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How We Spent Our Solo Grandparenting Vacation

It’s a whole new game when the parents take off and grandparents take charge

By Marc Silver

Right in front of me, this 1,400-year-old woman touches a volcano. She says she is in pain but believes she will survive with proper care. So, I pack her up in a Red Flyer wagon for a trip to the hospital.

It's not easy getting her into that wagon because you have to be very careful when handling a 1,400-year-old human. And that only was my first assignment. Not only do I pull the wagon, but I'm the attending physician at the hospital.

The author's grandchild messily eating spaghetti and hugging a bronze gorilla statue. Next Avenue, grandparenting
From left, the author's granddaughter Jolene enjoying her spaghetti dinner and at the zoo  |  Credit: Marc Silver

OK, I'm not really a doctor. I just play one in this imaginary game that my 4-year-old granddaughter Jolene cooked up. (In case you haven't guessed, she is the very old lady.)

Discovering the inner life of a grandchild is one of the magical things that can happen when grandparents take over.

My wife and I were introduced to the 1,400-year-old volcano victim during the four days we acted in loco parentis while her mom and dad went on a much-needed vacation.

I think Jolene and I played the game about 17 times. I wish I could say it never gets old but ya know, sometimes you're just not in the mood for one more wagon trip.

Discovering the inner life of a grandchild is one of the many magical things that can happen when grandparents take over for a series of days. There's plenty of time for impromptu sharing of her evolving personal philosophy: "I love you and nana but I love mommy and daddy more." Which is perfect if you ask me.

And, of course, my wife and I are the go-to-people for everything. There are no other authority figures.

We had a bit of anticipatory anxiety. After all, it's been a couple decades since we had to mind a child 24/7. Could we handle the inevitable stresses of childcare? Could we be tough when needed? Would we mess up?

Here's how it went as we took on the toughest job in the world:

We packed a great lunch — which came back uneaten at day's end.

The first thing we re-learned is that even one wee child can generate a huge number of tasks for her caretakers but the routine must go on. On school days, that means: getting dressed in a timely fashion, eating a breakfast with nutritional value, packing a yummy lunch, then piling into the car (and figuring out the intricacies of a 21st-century car seat). An added challenge: scraping off the windshield on a morning when the temperature was 1 degree Fahrenheit.

Oh, and then there was the pregame show. At 6 a.m. on the dot, we'd sense a tiny figure inhaling and exhaling by our bed. "Can we sleep a little longer?" we'd ask. Jolene would grant us five minutes. And then playtime would commence!

But we also had to enforce the rules. So around 7 a.m., we would get school prep rolling. Our daughter and son-in-law said to let Jolene pick her clothes … within reason. How we missed the fact that she selected leggings with knees worn to a nub is beyond us. We didn't even notice until we picked her up. I blame the early morning darkness. But at least we weren't late for school drop-off. And we packed a great lunch — which came back uneaten at day's end.


We also were reminded that the art of parenting is the art of being flexible.

We planned to prepare a spaghetti pancake for dinner (pasta coated in egg and cheese and fried in a pan — a popular item when our kids were little). But somehow Jolene ended up standing on the kitchen island while slurping down long strands of pasta fresh out of the pot. Which meant she had zero interest in tasting the actual entrée. So we felt we had kind of failed … but had we really? Jolene was full — and she did eat half an apple before her noodle binge. Also: More spaghetti pancake for us!

Impasse in Aisle Six

But parenting is more than just pancakes and picking out pants. Child negotiation skills are critical. Because there will be confrontations. In a grocery store, Jolene started out sitting in the grocery cart properly, but then decided to stand up in the cart. Danger alert! Even the nicest grandparent wouldn't loosen that rule. And she informed us that she did not want to sit back down.

Observing the way our daughter and son-in-law let Jolene solve dilemmas, we decided to give it a try. Jolene's options: Sit back down or get out of the cart and help push it. And we added that we would just stand there in the aisle until she decided, even though honestly, we just wanted to get out of that store.

For a few minutes, we were at an impasse. Jolene shot us a death stare. So there we all were stuck in the bread aisle. Then Jolene must have realized we weren't just talking the talk. She asked to be lifted out of the cart and did a superb job as an assistant cart pusher.

"What was your favorite animal?" we asked after visiting the zoo. "The giraffe," Jolene said. We didn't see any giraffes. But who cares?

As our four-day stint progressed, we weathered the inevitable 4-year-old storms. We put out more energy per hour than we had in — what, 30 years? We were reminded of how slowly time can move when you're at home with a little child — what, that whole round of 1,400-year-old woman rescue took … 4 minutes?

We looked for any kind of outing because outings make time fly. Happily, on a weekend day, the weather had warmed to the high 20s so off we went to the zoo. We had a blast.

"What was your favorite animal?" we asked after our two-hour visit. "The giraffe," Jolene said. We did not see any giraffes. But who cares?

Also, we let her pick out the gift of her choice and she decided she wanted an umbrella that we felt would not last very long. We were unable to negotiate our way out of that one.

A Little Extra Screen Time Can Be a Savior

But sometimes you just have to take a break, and we remembered from our original parenting days: TV can be your best friend. At times when we had run out of pictures to color and games to play, we would all laze on the couch and watch. Only in this iteration of childhood, that might mean the same episode of "Peppa Pig" on the iPad on an endless loop.

Another thing we remembered is that rules are made to be broken. Jolene stayed up a little later than usual each night, but there was always that magical moment when her eyes would grow heavy and we'd kiss her goodnight. After which the house would grow so calm and quiet. But we were too tired to enjoy the tranquility.

Weeks later, we Facetimed with Jolene, and I asked, "How is the 1,400-year-old woman who touched the volcano?" Jolene looked at me from 1,800 miles away with her big mischievous eyes and said, using the Hebrew word for grandfather, "What are you talking about, Saba?"

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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