When Grandpa Steals the Baby

August 30, 2008

It’s been a week to the day since my father-in-law, somewhat inadvertently, kidnapped the baby.

One part of me doesn’t blame him for what appears to have been an act of over eagerness. Left to their own devices, my in-laws would be happy to sit for Spot every day, and let us visit him for an hour or so.

This is an immeasurable help to me, to Spot’s mom, and of course to Spot himself, who clearly adores his maternal Grandparents. If he has a chance of really learning Chinese and being bilingual, it’s because he hears it during his morning visits to their apartment; he enthusiastically consumes the volumes of tofu they send home with him several times a week; and one of his joys is to ride with Grandma on her wheelchair voyages, perched on her ample lap at a precarious angle that seems precarious only to me.

For all these and other reasons, I’m grateful to them. Which is why I was shocked when, waking up from a brief nap in the park where we had met, I saw Spot whisked away on the Grandma trolley, pushed by an unusually fleet-footed septuagenarian.

I looked over at Spot’s stroller, strangely empty, and then considered myself: unshaven, damp, increasingly middle-aged, and alone in a baby park with no kid. Not a good feeling. Last time I checked, Grandpa and Spot were doing laps around the jungle gym. Ten minutes later, they’ve taken off.

Thus began the angry smoldering, less about the act itself than about the principle — which I had never really thought about before then — that if anyone wants to take the baby, they have to ask me first. It’s just one of those lines in the sand. I’m the primary caregiver. You can’t just take the baby. Even if I know you, even if I’m related to you, even if you’re his Grandpa. Even if I was napping on a bench like a negligent bum and you didn’t want to disturb me.

So I collect the empty stroller, and all the little bags of treats that I feed to Spot like a dolphin trainer at Sea World, and set off in pursuit of the 70 year old man pushing the 200 pound invalid grandmother with the baby on top.

Following the shortest path across the park, for the lack of a sidewalk, Grandpa directs the family parade into the street, along a row of diagonally parked cars and into oncoming traffic. For once Grandpa seems to be walking faster than me, I can’t catch up with him, giant SUV’s are swerving into the opposite lane to avoid the happy chariot, and from the back I can tell that Spot is having the time of his life, waving the two giant cottonwood leaves he had collected in the park, one in each hand, literally the size of plates, as if he were a flagman diverting rush-hour traffic.

I finally catch them in the lobby of their senior building, where traffic was slowed by severe wheelchair congestion around the elevator bank. Grandpa gets into the first available elevator. I nudge my empty stroller up to the door as it shuts in my face.

My moral adaptation to the role of at-home dad thus announced itself to me. This was an infraction of the rules. More importantly, it was an affront to the dignity of my labor of at-home dadness, a sense of dignity that seems to have taken shape on its own and only now come to the surface.

But that’s only half the story. It quickly became apparent that if I was angry enough, I could make it much more difficult for my in-laws to see Spot. For one of the few times in my life, I knowingly enjoyed a form of power that was concrete and undeniable, something that a single, simple act of will could initiate that would have an equally concrete and undeniable effect on other people. There was nothing “soft” about it.

I’m not sure how I feel about that. Power is an ambivalent thing, like magic, like mana. It turns out that I didn’t need to exercise my sanction at all; Grandpa sent a polite little apology Sunday night, and the weekday baby-exchange was able to proceed as usual the following morning.

But I was suddenly quite conscious that I have power: something that someone else wants, that I can take away. The possibility of that sanction is a deterrent, like having a nuclear warhead. You don’t have to use it, but having one will definitely change how everyone else in the room behaves.

I’m still not sure how I feel about that.

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