I awoke the other day suffering from a minor case of the sniffles and, times being what they are, texted our daughter-in-law to alert her to the situation. She had planned to deliver her toddler for his semi-weekly ransacking of the den, and I wanted her to know I was feeling OK — no fever — and that she could decide whether to drop The Little Guy into the petri dish we call home or keep him out of harm’s way.
“I think it will be fine,” she replied. “He’s excited for a grandpa and grandma visit.”
The current pandemic has sparked a lively debate about mixing vulnerable geezers like My Lovely Wife and me with their grandchildren, who may be more vulnerable than public-health officials have suggested. On the one hand, close contact could send anyone of us to the ICU; on the other, a lack of contact could deepen our collective malaise. Ask The Little Guy’s mom — who’s been single parenting while her Marine Corps hubby toils away at Camp Pendleton — about the potential health risks versus an afternoon free of maternal responsibilities and she’ll tell you her sanity is worth considering in the equation.
It’s a conundrum that illustrates a longtime reality in a country with poor childcare options: Lots of parents depend on their elders to care for their kids. As Victoria Bissell Brown notes in the Washington Post, about one in four grandparents provide regular childcare in the United States — a number that is likely underreported. “Without a decent, affordable childcare system, flexible work hours, and paid sick leave, the over-65 population is propping up families all over the United States by performing essential childcare free,” she writes. “Remove those grandparents from the family system, and we get yet another breakdown in our social system.”
MLW and I are more fortunate than most working grandparents in that our schedules are flexible enough to absorb a couple of weekday visits with our grandson, so we’re happy to help out even as everyone understands the risks.
Well, maybe not everyone.
One of the great lessons a toddler teaches those of us who cling to comfort is that there’s nothing quite so exhilarating as taking your life into your own hands. This will come as no surprise to most parents, but MLW and I have had to relearn this truism via The Little Guy’s regular visits. Yesterday, for instance, I had left him and MLW at the dining room table, where they were quietly engaged in some art project. When I returned a while later, the table was surrounded by chairs and stools, upon which he was circumnavigating the room, one treacherous foothold at a time.
“We were just doing some painting when he decided he needed to set up an obstacle course,” MLW explained. “I followed him around for a while and then just decided he was going to have to handle it by himself.”
And handle it, he did. It was only when he was tottering atop a stool parked atop a chair that disaster struck. I grabbed him around the tummy while removing the stool and passed him to MLW, whereupon his toddler face scrunched up and he exploded into desperate sobs.
I’ve often wondered why young people, who have so much life yet to live, are so willing to place themselves in harm’s way while the elderly, who’ve checked off most of life’s boxes, remain so cautious. I’d like to think we’re somewhat amazed that we’ve made it this far and have perhaps come to appreciate how thin is the thread from which we’re dangling. But that’s just me. And the current pandemic is clearly shifting the way we’re all thinking about the whole risk-versus-reward calculus.
Toddlers, however, seem to be immune to such calculations. Or at least that’s what occurs to me as I hoist The Little Guy toward the kitchen ceiling and watch him proudly stand on my shoulders, weaving slightly and giggling with delight.
“Whoa! Ha ha! Wheeeee!” he squeals, his tiny hands gripping my thumbs.
“Look how high up you are,” I remind him. “Be careful.”
Bending his knees, he arcs backward, as if in a dream, and I secure him around the legs as he hangs upside down. Soon, my better judgment takes hold, and I gather him back up and plant him on solid ground. Safe for the moment.
“Up, up, Grampa!” he demands. “Higher!”