Mother’s Day in our empty nest is typically a rather tranquil affair. There’s no brunch, no mimosas, no bubbly children bearing homemade cards resplendent with lopsided hearts. My Lovely Wife would appreciate a phone call from the two people she brought into the world and nurtured into functional adulthood, but she doesn’t expect one. They’ve created their own families, their own rituals. It’s just another quiet Sunday.
Until our grandson shows up.
We recently agreed to add Sunday afternoons to our weekly Friday visits with The Little Guy, so this is no drive-by drop-off. Our daughter-in-law is single parenting until her hubby returns in June from his Marine Corps stint and she needs some downtime. Besides, her 3-year-old offers a mostly welcome respite from our normally staid routine. I like to think that a little youthful unpredictability can be energizing.
I’m in the middle of a small landscaping project, so I invite TLG to join me outside. He shows some interest in the trowel and bucket I fetch from the garage and we move some soil around for a bit before he wanders away to plunk some stones into the bird bath. This is one of his favorite outdoor activities, and I know it would happily distract him while I complete my work, but it’s 45 degrees and he’s soon complaining that his hands are cold, so I take him inside and turn him over to MLW.
When I head back inside a half hour or so later, I find them in the den amid widely scattered toys. MLW looks more than ready to tag off; TLG seems restless, unfocused. I suggest we choose a book to read, but he’s uninterested. “How about a snack?” I venture. He’s noncommittal but follows me into the kitchen and eventually agrees that an apple might be just the thing.
At the table, though, he takes a couple of bites before tossing an unchewed bit on the floor. “Whoa!” MLW cries. “We don’t throw food on the floor!”
He glares at her, chin up, eyes narrowed — spoiling for a fight.
Our son once asked MLW why we never grounded him or his sister when they committed some major adolescent infraction. She explained that such a response tended to cause kids to focus more on the punishment than on how their actions actually affected others. It’s an approach she learned from reading Alfie Kohn’s Beyond Discipline back in our child-rearing years. As Kohn puts it, “Punishment undermines moral development by leading people to ask, ‘What do they want me to do, and what happens to me if I don’t do it’ and actively discouraging them from asking, ‘What kind of person do I want to be?’”
We’re a little rusty on the child-rearing front, and grandparenting thus far has mostly involved prolonged bursts of joyful play interrupted only by occasional diaper changes, so our grandson’s sudden petulance knocks us off balance. “If you don’t want the apple,” MLW says sternly, “you can get down from the table and go play.”
He eventually wanders over to the couch with a book and sits pouting while we finish our coffee. MLW and I look at each other across the table and shrug. This is uncharted territory.
Later, when I ask him to climb up onto the bed so I can change his diaper, he flatly refuses. This is not an uncommon ploy, but instead of resuming whatever he prefers to be doing, TLG marches over to the closet and starts pounding on the door with both hands, glaring at me all the while. I leave the room.
“Grampa, I hurt my hand,” he complains, when he locates me a few minutes later in the den. “Well, I guess that happens when you pound on doors,” I reply. I examine his tiny palms for any sign of damage, and we plant ourselves among the toys strewn on the rug. He seems mildly chastened, but soon begins tossing his teddy bear and other plush animals into a nearby chair.
“You’re making quite a mess here, bud,” I note. He grabs a handful of plastic animals and flings them across the room.
“Hey, let’s settle down now, OK?” Another volley soars toward the far wall. I leave the room and close the door. Deep breaths.
When I re-enter a few moments later, he takes one look at me, pulls out a box of plastic cups, and dumps them all on the floor. This is war.
I pick him up and park him, a trifle brusquely, on a chair. “SIT!” I demand. He squirms. I hold him in place. “SIT! I repeat, a bit louder, pointing my finger at his face and scowling in a way that I hope appears novel. “We’re going to sit here until you’re ready to settle down!”
I lower myself to the floor in front of the chair and watch his face slowly scrunch; the crocodile tears emerge. I’ve learned the difference between a fake cry and real sobbing; he isn’t there yet. When he realizes it isn’t working and that Grampa is actually upset, he collapses into heart-rending sobs and soon slides from the chair into my lap.
“Are you sad or mad?” I ask softly, rocking him gently.
“Mad,” he confesses.
“I no know.” More tears.
“Well, I’m mad too, so let’s sit here and count to 10 real slow, OK?”
“One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven . . .”
“Seben, Grampa. Just seben.”
“OK.” I wipe his cheeks. “How about we clean up this messy room?”
We reassemble the ransacked den together and he spends the next hour joyfully tossing balls to me from the landing on the staircase leading to my upstairs office while I chase them around the hallway below. A truce peppered with much giggling.
When his mom appears to retrieve him, I mention that “We had a little talk” after some misadventures. She admits that TLG has been testing boundaries lately, so it’s no surprise. Just another phase we all need to navigate.
We gather up his stuff and they prepare to head out the door. He tosses a ball to MLW and climbs into his mom’s arms. She whispers something in his ear.
“Happy Mother’s Day, Gramma,” he says.
We wave good-bye, shut the door behind them, and it suddenly occurs to me that a couple of mimosas might be just the thing.