By Rica Lewis
People say a baby is a blessing, but it’s hard to agree when you first hear the news and the father is your barely-grown son—just laid off after COVID-19.
He was living at home in a bedroom strewn with T-shirts, drinking glasses and video game equipment. With a painful divorce in my rearview followed by 14 hard years of single mothering, I was newly remarried and ready for freedom. Nothing crazy—impromptu motorcycle rides down country roads, lazy weekends with a bottle of wine and long delicious naps with my new husband.
With one son now off and married and the younger son doing well (before the COVID-19 layoff and the baby news), I’d finally felt like my life was my own and I could be more than a struggling sole provider and a pair of hands holding the family together. This baby news, however, would change everything. Oh how the universe laughs at well-made plans. At 42, I’d gone from newlywed to grandma. And no, it did not feel like a blessing.
She was three months old when we’d first met Julianna, JJ for short. After a long and contentious relationship, my son and the baby’s mother had broken up and lost contact. But that’s a whole other story. So “shock,” is the only appropriate word for the way I’d felt about the infant in my kitchen, the DNA kit on my table and the look on my son’s face in that moment. I stared at JJ, her chin wet with drool, her little pink feet thrashing in her mother’s lap. How could that fragile human be my son’s child? My child’s child?
JJ is blonde like her mother but her eyes are dark like my son’s. She is beautiful, a Gerber-ad-in-a-magazine kind of baby. But when I looked at her, a small flicker of hope burned in my belly, the possibility that the DNA test would reveal she wasn’t ours. Surely there were better people out there for the job. People who were ready. I didn’t want my son to have to navigate single parenthood at 20 and now jobless. I thought of all the years I’d labored to make ends meet, the night shifts I worked at the hospital so I could be home every day with my children.
During my shifts, I’d watch patients curl up in their beds and think, What would it take to land here for a night? If I could break a leg or an arm, maybe crash my car into a tree… I was so desperate for sleep, I daydreamed about accidents. Then there were the post-divorce years when I nursed a broken heart. I was depressed and extremely insecure. Single-motherhood felt like a disease with a set of symptoms: chronic fatigue, paranoia, insomnia, anxiety. Perhaps if I hadn’t been so young and reeling from my ex-husband’s betrayal, things would have been easier then. But maybe not.
The first weekends with JJ were rough. Being the experienced one, I naturally stepped in as moms do. I’d busied myself with the details, helped my son shop for formula, blankets, bibs, lotions and creams. By all indications we were ready, but only in a physical sense. The baby still felt like a stranger to us. And because we’d both just met her, she was. It was like hosting a tiny foreign exchange student. I showed my son how to scoop her up gently, how to burp her after a feeding, bathe her in warm water and fasten the diapers while she wriggled and howled.
I still couldn’t fathom she was his daughter, my granddaughter. It was the oddest turn of events. A Twilight Zone reality. He’d handled her like broken glass. His face frozen in terror.
“She hates this,” he’d said when she squirmed in his arms. “She hates me.” He’d hand her to me when she fussed so he could watch from a safe distance in the corner, convinced his daughter thought he was Satan. When my husband stepped in and gave my son a pep talk, when he said, “You’re just in shock and things will get easier. Being a dad is a great motivator,” I gleaned actual hope.
The term “falling in love” is befitting. People don’t fall on purpose, and we didn’t either. But it happened. How could it not? The more time we spent with JJ, the deeper we fell. I found myself wandering to the baby section at every store, snatching up lacy dresses, little shoes studded with pearls, pink-stuffed unicorns, books with pop-out characters. With JJ on my lap, I watched her eyes register surprise as I read a book about a playful llama. I guided her plump hands along the sparkly image of a llama in a tutu. “Llamas twirl. Llamas spin. Llamas will try anything. No prob-llama!”
She was stunning, with her pouty pink lips and big dark eyes—eyes like the cartoon Bambi. I’d begun to see my son in her more every day. At ten months she was almost walking, we’d stand her up and watch her stumble forward while we held our breath. Every time this happened, we became super fans at the summer Olympics, cheering on our incredible star athlete. My husband made silly faces at her and she was mesmerized by him. When he sat on the couch with a plate of sliced cheese or chocolate chip cookies, JJ and the dog would rush over to scowl and drool at his feet. Begging was their tag-team effort.
Everyone had joined the JJ fan club. Friends, aunts, coworkers showered her with cards and gifts, asking, “How’s the baby? and “When can we see the baby?” Some evenings I’d return from work to find my son flying her around the living room, a jet plane baby with her burly pilot father. He enjoyed throwing her up above his head while she laughed. In his early teens, he’d become obsessed with voice impersonations and mastered the Mickey Mouse voice. Now he was putting it to use. He mostly lost his look of terror and stopped handing her over, preferring to hold her instead. When she jabbered “da-da,” it sounded like a song from heaven. With our phones, we recorded the event, along with so many other milestones.
The birth of a baby changed our family. Seeing my son in his new role was like opening a box of assorted chocolates. So many new delights. The joy of seeing his joy, and also his struggles too. When visits end and JJ goes to stay with her mother, it’s now oddly silent in our living room. I roll away her pink walker, gather her blocks from the floor and turn off the bevy of battery operated toys. I pluck dropped cheerios from the rugs and pour two glasses of wine, one for myself and the other for my husband. “Thanks,” he says.
“No prob-llama,” I respond, and we laugh.
Rica Keenum is a senior magazine staff writer, the author of Petals of Rain: A Mother’s Memoir, and a new grandmother who is currently shopping for all the girl gear she can find. Rica writes about trauma, yoga, life and motherhood, and has just completed her second book.
Photo: Author with her son and granddaughter, JJ.
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