Solitary moments in parent and grandparenthood

By Jane Flanagan

My first week home with my baby son was one of the loneliest and most overwhelming of my life.

My husband and I flew home from Moscow on a Saturday evening. We had just adopted our son, Rusty, then 15 months, from an orphanage. On Monday morning my husband returned to work, having used all his vacation time on our many trips to Russia.

I was alone in a big house in New Jersey and couldn’t seem to get out the door. Not that it would have mattered much because in the suburbs you don’t just bump into people walking around.

I wasn’t much up for casual conversation anyway. I was terrified by such sudden, complete responsibility for another human being, one who had no sense that jumping off tables or swallowing screws could kill him. This baby was also jet lagged and in new, tantalizing surroundings and so slept neither day or night.

But perhaps the worst aspect of new parenthood was the thought, “Well everyone else does it. What’s the matter with me?”

Fortunately, one day not too long afterward, the phone rang. A friend, a wise one, was on the other end.

“Women were never meant to care for children all day by themselves,” she said.


Just recently I read two books: “The Fifties” by David Halberstam and Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique.” I discovered how astute my friend’s observations were. Both books describe the mid-20th century great migration to the suburbs — away from urban, close knit families and neighborhoods. Suddenly women found themselves in bigger homes with lawns, but alone, far away from family and without a street life. Husbands also left earlier in the morning and returned home later at night.

Recently I observed a similar phenomenon at another key stage in life.

Last week I took my now 4-1/2-year-old son to visit my mother-in-law in Florida. At 84, she has weakening bones, is in pain, and has difficulty getting around, even with a walker. She lives in the kind of retirement community that also emerged in the mid-20th century and which now dominate south Florida. These complexes are limited to people who are 55 and over. But the initial residents who moved in over twenty years ago still predominate, so most people are 80 and over. They are also mainly female.

When word got out that my husband and I were visiting with a small child, the phone began to ring. Everyone seemed to want a few minutes with a four-year-old.

Rusty, too, was having a good time. He liked feeling useful, fetching grandma’s pocketbook and checkbook. Other times he treated her like a playmate. One day he had a secret – the name he gave to his new stuffed animal. He whispered it to me, then to my husband. “But I’m not telling grandma,” he said.

Another day he put on his sneakers, big-boy, sized 1. “Grandma is going to think these are cool,” he said. Sometimes he would pretend to shoot her with his finger, something he does to anyone he suspects might be game.

My mother-in-law can no longer drive and her entire social interaction now depends on the dwindling number of friends, all her age, who are able to visit. That condominium is her home now, and she is loath to leave it.

Yet I can’t help thinking how we’ve come to the point in life that the critical moments – a new baby and old age — are now solitary pursuits.


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