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Lessons From a Long-Distance Grandfather

Babysitting a toddler granddaughter gives new perspective on parenting

By Marc Silver

I’m not a fan of being a long distance grandfather. My granddaughter, who’s a year and a half, lives 2,000 miles away, so we can’t just pop in and say hi. Twice a year, Jolene and her parents come east. And my wife and I go west a couple of times a year for our Jojo time.

Marc Silver's granddaughter, Jolene  |  Credit: Marc Silver

I’m usually thrilled to spend time with her. But I had mixed feelings about a visit we planned earlier this year.

For the first time since Jolene was born, my wife and I would be totally on our own with her. My daughter and son-in-law asked if we’d be her 24/7 substitute parents for four days while they went off on a Presidents' Day weekend getaway.

And even though we of course said yes, I was a little nervous. Okay, a lot nervous. I assumed Jolene would have no memory of who we were, since it had been a couple months since our last visit and our Facetime calls usually end up with her ignoring us in favor of a pile of Cheerios.

What if she was so upset that she cried nonstop for mom and dad? What if I’d forgotten how to take care of a baby after all these years? What if she didn’t like us?

Grandparenting On Our Own

My wife and I arrived on a Thursday night. We had dinner with our grandchild and her parents, helped with Jolene's bath and then let mom and dad put her to bed.

The plan was that Maya and Casey would leave early the next morning before Jolene awoke. The theory was that, this way, there’d be no separation anxiety.

I left Utah loving her more than ever and eager for our next adventure in grandbabysitting.

But there was a potential downside to the disappearing parents plan: Jolene would wake up and find that her beloved parents were gone!

And while we had instructions on how to microwave her bottle of milk and suction boogers out of her nose, we were on our own when it came to forging a familial bond.

Babies are Pretty Resilient

In our 96 hours of solo grandparenting, I learned a lot about Jolene. I was reminded of what it takes to be a good parent (in a nutshell: boundless energy). I learned something about the art of grandparenting, too.

First of all, I’d forgotten that babies are pretty resilient. Did Jolene mind that her parents were gone? Not in the least. She fully accepted her long-distance grandparents. Maybe that’s because we met all her needs: food, diaper change and building towers of blocks for her to knock down.

Marc and his granddaughter, Jolene
Marc and his granddaughter, Jolene  |  Credit: Marc Silver

Second of all, I’d also forgotten that parenting is exhausting! When you have a little one who can walk but has no common sense whatsoever, you have to be as alert as a military guard. She’s pulling cans off the shelf! She’s headed for the stairs! She’s eyeing the fireplace! Ay yi yi!

When we put Jolene down to bed at 7 or so, all we could do was sit in front of the TV, reduced to a vegetative state by our fill-in parenting. We binged a highly appropriate show: Russian Doll, about reliving the same day over and over, with a theme song by the great Harry Nilsson that begins: “Gotta get up, gotta get out….”

Yes, that was our life with Jolene. We gotta get up when she cries and we gotta get out of the house for an outing to break up the day. And we really did relive the same day over again. And it was … absolute bliss!

Only as fill-in grandparents, we didn’t have that parental feeling of “A child now rules our lives.” Because we knew we only had four days of being the subservient adults to a demanding toddler.

Reflecting on Our Time Together

Flying home, I was happy to have a couple of hours just to sit and not take care of a baby. And to reflect on the past four days. I’m so glad we did the trip. I hope Jolene retains some vestigial memory of these two aging humans who showed her a good time.

But I realized that the visit was not all about Jolene. It was perhaps even more significant for … me.

Those days of intense JoJo time made me love her even more, gave me a real feel for the rhythm of her days and nights and for her exuberant, take-charge personality. I left Utah loving her more than ever and eager for our next adventure in grandbabysitting.

But I won’t lie — the next day it was really nice (and easy) to wake up with no baby responsibilities and head off to the office.

Marc Silver is a blog editor at NPR and author of the book "Breast Cancer Husband: How To Help Your Wife (And Yourself) Through Diagnosis, Treatment And Beyond." Read More
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