The Truth, Mainly - 06/15/1992

Maternal grandparents' job civilizing newborns — expert
by Leon Satterfield

I don't like to make more trouble in these already troubled times, but I've just uncovered another facet of sexism in our patriarchal society: Maternal grandparents have it a lot tougher than paternal grandparents.

I speak from experience. My wife and I are paternal grandparents of Lovely Little Leslie Jo, born last fall in Colorado, and maternal grandparents of Mari the Marvelous, born two weeks ago in Iowa.

Leslie Jo's maternal grandparents were on the scene by the time she got home from the hospital, but our first contact was by long distance. We heard her wet little burbles over the telephone, but we stayed dry on our end. And when she yowled, her parents hung up. So I was able to persist in my belief that Wordsworth had it right when he said little babies come into this world trailing clouds of glory.

By the time we saw Leslie Jo in person three weeks later, her maternal grandparents had her pretty well shaped up. All that was required of me was to buy her a little sailor suit, chuck her under her fat little chin, and say "Hey. Hey, there."

I fantasized that our introduction to Mari would be just as much an epiphany, just as much a physical manifestation of Cosmic Benevolence.

My vision had us driving through Iowa surrounded by heavily symbolic fields of green corn sprouting through the debris of last year's dead stalks. We'd arrive at the hospital just as morning was breaking like the first morning. Inside, our son-in-law would beam, our daughter would smile beatifically, and, with the violins going diminuendo, a shaft of sunlight would play about Mari's marvelous head and I'd chuck her under her fat little chin and say "Hey, there. Hey." Then we'd all go out to celebrate at a nice restaurant where the waitresses would coo over Mari in her new little sailor suit. It'd be a lot like Christmas.

What in fact happens is that Mari greets us by getting red in the face and dirtying her pants while she sits in my lap.

I see right away that she needs instruction in personal hygiene. And that's when I begin to understand that as maternal grandparents, our role is to introduce the newborn to the ways of civilization. Clouds of glory aren't the only thing babies come into the world trailing.

It's been a long time since I've been around the really younger generation—I mean those born within the past week. I dimly remember when our own three kids were a week old, but my mother-in-law—a maternal grandparent—was there to keep them from offending my patriarchal sensibilities.

My wife says my memory is dim because I don't have much to remember. It wasn't me, she says, who nursed the baby at 1 a.m., 3:30 a.m., and 6 a.m., and it wasn't me who tried to change the newborn's diaper while peeling a two year old off one leg and a four year old off the other.

What I belatedly find out as a maternal grandfather in Iowa is this: Epiphanies are an awfully lot of work.

My wife does most of it. She spends hours and hours washing laundry and rearranging cabinets and drawers so that all the baby stuff can be found. She rocks Mari, changes her diapers, wipes up her excretions, offers counsel and encouragement to our daughter, demonstrates how to hold the baby on one knee while propping her up in the crook of the other, thus freeing one hand to hold the telephone when the paternal grandparents call to see how the epiphany is going.

My part is to sing ineffectual little songs to Mari when she yowls, and to calm her down when life outside the womb gets too much for her. I do that by reclining in the recliner with Mari on my stomach.

I change her diapers too until she develops what passes for wit among newborns. I can't go into detail in a family newspaper but it involves one of us, bare bottomed, peeing into my right shirt pocket.

Then she gets a look in her eye that says she'll laugh about it when she learns how to laugh.

But our efforts begin to pay off after four days, and just before we come back to Lincoln, Mari grins at me. Call it gas if you will, but it's the kind of grin I associate with clouds of glory and it makes me think we've done our job well: Mari the Marvelous is ready for her paternal grandparents.

I pick her up and chuck her under her fat little chin. "Hey, there," I say. "Hey."

That's when she spits up into my left shirt pocket. Then she grins again, this time a grin that says I'm a pretty good maternal grandpa but my shirt pockets are stinky and I could use some instruction in personal hygiene.


Satterfield is a college professor and writes as a means of discovery.

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