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Wednesday, May 18, 2022

‘Beautiful mundanity and quotidian love’: my joy at being Grandpa | Grandparents and grandparenting

Our eldest grandchild just celebrated his birthday and, as ever, that meant a bonus unbirthday gift for me. I’ve been a grandfather for 12 years now and oh my tottering days what a laugh it all is.

Cynic Laureate Philip Larkin may have had a point about mums and dads, but let’s be honest, he was clueless about grandparents. The thing is, they don’t fuck you up, your gran and gramps. They do not mean to, and they don’t. It’s easy to fall short as a parent, but almost impossible to be a terrible grandparent. I’ve done both, trust me.

And maybe – maybe – this will be the year we get to see all our grandchildren again, together. God, 2020 and 2021 feel like an entire epoch: the Epidemiolithic Period. It’s been so hard on so many people for so many reasons, but a massive arthritic fistbump to fellow grandparents unable to cuddle their darlings for so long.

My NHS category is “clinically paranoid” so in hard lockdown we could only wave at the two grandchildren who live 10 minutes away, and only Skype the other two in Seoul. We haven’t seen the Korean contingent since 2019 and I know, I know, we’re really lucky and people have had it a lot worse and I am grateful for everything, but still… I dream of the day I’ve got all four of the little bastards where they belong, compelled to be in the same room under my adoring grandpatriarchal gaze.

“Is there a rejuvenating effect of (grand)childcare?” burbled a recent study in the Journals of Gerontology. Not really, is the answer. That’s not the point. You don’t want to feel younger, you just want to be used up in as exhilarating a way as possible. “Is grandparenthood an absolute scream?” is a much better question. Yes, is the answer. How I envy people who are about to get the whole miraculous, hilarious surprise of it all, right in the face, for the first time. For those of you about to enter the second-generation game, here are a few pointers.

Love 2.0

The first epiphany comes early on, with the arrival of your first grandchild and in retrospect hardly qualifies as a surprise at all. It’s the realisation that the heart-swell of unconditional love you felt for your children, unique and unrepeatable, is very much not unique, 100% repeatable, and as infinite as the Marvel Universe. After the “Oh my God it’s happening again!” love-bomb, the dawning of the long surprise. You discover it’s not just the sweeping-strings-and-fireworks love that’s an equal sequel to first-wave parenthood. It’s the beautiful mundanity, the repeated, endless, quotidian love. The comfort of it, the lull and soothe of it, the ordinariness of hanging out, feeling at home with human beings from some strange future. Also, memento mori: you’re grandparents now, time’s conveyor belt of death is chugging on and you’re next off, sunshine. It’s good to be facing away from the drop and the darkness beyond. Cheers!

You’ve Been Ratioed, Again

Your life decisively changes on the day your children can outrun you. From that point on, being a responsible adult is moot if they can simply slip the surly bonds of birth and go careening into whatever danger is handy. A rocky gorge, say, or an enthusiastic Civil War re-enactment. From memory, the parental speed ratio happens when they’re about 12 (10 if you’re a smoker). The speed ratio when you’re a grandparent is much, much scarier. Your grandchildren can outrun you when they’re about four or, uphill, two.

Then there’s the height ratio. It’s alarming, of course, when your children no longer look up to you. Physically, I mean. Everyone wants to see their children flourish, to outgrow them, but it’s weirder with grandchildren. While their enheightenment sails up at more or less the same rate as your children’s did, you are shrinking. I’m hunched and diminished after a lifetime of typing for a living and subject to one of life’s cruel jokes: after 40 you lose half an inch in height every decade. I’ve got Roald Dahl’s shrinks. As they go up, you go down, until you’re Ronnie Corbett in that sketch about class.

Inevitably there’s the intelligence ratio. Oh, of course, your grandchildren are getting cleverer than you. What did you expect, thicko? Your children are cleverer than you, their children are cleverer than them, that’s how life’s brain-cascade works. My son beat me at chess before he reached puberty. My daughter was a better musician than me when she was three. Now my grandchildren have productivity levels that make Comrade Stakhanov look like Sergeant Bilko. You just nod ruefully when they say “No, that’s an arthropod,” or beat you at draughts or are fluently bilingual at the age of five while you improvise fart jokes. Wait, maybe I’ve got the Brain Shrinks.

Impressionism

When in doubt, do silly voices. Old people are, according to TikTok folklore, mad clueless pillocks anyway. Young people expect you to come a bit unmoored in your dotage, so – time to explore your vocal range! You can easily amuse infant grandchildren by singing improvised nonsense to the simplest of guitar accompaniments, looming slowly up over the side of the cot like a demented moon. When they’re a little older I strongly recommend funnelling Ed Vere’s Mr Big (possibly our greatest work of literature) into a rolling burlesque of crappy New York accents and a vocalised “jazz” mocked into heavily sarcastic wubbeda-bubbeda-wap-blap-habbeda-squee-honk-ba-wap-blap-ga-plap-tsh-tsh parping bloody mayhem. Who else is going to be impressed with your “comedy” voices? Certainly not your social media friends, alert for any hint of cultural appropriation. Newsflash: even when grandchildren are at secondary school you can make them laugh. Just cover your face with a big saucepan, do a Clint Eastwood voice and bingo – the Mandalorian!

