My seventeen-month-old grandson Vince had no daycare on President’s Day. With his mama out of town and his dada working until late, Vince spent yesterday and last night with Dan and me in our one-bedroom New York City Apartment. Unlike me, his petite Nana, he’s a big kid, tall like his parents. He’s not a chunker, no rolls of fat, but he has the glutes and quads of a future linebacker.
Thank goodness I lift weights. I can accommodate his persistent demand for “up,” helping him to reach the foyer light switch. He toggles it up and down with great seriousness, feeling the power of his own agency as the ceiling light blinks on and off. He has a future safeguarding the nuclear stockpile with that concentration and fidelity to duty. Holding him down as he squirms during a poopy diaper change is as good a workout as any resistance band could provide. Pushing his stroller up the steep hill from the Hippo Playground to Riverside Drive gets my glutes and quads burning and my heart rate up. Cardio accomplished.
He’s a pretty stable biped, and reasonably cautious, but vigilance is still required. Table corners and galley kitchen drawers threaten head bumps. Lizzie and Jackson, our two felines, are curious about the human kitten, willing to get just so close, but no closer– despite his attempts to pat them — and a paw swipe across the face is a real possibility. And then there is the choking hazard as a result of his voracious appetite. This little monkey stuffs half a banana into his maw at a time. He’s a two-fister at the dinner table, and a two-cheeker too. I am constantly reminding him to “Chew, Vincey, chew.”
All of this supervision is of course a pleasure, since it isn’t an everyday occurrence for us and since we love him to the moon and back. But I can’t help but think about both the caregivers and the children whose circumstances are mired in crisis, where vigilance is a luxury and teachable moments impart lessons that will unfortunately take years to undo.
According to an AP report, the Trump administration detained 69,550 children in the twelve months ending in November 2019, up 42% from 2018. Sleeping as many as 100 to a room, mixed-age children separated from their parents or having arrived at the border alone received a bare minimum of care from overworked and often indifferent shelter employees. We know that this is a dire situation for children, especially the youngest among them, whose brains and bodies are still growing rapidly.
Dr. Jack Shonkoff, Director of Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child is quoted in the AP report as saying,
“[D]etaining kids away from parents or primary caregivers is bad for their health. It’s a brain-wiring issue . . . Stable and responsive relationships promote healthy brain architecture. If these relationships are disrupted, young children are hit by the double whammy of a brain that is deprived of the positive stimulation it needs, and assaulted by a stress response that disrupts its developing circuitry.”
When I think of little Vince in this kind of situation, I can’t bear it. I’ve heard people blame the children’s parents for putting them in harm’s way, which sounds to me as cruel as saying that the children deserve their fate because their parents made bad decisions.
That kind of thinking is personal for me. My mother made a bad decision, getting behind the wheel of her car after washing down cocktails along with her laundry at a girlfriend’s house. She left me and my brother motherless after crashing into a parked dump truck on the Main Street of our town. I had just turned two, he was twelve. We have both been scarred by our loss, only in late adulthood able to fully comprehend its impact on our own choices and life course.
We were saved from even worse consequences by our sixty-four-year-old maiden great aunt, who came to live with us until my father remarried two years later. A retired teacher (like me), she gave us the love and the stability that enabled us to survive.
I couldn’t help but think of Great Aunt Emma last night as I fell into bed, tired from the day’s caregiving, but so full of love for the snoring little monkey in the portable crib just a few feet away. Great Aunt Emma wasn’t a physically strong woman, and I can also appreciate now how much raw energy was required to care for me as a toddler. It must have been so hard for her to soothe a toddler’s repetitive questions day after day about where mama went, something I heard today from Vince, seeing in his face his incomprehension as I answered, “She went on a trip and will see you on Wednesday.” As for my brother, he credits Great Aunt Emma as one of his guardian angels, sent to give him the tools to become academically successful and self-confident in a time of intense personal crisis.
And who will be the guardian angels for the thousands of displaced children, caught in the middle of the failings of the adults who wage war, build autocratic political systems, create criminal cartels, destroy communities? How many of us can say that we are not somehow complicit?
This website has a list of organizations that are doing the best they can to help detained migrants, especially the children. I’m donating in Vince’s and Great Aunt Emma’s name, please consider doing so in the name of a child or caregiver special to you.