By Tom Watkins
It is not like I totally forgot how difficult it was to spend nonstop hours, day in and day out being a parent to a supercharged toddler. Hey, I am a professional social worker, a former state mental health director and state superintendent of schools— I have the professional credentials to grasp the reality — but I really didn’t.
I spent the past few weeks, 10-12 hours per day, being “Grandpa Tom” to my two and a half year-old grandson, Dylan. It was exhilarating and memorable and downright physically and mentally exhausting.
Moms, you have my sympathy and appreciation. Yeah, I know dads are more supportive today than in the past, but I also know that it's moms in general who do more of the housework and childcare. I now celebrate the time I can take a shower or use the toilet uninterrupted without a sense of dread of what may be taking place on the other side of the door.
I gained an even greater respect for the value you bring to your children and to our collective society in the best of times. When little ones are home
24/7 it is a challenge to find the time and privacy to even take care of your basic needs let alone all the other things on your to-do list. But raising children of any age in a global pandemic that turns routines upside down and eliminates much of the minimal support you might have had before should qualify for combat pay.
Play dates? Gone. Grandma/pa with underlying health issues coming over to give you a break? Sorry, not available. Getting a babysitter for an occasional night out as a functioning adult to enjoy a meal you did not have to prepare and a movie to recharge your batteries? Not advisable.
I feel your pain and have a better understanding about the loneliness, frustration, depression, alienation and even anger you can experience before you have even had time to drink a second cup of cold coffee. I shared the experience on my Facebook page leaving out the emotional meltdowns (both of ours) and the more unpleasant tasks (I don’t need to be graphic, but moms know of what I speak) that I went through on the way to those joyful, memory-building moments that are captured on Hallmark cards.
Even for the few short weeks I cared for the little guy, I felt the tug of guilt that comes from feeling that I'm not doing a good job in any area of my existence. As I juggled work Zoom calls, shopping, cooking and cleaning, it began to feel like Groundhog Day on a sped up treadmill. I have never swept the kitchen floor as much – ever. And it was a self-defeating exercise.
And what about the times when I wasn’t really 100 percent there when I did not want to “read it again,” or listen to the same song over and over and over again without thoughts of wanting to strangle the singer? Am I a bad grandpa?
Is longing for an adult conversation too much to ask? I found myself stringing together words that never seemed to go together before like, “stop painting the stove with your banana” or “let’s not call grandpa a ‘poopie butt’ - it’s not nice.”
How a human being can be smiling and laughing one minute and crying inconsolably the next for, whatever toddlers cry and have meltdowns about, is a mystery.
Then there were conversations like:
Grandpa Tom: Your mom told me you know how to use the toilet. Why don’t you put your poopie in there?
Grandson: Because you like to wash my butt.
Grandpa Tom: And who told you that?
Grandpa Tom: Mommy!!? What?
God certainly knew what he was doing when he biologically made child bearing years for younger people. Being a Medicare, Social Security eligible caregiver to a nonstop 2 and a half year old is not for the faint of heart. Forget that stuff about 70 being the new 50 or that vitamins and supplements will be the boost you need to keep up mentally or physically with a child that fights exhaustion and is unwillingly to rest until he collapses.
How a human being can be smiling and laughing one minute and crying inconsolably the next for, whatever toddlers cry and have meltdowns about, is a mystery. Clearly I get that I touched his spoon and I did not fully grasp what his visceral reaction would be to my indiscretion. Thoughts of a nervous breakdown momentarily danced through my head as a rational response while I tried to make sense of the overreaction of a toddler.
I do not have a working TV, but the little guy has an iPad and I was cognizant of his screen time and attempted to balance that with outside hikes and more educational pursuits. Yet, try to explain to a toddler why you can’t go outside in the rain or sleet when the temperature has dipped to uncomfortable levels.
Not to mention the incredulity resulting from asking if they need to use the bathroom before you ready them to brave the outside elements -- and they tell you no, only to change that to a yes, as you struggle with the last snap or shoving on a too tight boot.
Knowing that my reinforcement, my daughter, would soon be home was like being a bogged down infantry soldier waiting for the cavalry to come to the rescue after an infinity of heavy bombardment. And when she said she was stopping for takeout and I realized I did not have to plan another meal that the little guy was unlikely to eat anyway, I was ecstatic.
Of course, inevitably, after a joyful day of play and after giving myself permission to pat myself on the back for the great job I am doing in my grandfatherly role, my grandson has a meltdown just moments before his mom comes through the door. I want to believe she accepts my desperate attempt to convince her that honestly, up to a moment ago, we had a great day.
Return To Normalcy
With a COVID vaccine on its way, the refrain of “return to normalcy” is ringing across the land. Yet for stay-at-home moms of young children, “normal” is a relative term. I’m lucky. I’m getting a break. My experience, both the joy and the challenge of being a “temporary mom” was short-lived. I will be able to cherish the joy and suppress the less joyous aspects. But the psychological trauma along with the joy of this period is likely to remain with many for a good period after COVID passes.
It is not too early to start planning now to truly celebrate moms as their special day grows near. But, I’m here to tell you that breakfast in bed, a cute hand-drawn card, homemade arts and crafts, flowers and another takeout meal won’t begin to say “I REALLY appreciate and love you after the past year.” Better still, don’t wait for that “special day”; find ways now to give the moms you love, respect and admire a DAILY break. They have more than earned and certainly need it. After being a “mom” for a short duration, I can attest to the value they bring to make our collective existence better.
Just thinking about the experience, the love and the special memories we made makes me smile and long for the nap my grandson never wanted, but grandpa needed to take.
Tom Watkins (aka, Grandpa Tom) and native Washingtonian served the citizens of Michigan as state Department of Mental Health Director and Superintendent of Public Education. He is an international business and educational consultant.