From the first announcement that Nancy and I were about to become grandparents, there was quite a difference in our responses. Nancy instantly became involved in a variety of "grand-nesting behaviors," including things she had never done before. She made a quilt for the baby and sewed bumper pads for the crib. Routine shopping trips involved detours to make purchases for the anticipated arrival. My response was one of denial interspersed with dread. I did not dread having a grandchild. I dreaded becoming a grandfather.
For quite a while, I had not arrived at the successful transition to grandfatherhood described by Calvin Colarusso (1), the intellectual heir of Margaret Mahler (2). For me, becoming a grandfather implied loss, the beginning of decline and death—the ultimate separation. These differences were not lost on our 14-year-old youngest child, Lisa. She loved referring to me as "Gramps" and responded with a vociferous "over my dead body" when I, somewhat facetiously, suggested that the new arrival might refer to me as "Professor" instead of "Grandpa."
Thus was the status of our responses to our daughter Heather’s pregnancy when we arrived in Grand Rapids, Mich., on Dec. 27, 1999, for the birth of our grandchild. Several days later, the new millennium arrived, but no grandchild. At last, on January 2, we awakened to sounds of our son-in-law packing the maternity suitcase. Heather had begun labor. Nancy, Lisa, and I ate a leisurely breakfast, packed a few things ourselves, and arrived at the hospital.
A former medical school classmate of mine had married the senior pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Grand Rapids, and we had planned to visit at some time during this trip. When we looked outside the birthing room, we were surprised to see Westminster a short walk down the street. Since there was going to be plenty of time before Heather’s first labor was complete, we decided to attend the service.
Riley Jensen’s sermon emphasized how silent, attentive listening and what my mentor, Hilde Bruch, called "the constructive use of ignorance" allow one to respond to the unknown with openness and curiosity. The closing hymn, "Here I Am, Lord," was one I had often sung with Heather. The experience left me more receptive to what was about to happen.
Like most first labors, this was a long process. After a while, Heather changed from "No anesthesia!" to accepting an epidural. Unfortunately, the epidural relieved the pain but not a strong urge to push, and Heather was not dilating rapidly. Hours later, the anesthesiologist discussed saddle-block anesthesia. His advice and recommendations were medically unremarkable. However, they were given in an ill-advised manner, probably in an attempt to "lighten up" the situation. His comments were perceived by my large, powerfully built, and naturally tense son-in-law, Keith, as unprofessional and perhaps indicating gaps in competence. Keith sprang into the waiting area, obviously upset. He asked me to remain with Heather while he tried to calm down. Now it was just Lisa and I at Heather’s side. Lisa looked over my shoulder and occasionally offered Heather ice chips.
I had anticipated being with my wife during labor. The thought of holding my daughter’s hand during her labor, however, had never occurred to me. In the midst of efforts to encourage and soothe, I was suddenly flooded with memories of holding Heather’s hand as she learned to walk and ride her bicycle. I began to talk about the memories with her, asking if she remembered the things occurring to me. She easily joined me in remembrances that may have seemed unusual to the anesthesiologist and nurse.
At all such times, one’s daughter is doing the hard work. A father’s presence plays a small but helpful role as she progresses to a new developmental stage. The lucky father gets to participate in his daughter’s excitement about her discoveries and her developing sense of mastery. I, of course, soon began to imagine holding our grandchild’s hand while he or she learned similar tasks. Becoming a grandfather became being part of the continuity of life instead of decline and death.
Kandel differentiated procedural from declarative memory. Procedural memory refers to the "how to" of habits and skills such as playing the piano or bike riding. It is registered and recalled spontaneously by mechanisms outside of conscious awareness. "Being with" another person at transitional times can give even simple activities an emotional meaning. I felt a transcendent, spiritual connectedness with Heather, our new grandchild, and the timeless, "oceanic" experience of the continuity of life and living.
Both Heather and I were soothed by the sharing of those memories. The rest of labor went smoothly. A little after midnight, Lisa and I excused ourselves from the birthing room. Shortly, the obstetrician came to the waiting area to tell us that Emily MacKay Haas had been born, a healthy addition to our family and a vigorous citizen of the new millennium.
I left Grand Rapids a changed person. I was now a grandfather, anticipating a new sense of family and helping Emily learn to walk and ride. I thanked Riley Jensen for helping make me more receptive and Heather for the privilege of sharing in Emily’s birth and her own transition to motherhood. My "birth" as a grandfather enriched other parts of my life, especially the generative acts of medical education. I was curious about how I would respond to whatever name for me Emily might choose. After I became a grandfather, however, Emily’s shout of "Papa" evokes joy and delight—no cringing at all.
Address correspondence and reprint requests to Dr. Lomax, Menninger Department of Psychiatry, Baylor College of Medicine, One Baylor Plaza, MS 350, Houston, TX 77030; firstname.lastname@example.org (e-mail).