A few weeks ago, my daughter’s best friend from college had a baby. Her parents hadn’t flown in yet from the West Coast, and her partner’s parents were still at home in Sweden. So when Katie (as I’ll call her) telephoned, my husband and I threw on our shoes and caught the next crosstown bus to Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan.
“What’s your relationship?” asked the clerk at the maternity ward desk.
“Friends,” my husband said.
The young woman winked, as if my husband had said something funny. Clearly she thought we were one set of grandparents or another, even though I don’t remotely resemble either parent.
Katie may not be mine, but she’s the next best thing: someone else’s child who has laid claim to a big place in my heart.
A Relationship With No Name
I love Katie because she’s fun, smart and affectionate. And she’s a fantastic friend to my daughter. Because her parents live on the other side of the country and she knows she can count on my help and support any time, she calls me her “East Coast Mommy.” Yeah, that’s special.
But these kinds of close relationships with other people’s children aren’t so rare. You don’t even have to be a parent to have children of all ages crawl into your affections. Wherever you go, there’s an endearing kid just waiting to be loved.
Curious what others have said about the way we heart-meld with other people’s children, I did a Google search and found . . . not so much. WebMD tells you what to do when you don’t like your kids’ friends, but excuse me, WebMD, I really like many, many, many of my kids’ friends. And I’m more than a little disappointed that the bonds we form with them — something so universal — have escaped classification.
(MORE: The Bittersweet Love for a Godchild)
Godmothers and Aunties
Growing up, I had many friends with “godmothers” or “aunties” who played a big role in their lives but weren’t relatives. Godmothers always gave birthday presents, and the “aunties” — usually friends of the parents — never got angry even if a few Cs showed up on report cards. I sometimes hung out with them, and that feeling that you could say anything and that the adult was actually listening made me feel acknowledged and respected.
It wasn’t until I was in grad school, though, and met the adorable little boys in the apartment below (who now are dads themselves) that I had an inkling of what adults gained from other people’s kids (or OPKs, a term I just made up). Benjie and Gabby said the cutest things, and they often asked me to come over for a play date.
During a time of my life that was full of tension, Benjie and Gabby provided comic relief — and no matter what else was going on, I knew they'd always greet me with sticky hands and wide smiles.
So what do these relationships with OPKs do for us boomers? For one thing, they keep us young. We hear the current lingo — like photo bomb and epic fail — and learn new ways to be verbally creative (and sound, occasionally, with it).
Dealings with OPKs close the generation gap in fun ways. You also get to enjoy young people without the electric tensions that can jolt suddenly to life with your own kids — even after they hit 30. With OPKs you just get to sit back and enjoy: pure dividend. Finally, for us parents, if we get along with our children’s friends, and if they come to genuinely like us, we’ll get to see more of our own kids as a bonus.
Tips for Bonding With Other People’s Kids
As I said, I couldn’t find many writers who had taken on this “love thy neighbor’s child” phenomenon, so I jumped in to claim the territory. Here are a few things I have done to welcome OPKs into my life and keep the bonds strong.
1. Be emotionally and physically available. New Year’s Eve 2000: Nearly everyone we knew, including all our kids’ teenaged friends, was celebrating big — except my husband and me. We let it be known that these kids could call us if they needed an “out” quickly, and we would help them, no questions asked.
Sure enough, one 17-year-old girl called from a party where older guys were pawing her. She had no money for a cab. “Go hail one,” we told her. We then met her in front of our building and gave the driver enough cash to cover her fare home.
2. Keep your toy chest and larder stocked. I recently scrounged through storage and gathered up a box full of little-kid toys that now sit at the ready awaiting the second generation of little-kid visitors.
And if there’s one sure way to young people’s hearts, it is indeed through their stomachs. Even though my children live on their own now, I still always have "kid-friendly" food on-hand: microwave popcorn, PB and crackers, that kind of stuff.
3. Don’t ask annoying questions. Anytime a boy walked into my parents’ living room, my dad would ask, “What’s your IQ?” There was a reason my friends did not like hanging out at my house.
Young people don’t mind sharing their lives with grown-ups as long as we don’t pry too much. That doesn’t mean we can’t ask questions. But until a certain level of intimacy is established, some topics, like grades, relationships or what goes on at parties, are (and should be) off limits. You want to keep a conversation going — that’s the secret sauce of OPK relationships. Compliment a new backpack and you might find yourself listening to a rant the ’tween, teen or young adult needed to get off his chest.
Another rule: Do not rat a kid out to his parents unless he or she is truly in danger or, you feel, needs more help than you can give. Even then, tell the OPK that you’re about to share.
4. Always lend an ear. Some little kids are shy. Some big ones, too. But when they know that you’re willing to sit through any story, you’ll create a pal for life. Sure, there are times I’ve wanted to tear my hair out, but I’ve probably had 50 good conversations for every one I wished never happened.
5. Don’t discuss your private life. OPKs may like you and turn to you when they can’t talk to their parents. (We’ve actually been privy to an unexpected-pregnancy crisis.) You may even end up being asked if to help deconstruct a text from a new romantic interest or whether, for real, their new jeans make them look fat. But spare them your intimate details.
6. Always defer to their parents. The mutual adoption society has pretty set boundaries. I knew to step away as soon as Katie’s parents arrived. The baby is their grandchild. Still, I got to see more than 400 pictures, sent by Katie’s dad to our shared DropBox folder.
Sure, my heart felt a little tug. But it was terrific to see the pictures — and nice to Skype with them all. It was also so nice that I didn’t feel compelled to wake up in the middle of the night to check that mama and baby were doing fine. With relationships like these, I get all the hugs I need without having to do any heavy lifting.