A Seat at the Changing Table
I got to the airport with time to spare. Flight 6083 Southwest from Boston to Denver departure 8am. I can’t remember when I was this excited. In a few hours, I would be attending the baby shower for my son and daughter-in-law. Their first child and my first grandchild. Spoiler alert — grandparenting is forecast to be a blast.
Anticipating my son becoming a father, I’m a little surprised at how emotional I feel. The last year and a half we’ve been locked down, masked up, quarantined and vaccinated. Now I’m on a plane on the verge of tears, smiling up to my ears underneath my KN95 thinking ahead to my transition from involved parent to watchful bystander as my son and his wife pick up the mantle for the next generation.
“We’re not going to raise our daughter like you raised me and Max,” said my son Rick of his life growing up. We were on the phone a few weeks before my visit. “Oh really,” I replied with a smirk in my voice. “How so?” “We’re not going to coddle her. You never let me take risks.” OK. Let me share a few tidbits about my son’s bubble-wrapped life — while we were out.
1. Wheelies with our SUV in winter making tire marks on the front lawn as he spun in circles over the snow.
2. Pulling his brother behind our car while on a skateboard with rope tied to the trailer hitch.
3. Racing downhill in the woods, in easy chairs at boarding school
4. Attempting recipes to make jet fuel using a combination of chemicals, rubber gloves and plastic tubing that was hidden under his bed.
5. Drinking so much at a bar in college that he stumbled home, in the dark, barely avoiding a partially frozen pond, only to be found by security asleep on the floor in a maintenance building office.
Rick had learning and attention issues identified at just four years old. I did whatever I could to help him make his way in the world. Fortunately, with his curly red hair, and salamander smile, he endeared himself to all of us and to his teachers.
Seventeen years later Rick is married, a homeowner, enjoying a successful career in IT and about to become a father. After everything it took to get to this moment, it’s overwhelming. Especially because they live so far away. When Rick and his wife Melissa moved from Boston to Colorado, my heart sank. I would miss them. I have friends whose children and grandchildren live near them. They see them weekly or even daily and the closeness they’ve developed with those kids is truly special. I can’t imagine how I will develop a relationship with my granddaughter from so far away. Some have asked or even assumed I would move out west to be near my son and his family. No way, no how I say. Live in the suburbs of Denver, starting all over to meet people and build a life, or worse, expect my kids to create a life for me? Uh Uh. Now, seeing him as husband, expectant father, homeowner and team member at work, it is clear things have worked out amazingly well for both of them.
Even so, change is in the air. As my son and his wife shift from those “it’s all about us” years to “it’s all about the baby”, I’m changing too. From influential parent with a modicum of control to an aid and observer with no control and a bit of influence.
· Decorating the baby’s room — all them
· Choosing the best gadgets for feeding, cleaning, soothing and playing — all them
· Choosing baby’s name — all them.
First up, what do I want the baby to call me? It’s the one thing in this process I actually have some control over. Mutti is my choice. it means mother in German. My mother died when I was just twelve years old. She was born in Frankfurt and arrived in the U.S. after fleeing the Nazis in 1939. Mutti is an homage to her and a name that fits the perky, short, youthful person I feel I am.
Today’s baby shower is like every one I’d ever been to, except that it is for my own son and daughter-in-law. There are silly baby games like “future dad puts the diaper on the baby doll, with his eyes closed”. Decorations evocative of the chosen baby’s room theme — woodland animals. Cookies and cupcakes lovingly (and professionally) decorated as foxes and owls by my Machatunim (Yiddish term for the relationship between the two mothers-in-law), and a cheese dip in the shape of a hedgehog.
But all I see is my son with his wife, surrounded by their friends and her family, laughing, smiling and excited about what’s to come.
The next day, Rick and I walked side-by-side with their well-trained dogs on leash ahead of us. “How are you feeling about becoming a dad?,” I ask. “I want to be a cool dad,” he says confidently. “What does that mean?” “A dad that my daughter won’t be embarrassed to be around when she’s older.” How many times I heard that over the years. “Well, you’re having a girl,” I offer. “Girls tend to favor their dads around their teen years,” I reassure. But there’s no guarantee. How are you feeling right now though, about holding her for the first time, about having a baby in your arms?” He thinks a minute and then offers, “Friends of mine have told me that it seems you can never do enough for them, you just love them so much.”
