What do Grandmas do?

by Dori Gillam

Jerry Seinfeld once said, “Being with a two-year-old is like using a blender without a lid.”

I cried much of the time as I drove the twelve hours from Seattle to my daughter Erika’s home in the San Francisco area last June. I was frightened and raging over the way my only grandchild, Wyatt, had been treated in his daycare.

I’m a long-distance Grandma. Usually, we visit back and forth about four times a year. I take Wyatt to the park, babysit, and read stories. Grandma stuff. Since Erika’s husband would be away for 12 weeks for work, Erika invited me to come down for the summer. I knew there would be some classic “terrible-twos” moments, including tantrums and bedtime struggles. Yet, I’d always been able to make Wyatt giggle.

I’d say straight-faced, “An elephant was wearing your shoes this morning.”

He’d search my eyes, then say, “Nahhhhh!”   

Wyatt had been in the same daycare for nine months, but the day before I was to arrive, Erika made the difficult decision to remove him for two painful reasons.

First, she confirmed through a daycare worker and other parents that two four-year-olds had been hitting, kicking, and shoving Wyatt, and that the day care owner wasn’t able to protect him. He’d come home with a bruise or a scratch and say, “Jared push me.”

Then Wyatt began to hit and throw things, out of self-preservation.

Second, the daycare owner was using unacceptable behavior control techniques. She put the boys, including Wyatt, in time-outs, forcing them to sit in a chair for 30 minutes, much too long for preschoolers. Other parents who had witnessed Wyatt crying in the time-out chair began to notify Erika. Soon after, Wyatt said the daycare owner pinched him. Erika realized why he began to be afraid to be dropped off at the daycare, and the root of his recent night terrors, which caused him to wake up screaming, “Mommy, help! Noooo!”

We kept Wyatt home for several weeks. Erika and I rocked him to sleep, went back to giving him a nighttime bottle for comfort, and bought a new nightlight.

We calmly explained, “It’s okay to be mad. It’s not okay to kick.”

After he’d go to sleep, Erika and I stayed up reading articles and watching YouTube videos learning how to support him. She also met with a child psychologist. We got less sleep than when he was a newborn. We were exhausted day and night.

Why didn’t I just apply some “wise Grandma” tactics? Because Erika had only had a handful of mini-tantrums as a toddler. I was helpless. I simply didn’t know what to do. Some nights Erika and I cried together.

Soon, Wyatt grew more secure and confident. He began sleeping through the night more frequently, knowing he was wrapped in love like a premium Pendleton blanket. Weekdays, I entertained him so Erika could work and look for a new daycare. I took him to playgrounds and jogged behind as he rode his scooter along the marina promenade. Some days, I let him ride up and down the elevator in a two-story office building that was open but empty because of COVID. He pushed the buttons all by himself, asking, “Again, Grandma?” Yes, again. This Grandma had time.

By the end of the summer, he was sleeping through the night. When I put him to bed, he’d ask for “The Wyatt Song,” a simple tune with improvised lyrics recapping the events of his day, including seeing “a big bulldozer!” or running to catch the ice cream truck at the park. Rhyming is not expected. It was reassuring for him to hear a song about him. How do I know? My dad sang it to me, then to Erika. It’s a melodic heirloom.

Erika found a terrific new preschool that he loves. He’s not afraid to be dropped off. He doesn’t hit or throw things. He’s back to being helpful, sweet and funny most of the time.

I cried again on the 12-hour drive home at the end of August because I was leaving them. I cried with gratefulness for being able to help, and to fill many Grandma roles. I cried with pride for my daughter, who swooped in to save her son. I hope Wyatt will never remember that daycare: the bullies and the incompetent daycare owner. I hope that somewhere in his psyche he will remember that we replanted him on solid ground.

I think we got the lid back on the blender.

Dori Gillam is a Humanities Washington speaker, writer and storyteller. She is also NWCCA Board President.