That’s my son Michael in the photo right there. He might be a month old, maybe two. He’s asleep. I’m in the picture, and my wife, Elvira, is there, too, leaning toward him. We’re both smiling. Our faces seem to say, We have our own kid now—yay!
Michael is also in the next photo, cradled in his mother’s arms. Her palm is flat on his belly. His face round, his complexion fair. His mouth is moist and his nose, just a button. He’s wearing a soft, fuzzy, eggshell-blue onesie. He’s as asleep as only a baby can be asleep, cozy in his mother’s nestling arms. Perfect harmony captured for all time.
Now here’s Michael on another day, but with Grandma Nettie. She’s at our dining-room table, holding him gingerly, as if he were a trophy just bestowed on her. She’s leaning to her right to position herself precisely for a single purpose: to take in the sight of her first grandchild. Her face is cast in shadow, but you can still make out her smile.
But now look at what else is going on in this photo. Michael is perched in her arms, in his diaper and bare feet, and he’s staring at her. And his mouth is open.
It’s as if he’s saying, Oh.
It’s as if he’s saying, Wow.
Grandma Nettie is marveling at Michael, and Michael is marveling right back. Some serious mutual marveling is going on here.
Here’s Michael in the bathtub, now about six and a half years old, and up to his chest in white, foamy bubbles. He’s smiling widely, his tongue halfway out. It’s because once again he has some company in there, namely his one-year-old sister Caroline.
Hey, his smile says, I’m taking a bubble bath with my little sister!
Hey, her smile says, I’m taking a bubble bath with my big brother!
I stare at that photo and ask myself, Were a brother and sister ever happier than in this moment?
First his mother, then his grandmother, and now his sister: surrounded by women, no little boy ever had it so good.
In case you ever doubt your memories, you can easily check. Just look at the pictures. And then look again. Eventually, everything comes into focus. You get a second chance to see your child for the first time. The photos also confirm the love you felt in those intimate moments. They also reveal just how deep it goes.
Bob Brody, a New York City executive, essayist and father of two, is the author of the memoir Playing Catch with Strangers: A Family Guy (Reluctantly) Comes of Age.
By Rebecca Parlakian, Director of Parenting Resources, ZERO TO THREE
My mom watched my newborn son as I made the transition back to work. One day, I handed him off to her for a nap as I got on a conference call. When he woke, I went in to pick him up and found that my mom had put him to sleep on his belly (not on his back, which is the standard safety practice now for babies). When we talked about it, she explained that putting him down on his tummy was just…automatic, what she had done when she was a young mom. Fortunately—the kid, as the expression goes, was all right.
Little did I know that my family was using one of the most common forms of childcare being used today: care by grandparents. The most recent data shows that grandparents in the U.S. care for almost one out of four children under age five on a regular basis! To learn more about grandparents’ experiences as care providers, ZERO TO THREE conducted several focus groups with grandparents in this role. Based on what we heard, we developed a series of resources to support grandparents providing regular childcare. Here is some of what we learned.
Grandparents feel confident about caring for young children
Grandparents feel relaxed and secure in their ability to care for their young grandchildren. Unlike new parents who are struggling to figure out the “best” approaches (pacifier or no pacifier? cloth diapers or disposable?), grandparents have the perspective that comes with seeing their own children grow up well. As Yolanda, a grandmother in one of our groups, told us: “We’re a lot more relaxed. We realize things are going to be OK.”
Conflicts between grandparents and their adult children can be challenging
Grandparents explain how they feel torn at times with balancing their role as parent and grandparent. Grandparents told us that discussing these differences with their children was not easy. Often they felt as though a lifetime of caregiving experience was invisible to their adult children, as one grandmother shared: “My son thinks he’s Dr. Spock!” New parents, on the other hand, need their own parents to respect their caregiving decisions as they take on the role of “parent” themselves. That’s why we developed a tool to help families acknowledge one another’s strengths, explore areas of difficulty, and identify a path forward.
Some grandparents report using spanking to discipline
Several grandparents in our focus groups reflected on changing approaches to limit setting. As one grandmother explained, “It is like, ‘Look. You get these many chances, but you will get your butt spanked if you don’t...’” She went on to say, “The thing is, now, though, ‘Don’t spank your kids because you make them [aggressive].’” Our resource on discipline highlights this important change in setting limits with young children, and explains the latest research on the negative impacts of spanking.
Grandparents are open to learning from their adult children
One of our focus-group participants told us how she learned about the “back to sleep” campaign from her daughter, much like my mom learned from me. This simple shift in sleep practices has led to a demonstrated reduction in Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) over time, and grandparents tell us they are open to learning new techniques that keep their precious little ones safe.
Lots of good stuff has stayed the same
The good news for grandparents is that there are many loving caregiving practices that have stood the test of time—like outdoor play. Grandparents also talked about the magic of sharing songs and stories with their young grandchildren. Cecelia remembers “teaching [my grandson] a song; one time, singing a song to him: This old man, he played one... knick-knack paddy whack, and the next thing you know, he’s singing it himself… It just melts my heart.”
Grandparents tell us one of the most powerful parts of caring for grandchildren is the memories it evokes of being parents themselves. Explains Carl, a grandfather in our focus groups, “I have a picture of when my daughter was little, and she was holding my hand. We were walking together. My daughter took a picture of me and [my two-year-old grandson] doing the same thing.”
The one thing all grandparents and parents share?
Hope for their grandchild’s future was mentioned again and again as a source of great joy to grandparent caregivers (and, I can vouch, parents too!). Pat, one of our focus-group participants, said it best: “To me, [I hope they achieve] whatever they set their minds to do…just to work and live [with] integrity, to be honest, to be truthful, to treat people right, and to do whatever their hearts desire.”
To learn more about the needs of grandparents who provide childcare, visit: www.zerotothree.org/grandparents
ZERO TO THREE works to ensure all babies and toddlers benefit from the family and community connections critical to their well-being and development. Since 1977, the organization has advanced the proven power of nurturing relationships by transforming the science of early childhood into helpful resources, practical tools and responsive policies for millions of parents, professionals and policymakers.