This is Part Two of a multi-part post about grandparents. Part One appeared last week.
I am in Old Navy, staring dazedly at racks of tiny T-shirts and miniature socks. I am in that conflicted early stage of new-motherhood where my rapture for my infant is rivaled only by my desire to escape him. On the rare occasions that I do escape, I usually find myself forlornly roaming the baby aisles of nearby big-box stores—Barnes & Noble or TJ Maxx—my breasts aching at the sound of a baby’s cry, my eyes welling up at the sight of a sling-worn babe. Today I find myself at Old Navy, inspecting racks of baby clothes I neither need nor want, trying to reign in my urge to race home to my own baby. I notice a woman nearby, short, middle-aged with a blond bob. Her cart overflows with tiny pink garments. “My daughter just had a baby,” she gushes. Her delight in this first grandchild is apparent in her fully loaded cart, her ease with sharing her news with a total stranger and the sparkle in her eyes. She is practically jumping up and down.
I congratulate her and head out of the store, feeling more disconsolate than ever. Why can’t M have grandparents like her? My own mother’s excitement over her grandchild, while no doubt more reserved around strangers, is in keeping with this woman’s. The first thing she said to me when I told her I was pregnant was, “So when are you moving home?” I found this sentiment more irksome than comforting—did she really expect me to quit a job with health insurance and move cross-country to sleep on her living room floor with a new baby? Although she is not a big shopper, and doesn’t have the funds to fill a cart, like the woman I just met, she did immediately go to my sister’s house and the two proceeded to the nearest mall to pick out baby M’s first duds. She took a train from Colorado to Maine to come visit him when he was two weeks old, bearing the items she bought, along with hand-knit sweaters and her signature hand-made flannel baby nightgowns. My dad didn’t come along, needing to stay at home and work and take care of the other kids. Although not an effusive or sentimental person, I knew he would be happy in a new grandchild, and if I did live near them I could count on either or both for backup, support and childcare relief, as well as granparently love. But they live 2000 miles away.
C’s parents are another story. Since the moment we got married (and were no longer living in sin) his mother had been agitating for us to have a baby. I could not figure this out, since I had never seen her be anything but rude and unfeeling toward children. C said she had tears in her eyes when he told her I was pregnant. C’s dad, with whom I had barely exchanged a dozen civil words since our wedding, was suddenly very friendly with us both, and more than willing to give us whatever land we chose and help build our family abode. Father-in-Law and his girlfriend (Five) visited us in the hospital, and took pictures of M, but he refused to touch or hold the baby.
Mother-in-Law (One) visited us the day after we got home, bearing a six-pack of beer (“to help your milk come in”) and a fermented cantaloupe that fizzed when we cut into it. She had arrived while we were out for a walk around the block, and when I collapsed on the lawn in exhaustion and pain from having just pushed out a nine-pound baby three days earlier, she said, “What’s the matter? Your hemorrhoids bothering you?” Later I heard her say that it was probably due to the “drugs” I took (one worthless shot of staidol several hours into labor) that M was born with supraventricular tachycardia and had a heart rate of over 300. For his first several months of life, when Mother-in-Law did see M (I would make the effort, occasionally and take him to her house myself), she called him “It.” “Oh! It has blue eyes!” Finally I got so fed up I told C, “If your mother f*ing calls M ‘It’ one more time, she’s never going to see him again!”
For M’s first birthday, we borrowed a room at C’s work big enough to hold the various branches of the family hedge, allowing them to be in the same room without having to interact. For gifts, Mother-in-Law gave him a china tea set, an egg carton full of choking-hazard-sized Red Rose Tea figurines and a small rubber Elmer Fudd figurine, complete with shotgun. Father-in-Law gave him a wooden wagon that looked as if he thought of building it, and slapped it together, about half and hour before the party started.
When M was one-and-a-half, we were invited to Father-in-Law’s for Thanksgiving Dinner. M had a bad cold and coughed so hard he threw up on the drive there, then fell asleep. Inside, I laid him down on a couch to sleep it off. Five asked if I didn’t want to put something next to the couch in case he fell off. “No, that’s OK,” I said. “He sleeps on the couch at home all the time and rarely falls off.” Five minute’s later Five’s mother asked, “Do you want to put some pillows on the floor, in case he falls off?” Same reply. Another five minutes elapsed when Five’s sister, B commanded me to move the coffee table next to the couch, and arrange pillows so that M will not fall off. C brought M’s high chair in from the car. I scooted my own chair down the table to squeeze it in. When we sat down prior to dinner, Five’s mother pointed out that the place setting, now slightly overlapping the arm of my chair and the arm of the high chair, belonged to me. B sat down on my other side and directed me to move each item—fork, plate, napkin, knife, spoon and glass—over four inches so they were centered in front of my own chair. “There! Now you have a place setting.” M slept through dinner, rendering these arrangements unnecessary. Throughout the dinner, B told me about her son, the various schools he has attended and the various problems he has had and warned me that the worst thing you can do for a kid is teach him to read. Even if I had regained my composure at being bossed around all evening, and could think of anything to say in response, B did not stop talking long enough for me to say anything.
M woke up after dinner and, for the first time in his 18-month life, sat with this grandfather and ate two Clementines for dinner. Father-in-Law realized he was a walking, talking human being and took a sudden interest in him. For Christmas he got him a really nice wooden train set, and over the next couple of years, he and Five invited him on outings once a month or so. These were never kid-friendly events. Never did they say, “Can we take M to the park/children’s museum/indoor playground/etc,” or, better yet, “When would be a good time for us to take M to the (insert kid-friendly activity)?” They always took him to antique shows, or greenhouses or landscape businesses, always involving a lot of driving, and M riding in a backpack, without much kid-centered fun. But M was an adaptable baby and went along amiably. I always packed him a lunchbox full of snacks and drinks, and a full diaperbag, but when we picked him up at the end of the day, both the lunch box and the diaper would be full. Five had never had children, and Father-in-law had never been involved with his own, especially when they were that little. I tried to gently remind them that they had to ask M if he was hungry or thirsty—he would never say so himself—and that they should check his diaper at least every hour. To no avail. C ranted and raved and declared we should keep M away from them. Oddly, I had to be the conciliatory one, and suggested that we overlook the negligence in favor of M developing a relationship with at least one grandparent.
Over the years I have hatched several plans to get us moved closer to my own family, where we could count on dependable, reliable, responsible and safe baby sitters (my sisters, and even a few aunts, in addition to my parents), semi-normal holiday festivities and birthday parties, and no rotating grandmothers. In one scenario, I would attend law school in Colorado (the only graduate program I could think of that might actually lead to a job that paid more, not less, when I was done). This plan lasted approximately as long as it took me to read the LSAT Study Guide. In another, C would get a big carpentry gig, we would finish our basement, move my parents in for three or six or twelve months, my dad would work with C and my mom would provide full-time childcare. The many complications of this plan should be apparent to anyone with more sense than myself.
For now, we see the good grandparents once a year, at most. The other ones live just a couple of miles away. I did invite One over to watch the twins Monday while I went to the co-op breakdown for a few hours. When I came home, Z was crying and called her a “bad boy”--his strongest disapprobation--and E was asleep on the couch. She later told C that Z was mad because she had prevented them from taking the cushions off the couch to jump on it (a constant struggle). Having heard stories of her tying her own son (C’s brother) to a door or chair, or him crawling out of the apartment and down the street before she knew he was gone, I wonder. And I’ll keep scheming ways of getting my kids closer to the good grandparents.