to cultivate a cross-generational bond. It’s gratifying to have witnessed two daughters get to know, love, and share important life milestones with each of four grandparents; two having since passed, two now in their mid-eighties. Even in these relationships, homesteads a five-hour drive apart limited the opportunity for the spontaneous visits, Sunday dinners, and last-minute babysitting gigs.
After wrapping up the grandaddy daycare stint with my first grandson and having recently welcomed the arrival of a second by my youngest daughter, I now understand what they’ve all been talking about. In fact, I think it’s fair to say I’ve become one of them.
It’s an unusual mix of nostalgia and discovery, being so close to a grandchild through the early development stages. Each milestone a flashback to the experiences of one’s own children; each day a reminder of the power of influence and example.
There’s a feeling of déjà vu I suspect relates to the genetic bond and natural connection with the next generation in a bloodline. Long forgotten habits from my own parental run kicked in automatically: the kiss on the cheek before and after each nap; eyes constantly roaming the room for hazards; exaggerated facial contortions during alarmingly pungent diaper changes and the delightful giggles of a seemingly satisfied source.
There is revelation in a perspective and temperament unburdened by the usual pressures and distractions of early parenting years. Experiencing those wondrous times of innocence, curiosity, and absolute trust with a level of attention and patience difficult to match as a parent-on-the-fly. Through the mulligan of grandparenthood comes the opportunity to appreciate the precious moments of a new life sometimes missed or unrecognized in the frenzy of parenthood.
During the working years, it seems there’s a tendency to inflate career achievement in the grand scheme of significant and memorable life contributions. With a career in the rearview mirror and a new generation fastened into the car seat, it’s hard to imagine more meaningful and lasting life imprints than what’s found in our children and grandchildren. Three-and-a-half decades of career is a fleeting footnote; pride in the women and mothers two daughters have grown to be and the families they have made, everlasting.
At times the role of grandparent can be confusing and there are some important ground rules the shrewd newcomer will quickly come to recognize. For example, this time around ours is a supporting role with parents taking the lead. Against a powerful compulsion to meddle, we sometimes have to bite our tongues and concede there is a point at which good intention ends and interference begins.
Besides, it seems things changed while we weren’t looking. In our day, parents were the undisputed authorities in virtually all matters of ailment and injury. None of it could be verified so the counsel was taken on faith. At times bordering on witchcraft, there was a home remedy for just about everything. For a sore throat you gargled with salt water. Skin conditions were treated with the freshly squeezed juice of the Aloe plant. Leg aches were simply growing pains and of no consequence. Body temperatures were accurately assessed with the back of a hand and rarely could a day off school be bluffed.
We can rave all we want about gripe water, but new parents today will just Google it and choose something else. No longer are infants placed face-down to nap in a nest of stuffed animals. SIDS safeguarding requires they be set on their backs in empty, bumperpadless cribs. The Jolly Jumper, eye-rolling telephone, and The Cat in the Hat have been usurped by elaborate learning stations with midway ride features and white noise apps that sooth a child into peaceful slumber.
A spin-off lesson from my time looking after the one-year-old is a humble appreciation for the work involved for all primary caregivers, especially anyone raising children as a single parent.
I have new respect for my daughters, wife, mother, and all the other caregivers who have mastered the art of multitasking and coordinating activity around child downtime. Squeezing in a bite to eat, cleaning up the messes, and covering off all the other things to be done in the average household is an art form.
For me, a quarter year of looking after my grandchild has been a unique opportunity to experience the type of generational bonding I never knew as a kid. It was a great way to start the special, lifelong relationship I look forward to with both grandchildren, and any others we are lucky enough to have join us.
I may not have picked up that red sports car, but I suspect the ‘baby on board’ bumper sticker would have looked a bit odd anyway.