I look up at him and smile while we keep our strides. “You know, that never changes. You’re 31 years old and I still feel that way about you and now the two of you. That’s why I’m here, doing the first load of clothes to ready them for the baby, making meals to freeze for when the baby is here and you don’t have time to cook, doing your food shopping, organizing the baby’s room. I love you so much, there is nothing I wouldn’t do for you.” I pause a moment. “But it’s not possible to do everything, nor is it a good idea. But that’s what love is. It’s not coddling. As a parent, you just want to do everything possible for your child, no matter how old they are. It’s love.” Rick looks at me and I can tell he gets it. In this moment, there is an understanding between us, 31 years in the making, now realized.
I’m convinced the more helpful I am, and the less in the way and acting like a guest who needs to be entertained, the more likely it is they’ll invite me back. And that’s my goal of course. I mean there’s no risk that my son wouldn’t want me back. But there’s my daughter-in-law too. And I need to be sensitive to her as well. Today’s text messages from her gave me more confidence that I’m on the right track.
- Hi! Would you mind changing the laundry over and washing the sheets in the brown laundry basket (but not the towel)?
- Sure… already changed the wet stuff into the dryer and did another load of baby clothes I found…I’ll grab the sheets (and not the towel) and do those next. and I’ve made a batch of the lemon chicken for the freezer 😊
- Amazing, thanks so much!
The next night, Rick and I talk about when I would be back. “You’ll be here when the baby is born right mom?” I have to be conscious not to jump with glee. “That totally depends on what you and your wife want”, I reply. “In those first few weeks, you don’t need visitors. You need people who will help you get some sleep, get to take a shower and get to bond with your new baby. That means you need to say no to people who just want to come by to see the baby in those early weeks.” It’s the most directive I’ve been since arriving on Saturday. But it seems to go over ok. “I’ll do whatever you both decide.”
Tuesday after they both finished work, we went for a hike — Rick, Melissa, me and their dogs. I watched Melissa lead the way, strong and swift, even with her swollen belly in front. Rick walked in the middle, straddling the two of us so he could stay close to his wife and not leave me entirely in the dust behind them. I’ve never spent this much time in their home day-to-day. Glimpses into their relationship, their habits, their daily routines and their banter. I’ll never stop worrying entirely. But seeing them together, watching them negotiate little things and hearing how they’ve paid off their debts and grown their savings, I can’t help but feel reassured.
It’s just three days before the end of my stay and I twist my foot on the sidewalk while walking to a neighbor’s house with Rick. “Mom, Mom!” I hear Rick shout. I fall slowly to the ground and roll over onto my back after scraping my left knee pretty badly. “What’s with these stupid sidewalks?!”, I proclaim. I’m convinced it wasn’t a unique accident of my own making at 64 years old. I hobble back to the house. That’s when I break down and sob. Nothing like excruciating pain to make the walls come down.
“I didn’t want to be a burden to the two of you. I just wanted to help. I wanted to prove I could manage being here when the baby comes. I don’t want you to think I’m feeble and can’t help you. I just want to be loved.” Melissa is out. It’s just me and Rick in the house. He’s focused on getting the ice, Advil, elevating my foot and finding an ace bandage.
My tears just keep coming. I can’t control them or my words. All that pent up worry, feeling like I’ve been auditioning to be the winning mom who would be chosen to be there to help after the baby comes. The tables have officially turned. I need my kids’ approval, their love and their permission instead of them seeking mine. And now my injury threatens to shape their opinion that perhaps it would be too much for me. That I would overdo it and risk hurting myself in the process. My worst fear. I’m full of doubt. Have I overdone it by cooking and cleaning and doing laundry and shopping — all before the baby is born? Am I trying too hard to win a seat at the changing table?
Rick is more than understanding. “You’re always welcome here mom. We love you. But yes, you’re doing too much and we can’t have you overdoing it when you come here and ending up needing us to take care of you too.” I know he’s right. No one asked me to go crazy this week and clean and cook and organize. Sure, maybe a dinner or two. It’s me wanting to earn the right to stay in their lives. Why am I so insecure?
I’m certain it’s a bad sprain. After staying off it for a couple of days I can walk myself through the airport on the way home. Rick drives me to the Departures level. I realize that the next time I see him, Rick will be a father. “I love you mom,” he says as he gets out of the car and fetches my carry-on. “I love you too,” I say. “I’m so proud of you.”
I have made peace with the fact that I am not the closest parent geographically nor am I Melissa’s mother. It makes perfect sense that her folks will be there as soon as possible after the baby arrives. It is practical as well as appropriate. I’m worried I’ll be relegated to a visit after the New Year.
As I enter the terminal, I get a text.
“I talked to Melissa and it’ll be her parents first and then you’ll come in to relieve them to help”
“That’s great! Thumbs up emoji”