Family care

In these pandemic times, I watch my adorable grandchild two days a week. That wasn’t actually the plan.

He was born five weeks early, just before everything went to COVID hell, which was good because everyone could hang out in the NICU with him. I read him all of A Child’s Garden of Verses and a few other classics while he lay there, his tiny chest heaving, a food tube up his nose and a CPAP machine pumping away at him. His other grandparents came up from North Carolina and visited with him. His parents spent long days in the hospital getting to know the nurses really well and trying not to worry.

The idea was that once he had been home a while and was doing better, and while his parents were on leave before he went off to infant day care, I was going to take him a couple of days a week. It was going to work out because my teaching semester would be over and I would have some time free in the summer before I went back to work. I painted my back room and put a second-hand crib in it.

Then the pandemic took over, and a temporary situation turned into a year and a half and is still going. Both of his parents have been working from home since the lockdown started, and luckily both of them can still do it. I ended up teaching on Zoom, which had its peculiar challenges since I was teaching student teachers in field-based site-specific practicum while the schools were closed down and there weren’t any students.

Now he’s a sunny 18-month-old toddler, learning to talk and starting to run, who loves stuffed animals, books, trucks, flowers, and strollers. I love him with all my heart, just as I loved his mom before him. We go to (airy, spacious, sparsely attended) museums, the (open air) zoo, and city fountains (full of other toddlers wading and splashing outside). I feed him pretzels and cookies, chicken curry hand-pies, blueberries, spaghetti and meat sauce, and salad. We discuss whether something is a truck or a van, and some of his words are “hydrangea,” “marigold,” and “hosta.” (Also “No” and “Hot”) It’s wonderful.

My sister recently wrote me enviously that when she was raising her two boys, she never had a grandmother to take them off her hands for a day. She always felt nervous about dropping them off to child care. I take her point.

But I’ve been thinking about that since I got her letter. You know, about the perfect situation where grandmom helps out. The family that takes care of its own. Stepping up. Providing care. The good old days before we put our kids in day care and our parents in retirement homes or skilled nursing.

Good old days: My widowed paternal grandmother had one of my uncles living with her, her eldest son. I am not sure who was taking care of whom, though. Grandma was, let us say, extremely confused, and her son was what you might call neurodivergent. The rest of the family had to swing by sometimes and clean the house because the newspapers, dishes, and cat hair had piled up to the point where the smell was doing pushups and showing off its muscles. After she died, the brother ended up living in an RV on his sister’s property in Tennessee, along with my own father, who fell on weird hard times himself. When their sister died in turn, my father was kicked out of his RV and ended living near my sister, in senior housing and on Social Security. My sister is still taking care of him now that he’s in his 90s.

Good old days: When my own mother got divorced, she slipped into poverty, though her mother helped out. She put a good face on things and never said a negative word about my father. We ate a lot of greens and cheap tough meat. It took her a long time to dig out of the hole; despite women’s liberation and her Ph.D. in microbiology, it wasn’t easy for her to find good paying work. Then when my grandmother was failing, my mom went and lived with her until the end. When I had my own kid, Mom was in her early fifties and just starting to have her own life finally.

Good old days: Then my mother developed Parkinson’s Disease. As she grew more and more impaired, because I lived nearest of her three children, I had to step up. I paid her bills and took her out shopping and out to dinner once a week. At the time, I was also raising a child, going to graduate school, starting a demanding new teaching career, and helping my spouse deal with getting laid off and starting a business. For ten years, I was there every week for my increasingly incontinent, wheelchair-bound, uncoordinated, confused mother, until the week she made it clear she was going to stop eating and die, which she did within a week. It has been twelve years and I am still not quite recovered from it. I still grieve her, and I grieve that angry, exhausted, stoic decade. I hated it so much, all of it.

So what’s my point? Yeah, people in my family generally took care of one another, somehow, and we still do. But the good old days required that somebody (generally a woman) had to sacrifice a huge chunk of their life after their husbands divorced them or died. “Grandmom” wasn’t always that comfy little old lady you remember as a child. I have a photo of my maternal grandmother over my desk, and she’s a fifteen-year-old in a white dress with an expression that could knock a horse down, stubborn and pretty as a wolf. She was the best of all of us at taking care of other people, but I never asked myself why it was she was so angry.

Organized care has its advantages, and one of them is that the workers get paid and can go home at the end of the day. Another one is that they have to be at least minimally qualified to do the job. I’m not saying it’s wonderful. But it isn’t actually predicated on depriving its workers of their own lives.

We nice old ladies were young women with ambitions who wanted to do something grand, and then someone needed our help, so we folded our lips and pitched in, whether or not we were suited for it.

I’m lucky, though. I was older (nearly thirty) when I had my child, and my grandchild was born when his mom was even older than that, so I am ready to retire. I am happy to be a grandmother. The timing couldn’t have been better. I have some books I want to finish writing, and I have a nice back room with a crib in it. And I have achieved so many of the things I wanted to do when I was young. I didn’t know I would ever also have the ambition to be a grandmother, but here I am.

He hugs me, you know. He even pats me on the back when I pick him up. He cries if I forget to have him wave bye-bye when I drop him off. We’re all building some “good old days” he can remember when he grows up and when everyone else he knows is envious that he had a grandmom take care of him.

But it’s still only two days a week.

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