Last week on my morning trek from Union Station to my cube I saw an elderly man walking slowly down Wacker Drive, hand-in-hand with two beautiful little girls (I’m guessing 4 and 6) and heading east toward Michigan Avenue. Matching pink dresses, American Girls dolls tucked under each arm and skipping down the sidewalk while Grandpa—Pretty sure it was Grandpa. If not, then stock up on 5-Hour Energy drinks, dad. You're going to need it—led them on toward a celebration of all things frilly, and maybe some afternoon tea.
Aside from the Blackhawks’ Stanley Cup parade, it was the sweetest thing I’ve ever seen in the city.
I’ll admit, I was jealous. I tried to imagine my own father leading my daughter through the busy streets of Chicago toward an afternoon of dolls and storybooks and I started laughing so hard I nearly walked into a construction barricade.
Don’t misunderstand me. My father absolutely adores both his granddaughters—even more so when they’re quietly watching "Dora" videos while he snoozes in his favorite recliner. Besides, my dad hasn’t willingly driven downtown since the Eisenhower administration and if he did, the cost of parking would give him a coronary on the spot. I’m guessing he’d suggest Riverview Park instead of American Girl Store. They have a free parking lot and the kids are going to love the Chute the Chutes!
My kids are fortunate to have both sets of grandparents above ground (Thanks, Big Guy.) and living close by, although my dad is always weary of coming over for a "visit with the kids" lest I guilt him into helping me with some home improvement crisis. Hey, Dad, why don’t you push the kids on the swing set and oh, by the way, raw sewage is backing up out of the drain in the laundry room. Any idea why?? When Nonno shows up for a barbecue at our house he knows to bring his toolbox and a tube or two of liquid nails; could be why we haven’t seen him around here lately.
My parents are European immigrants for whom English is a second language and meatloaf and casseroles are the Devil’s dinner. My in-laws are as American as cheese fries and Pabst and they know the name of every couple at the bar at the Legion Hall. My kids benefit from the best of two very divergent cultures and somehow it works out just fine.
Just don’t ask the grandparents to come over and baby-sit.
When the kids were younger it was easy, the grandparents fell over themselves offering to baby-sit."Why don’t you take your wife out? We’ll come over. You guys need a break. Don’t worry about a thing!" We’d prep all the bottles in advance, write down the emergency numbers in big block print and instructions on how to use the bottle warmer in bigger block print (No, you can’t use the microwave.) and leave our little girl in Grandma’s capable arms while we savored a quiet meal and a bottle of wine. We’d alternate weekends with both sets of grandparents so neither felt neglected and always had an economic childcare option when a grown-up party invitation arrived in the mail or movie premiered that we just didn’t want to miss. We probably went out to dinner more in that first year of our daughter's life then any year since.
But things have changed. The kids are older.
Grandma and Grandpa grew up and got their own lives. When did that happen?
Suddenly my in-laws have a busier social calendar than Paris Hilton. There isn’t a weeknight when they’re not signed up for something— square dancing, fish fry at the VFW, Frisbee football—you name it. You have to call three weeks in advance just to get a maybe.
My parents use the outrageous distance we’ve chosen to live away from them (17 miles) as the primary excuse why they can’t sit more often, but will gladly help out on occasion—provided we bring the kids to their house and promise not to be gone longer than an hour.
Let’s see: That’s 34 miles roundtrip for a quick run to Home Depot and maybe the drive through at Portillo’s. Hardly seems worth it.
So what happened? Where did everybody go?
I think the problem of diminished baby-sitting offers is twofold. No. 1, our kids aren’t cuddly, pink-cheeked cherubs anymore. Grandma has no problem swaddling junior and feeding him a bottle knowing full well he’s going to burp twice and fall fast asleep for the next three hours—just enough time to catch up on her soaps. It’s entirely different when junior wants to play "Clone Wars" on the Wii and Grandma has no idea how to navigate the remote control. Nap? Forget it. He has more energy than the Hoover Dam and the attention span of SpongeBob.
On the rare occasion when the grandparents sit for us at our house, we return to find them waiting on the front steps with coats in hand and the car warming up. 'So how did it go, Mom?! Let me guess...'
Second I think the grandparents have quickly realized that it's fun to play Mom and Dad again for a few hours, but it's not the kind of experience they want to relive very often. Having survived raising her own family, Grandma wants nothing more than to kick up her Dr. Scholl's on a slot machine and order another old fashioned. Let her kids deal with their own kids. "Junior has the stomach flu? Feed him some bananas and tonic water and call us later. Come on triple seven!
I don’t blame them. Anyone with young children knows it’s incredibly rewarding but not a job for the easily fatigued. Let's face it, our parents are getting older the same as we are, and they have a head start. It’s difficult to watch your parents struggle to keep up with the grandkids because you know exactly how badly they want to. Hardly seems fair.
My father has had some recent health problems, but all he talks about are his grandkids. He just wants to get better so he can spend some time with them. He may not be able to chase them through the yard anymore or navigate a day in the city but he can watch a game of tag from his chair on the patio and that suits him just fine.
In a perfect world we would somehow grow older and have children of our own while our parents would somehow stay the same age they were when we were young. We could benefit from their experience and they would still have all the energy they used to have when they were chasing us around the swing set or driving us to Kiddieland on a Sunday afternoon. Grandpa would never get too tired to play WWF in the basement and Grandma would know the name of every character on iCarly.
In the meantime I'll settle for the increasingly rare baby-sitting offer, and always have a deck of cards on hand so Grandma can teach junior to split eights and double down on 11.
And we'll keep our date-night dinners as brief as possible.