The Usefulness Inversion

That feeling you used to get as a parent when someone would just mind your kids for a couple of hours so you could both go out, eat underwhelming pizza and fret-bond about Barclaycard interest charges. Well being the other side of that, let me tell you, is something to be savoured. It’s not that you weren’t useful as Dad. Looking back, being Dad was honestly my core purpose on Earth. But when you’re a parent, utility is factored in. The endless waitings-around, the lifts everywhere, the being there, the feeding, sheltering, listening, the shock-absorption, the futile resistance, etc, were all part of the job, done on the hoof at parental full tilt.

Looking after grandchildren is a much more stately affair. The usefulness you feel is frankly out of all proportion to the energy it requires. Nappies you can do in your sleep. Bathtime, easy. Yeah, we can feed them. Veg and fruit, of course. But also, come on, buttered white toast and two Mini-Magnums, let’s keep this between ourselves, look at the smile on your little face.

My parents’ generation always said that the best thing about being grandparents is that “You can hand them back.” Do people still say that? Anyway, it’s not. The best bit comes just after they’ve arrived to be coddle-minded. You shut the front door with the usual wafted reassurances to one of your adult children, clasp your hands together like an earnest supply teacher and say, “So, what do you fancy doing?” What they fancy doing when they’re young is tipping 100 balls down the stairs and then laughing at your feigned surprise and outrage. Then, when you’re collecting the balls from all over the house, they yawn and ask for juice, so you get them a drink and eventually present them with 85 balls. You do it again, they shriek with excitement for the three whole seconds of plastic avalanche. Rinse, repeat. Exhausting but engaging.

Treasure these moments. Because what they fancy when they’re older after a hard day at school is to zomb out in front of cartoons which, you discover, have been produced specifically to maim grandparents. I’m not a conspiracy theorist, I’m not having auditory hallucinations, it’s simply the awful, hideous truth. The grandchildren pause it, freeze-frame it, when you enter the room. Observe the faces of the arrested cartoon characters. They despise you. Every single character in Paw Patrol would love to reach through the screen and kill you. I’m not losing my mind here. Note: Hey Duggee gets a free pass. Hey Duggee likes grandparents.

The Generation Skip

Nobody of sound mind wants to raise their children exactly as they were brought up. Parents have to believe they’re starting a new dynasty, not simply deepening Larkin’s coastal shelf of misery. Grandparents by and large accept their new honorary role to serve but not to interfere. Your job is to be quietly doing good stuff behind the scenes, not prancing around, guffing on about how brilliant things were when you were in charge. You want to be public servant Gordon Brown, not lying shit Tony Blair.

And because both you and your grandchildren are now very much held in the moral orbit of your children, a gravitational axis develops between the doting and the dotee. Take social history. Your childhood is of limited interest to your own children. It just wasn’t that long ago to them. I became a father when I was 26; my formative years weren’t ancient history then. My grandchildren are way more impressed with the picture of me with Tommy the milkman’s horse than my kids were. They love that at midnight on New Year’s Eve 1960 the TV presenter turned a big wheel with “1961” on it upside down and said “Whichever way you look at it, it’s 1961!”

There’s something about a childhood lived 60 years ago. Maybe it’s those classic children’s books you’re still reading to them set in that odd, uncertain postwar period but yeah, you start talking about dustcarts and school milk and dangerous firework-handling and corporal punishment and tiny, flickering Bakelite TVs and smoking indoors, and suddenly you’re CS Lewis.

There’s also the matter of what the media call strong language. We nurtured our children in what was I hope a congenially laissez-faire environment. We both came from rigid working-class families where swearing was proscribed and indeed punished. We swung happily and hippily the other way: our two grew up in a world of blue air. Now the pendulum has swung back. Bad language is discouraged. I take no pleasure in being Sweary Grandpa, except obviously I do. My grandchildren love my scandalising their parents. It’s big, it’s clever and they are very impressed with my extensive repertoire.

Epilogue

Look, old age brings many sweet epiphanies, among them a bargaining with decline and an uncomplicated gratitude. Everyone’s days are numbered, but up here at the blunt end, life’s an all-year Advent calendar. Each day a new door, each door a new day. “Still here!” after a few years quietens into something more peaceful, without the astonisher and the quote marks.

I don’t get out so much. Deepening ailments and intersecting conditions limit my excursions and this is good news for everyone else. Young people are trying to sort out this careening lorry-bomb of a world; they don’t want clueless old geezers clacking on about the Cuban missile crisis or Thatcher’s second term. As I never tire of saying, we should lower the voting age to 16 and withdraw the vote from anyone in receipt of a state pension. This is not our world any more. It belongs to our grandchildren, with their screeching YouTube videos and quiet disappointment in us for our negligence and fucking stupidity in setting the world on fire. Meanwhile, I’m lucky to be here for another year; happy to be clownish Grandpa.

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