This week, First Person features the joys and the sorrows of mothering.
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Grandma love in the time of COVID-19 is sadly different. Socially isolated for my own survival, I am suffering withdrawal from child play. Like so many grandparents in these strange days, we’ve lost the win-win-win of helping care for little ones while their parents work. Our family currently makes do with three-generations walks, the six foot social distance kept strictly between us and my two-year-old grandson confined to his stroller.
Our “Grandma Pyjama” ritual has had to go online. I am learning to read backward with the picture book facing the camera, channelling The Friendly Giant of my childhood. We do our best, but what is Grandma love at story time, without a cuddle?
I’m a goo-goo Grandma. I admit it. Not long after my grandson was born, I bobbed happily about their living room, singing nonsense rhymes to settle him on my shoulder. My daughter paused from folding her laundry mountain to inquire with significant incredulity: “Were you like this with us when we were little?”
I’m sure I paused too long as I searched for a plausible answer. “Sometimes … I think so … I was so busy. I hope I was? Sometimes?”
In truth, what I remember most about their early childhood is feeling stressed, sleep deprived and intellectually starved by the domestic sphere. I loved my children hugely, but for years I was dizzy with the go-round of kids, house, money, marriage, justice causes and my career. I wished a lot of their childhood along, yearning ahead for more independent stages.
Consequently, I judge myself a not-very-playful mom. Not patient and attentive enough. A mother who had the next thing to do on her mind, more often than a transient moment in my two children’s lives.
Not so with my first grandchild. The babe I saw born at home in a January snowstorm has evoked from me more playful, open-hearted presence than I thought possible. I am in love. Just looking at his photo on my phone gives me a rush. Changing a stinky diaper is another chance to interact. Almost every encounter with him spills joy.
People ask if I miss my professional life? No, because today I am proud to be Grandma Pyjama, who chases a toddler into his bedtime routines. I am a gushing grandma. I am also a really good grandmother. This clichéd second chance to love a child is genuinely redeeming for me. I can do it so much better this time. I have patience, focus and the wisdom of hindsight. I possess the richest currency of grandparenting – unlimited time.
I also have a goo-goo Grandpa who has his own passion for this child. We are lucky that our first grandchild arrived in the second year of our retirement, at just the right time to take centre stage. Looking after him together from the beginning, my husband co-shouldered all the child-caring work and play. It took the two of us in our 60s to match the needs of an infant, then the energy of a toddler. We traded off activities every 10 minutes and spelled each other for our own essential afternoon naps. We smiled at one another over his dear little head, and the love affair grew exponentially in our marriage.
Grandparenting has not been glorious all the time. We took our turns for some long feverish nights and marathon crying days. When his mom went back to work, like so many grandparents, we answered early morning calls for child care. He was too sick for daycare and she couldn’t take any more days off. It was easy for us to say yes, because his uncluttered love for us heals our souls. Grandpa calls carrying his grandson “medicine.”
Like many young women of my generation who couldn’t wait to get back to work and clear our “porridge brains,” I used to despise most of “women’s work.” Cooking was a necessity for getting the family fed. Laundry was a boring load. Below all other odious domestic drudge, was the cleaning that made me curse. My son once said: “My mom with a vacuum is like a person with a gun. Best to run!”
I now appreciate that when deadlines are removed, domestic tasks in the company of a child are creative fun. The trick is not being too tired or in a hurry. Cooking and laundry engage him in new ways at each rapidly progressing learning stage. Laundry is colours and matching “the same.” Cooking is counting while pouring ingredients, hand-over-hand. When I go for a big bowl, he opens the bottom drawer and brandishes the hand blender, deftly inserting the whisk.
I surprise myself by tolerating lots of mess, because he loves vacuuming. Pointing at the cleaning closet, insistently making a “brrriing” motor sound, he demands to vacuum. So when “mix, mix, mixing” with Grandma spews sunflower seeds all over the kitchen floor, the next activity is Grampa and grandson chasing seeds with the hungry machine. No need for anybody to run.
Through his eyes, my kitchen drawers have become treasure chests. Grocery shopping is a foodie adventure. Those big orange carts with steering wheels are a ride at the fair. Our world is made new as we observe him encountering a tomato plant, or the moon. Child development is now fascinating to me, as I’ve slowed down to watch him speeding up.
Many of the needs that seemed so wearying and interminable as a parent are already grandparents’ nostalgia. I want more time to savour his development and watch him learn the world. As a friend posted on the occasion of her grandchild’s second birthday: “Pfft! Two!” It goes so fast!
I wonder how many months of precious child play we will have to miss in this time of pandemic? Let’s hope it will pass as quickly as his babyhood did, for this goo goo Grandma.
Eleanor Barrington lives in Ottawa.