At the emergency room, the diagnosis was grim: immediate surgery to repair a tendon, followed by six weeks of recovery in bed. Without even the courtesy of advance notice, a piece of dinnerware had brought to life a great personal fear: Who would take care of the toddler if I were seriously sick or injured?
My wife and I live on a different continent from our families. There is no village to raise our child, just the two of us. Our rare nights out depend on the grace of a stranger — the hired babysitter.
Luckily, my parents were visiting at the time of the plate incident. Without any fuss, they mopped the bloody kitchen floor, canceled their vacation plans and settled into a routine of caring for their son and grandson.
The parents are champion worrywarts, a trait I never understood until recently. Childhood for me was a time of concealing even the slightest physical or emotional nick for fear of swift and decisive adult intervention. Now grown, stitched up and in a post-anesthesia haze, I told my mother, not very gently, to stop fretting.
“You worry when your baby gets a scratch but expect me not to when my grown son is lying unconscious in a pool of blood?” she replied.
The words were characteristically dramatic, but for the first time in my life I did not roll my eyes. Comprehension dawned. She was right. Without realizing it, I had become part of the fraternity of overprotective parents.
Thus began my parents’ second child-rearing stint, decades after the first one. My mother cooked. My father shopped. Both shuttled food and sundries up and down stairs to me all day long. They changed diapers, fed and entertained the toddler, and took him on walks. On nights when my wife worked late, they were a formidable bedtime tag team.
My wife did nighttime baby duty, worked all day and developed a damaging sleep deficit. Military boot camp is likely easier.
I read, and ate well.
The toddler loved the new regime. He had several adults to boss around all day. Baked treats were his for the asking. Meals were tasty and fresh, qualities his routine fare lacks. For him, life was exactly as it should be.
My parents are remarkably spry. But they are of the age where I should be the one taking care of them. Every time they brought me a tray of food or distracted the toddler when he was cranky, I wanted to disappear. My main emotion was gratitude, of course, but guilt was a close second. (Anger at the plate rounded out the top three.)
A friend offered a different perspective. “Have you considered that they might actually enjoy being needed again?” she said.
I had not. My own enjoyment in being needed by the baby follows the law of rapidly diminishing returns.
But then I saw my mother laugh. The cause was trivial: The toddler’s pants were riding low, and he ran to her demanding, “Up! Up!” She laughed uncontrollably, tears running down her face, making him guffaw in delight, too. “I haven’t laughed like this in years,” she said, wiping her eyes.
Children can occasionally be cute, but caring for one is exhausting, at least for a bumbler like me. I assumed it would be far more grueling for two retirees with arthritis and diabetes. But the cheerful nonchalance with which my mother produced khichdi and omelets for the baby and me, respectively, reminded me that I am hardly alone in raising a child. She did it decades ago, with cloth diapers, no iPad and much less fuss.
My parents left last weekend. The toddler is distraught but resigned. I can hobble around now on crutches. We have tickets for a Mumford & Sons concert at the end of the month, by which time I hope to sway, unaided, with no more than the usual awkwardness.
One wretched plate gave me several lessons on the fragility of modern life. It taught me never to set foot in the kitchen without wearing socks (or, ideally, steel-toed boots). It made me question a life lived far away from family. And it showed me that you never stop being a parent.
Zia Ahmed is a stay-at-home American dad living in London.