Sometimes I feel the toxic experiences I had growing up in my family have seriously undermined my ability to enjoy the family I have created with my wife. Over this past weekend, we took my two grandchildren, 2 1/2-year-old Aurora, and 5 1/2-year-old Sebastian, for an overnight visit. They arrived at our house around noon on Saturday and left at about 6 PM on Sunday, making it a total of 30 hours.
After they arrived, we cooked them French toast for lunch, making sure to cut Aurora’s portion in triangles and Sebastian’s portion in squares, napped Aurora and spent the late afternoon at an indoor playground (it was cold and rainy outside), fed them apple slices for snacks and prepared and enjoyed a sit down dinner (scallops, veggies and salad for us, hotdogs, applesauce and chocolate milk for the kids), with “roses” (what was the best part of your day?) and “thorns” (the worst part?), allowed each some screen time before baths, teeth brushing and books, followed by bed.
By first light the next morning both kids had climbed into bed, squishing between us and snuggling us into the new day.
As delightful and seamless as this all sounds at each transition there were little squabbles and points of tension: agitating for more screen time; not enough or too much chocolate in the chocolate milk; the little one dissolving in tears because we would not give her a pacifier when she demanded it.
Slowly these micro-conflicts wore on me to the point where the specters of my own toxic childhood began to populate my internal landscape: my father exploding in a fit of rage or casually slapping me across the face for some real or imagined impertinence; my mother hurling a dish across the kitchen, my head retracting between my shoulders at the sound of the shattering glass. I continued to behave with patience for my grandchildren but misgivings began to fulminate internally and I struggled with the effort to stay grounded and maintain some perspective. I found myself holding my breath, clenching my jaw and bracing against what felt like an internal pressure threatening to burst out.
This as I got my two adorable and spirited grandchildren organized for a walk into town where I would pull a wagon laden with the younger one and the various supplies (diaper bag, water bottles, and snacks) necessary for any excursion. Until, of course, on the way home her brother decided he wanted to ride as well and I allowed myself a conscious thought that I wasn’t up to being a good grandfather. Good grandfather being an undefined term but one that certainly involved doing no harm to my little charges.
What I realized was that the stress of caring for them caused me to feel oddly endangered. It wasn’t that they would hurt me but that I would somehow do them harm and it gave me a new perspective on the effects of my childhood.
I have survived the physical and emotional abuse of my parents and lived more or less well with the instruction to not let anything bad happen to my disabled sister or any of my siblings for that matter. I suppose since my children attained independent adulthood I’ve come to believe whatever damage I may have done as a consequence of not having fully metabolized my own psychic injuries was done. Whoever and however I may have hurt the people I cared about through unconsciousness, impatience, anger or selfishness was safely in the past. But here I was being threatened once again and I was reminded what a challenge loving people can be and especially the people who depend on me.
Pulling that wagon the last 200 yards, my grandchildren and I skirting the edge of melting down, made me appreciate one of the reasons my friends and my hobbies are so important to me. It all comes down to safety. With my friends, I don’t feel the threat of messing them up in some way. The pressure of being in the force field of need and love in caring for my grandchildren helped me see how badly I need the safety I find in solitude and my isolated activities like golf and fishing where no harm can come to me and where I can do no overt harm to others. But where I am clearly needed, there is cold comfort in my isolation because the fear of neglecting those I care for is so confounding.
On Sunday afternoon both of my daughters and my son-in-law arrived for an early dinner. It was important to eat early to make sure the grandchildren would be home in time for bed. My wife and I had canvassed everyone for their meal preference and the pork tenderloin was marinating while we prepared salad and sweet potatoes for the adults. Quesadillas were on the menu for the little ones. By now I could sense the homestretch and the threats that had been haunting me dissolved into a deep enjoyment of preparing a lovely meal in collaboration with my wife for these people we love.
When my grandson refused to eat the cheddar cheese quesadilla I prepared under the watchful eye of his mother to make sure it was exactly the way she would make it and ensuring that none of the cheese oozed out the sides, I was able to observe his struggle with good humor and compassion. And when he melted down shortly after dinner, having received the bad news that because he had not eaten his dinner, he would not be allowed to have dessert, I was impressed by the resolve of his parents even though I could see how exasperated they had become. When he sulkily refused to give me a hug before being strapped into his car seat for the ride home, I understood that he was struggling with his own unhappiness and it was not a commentary on me as a grandfather or his feelings for me.
After their lights had receded around the corner at the bottom of our street, my wife and I put our arms around each other in silent celebration of having survived the whirlwind of a visit from our grandchildren. When I asked her the next day how she thought the entire experience had gone, she said she thought it was wonderful. I thought it was wonderful as well. But I know my wife did not suffer any of the misgivings or emotional struggles that I did. I hope my grandchildren grow up to be people who can experience the normal frustrations of trying to be a good person without being too concerned that maybe they’re not. I take some solace in the thought that the psychological and emotional work I have done and continue to do will make that more likely.
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