Friday, August 23, 2013

Parenthood: Week 13 – Nana's Story

“He told me to give him Carnation canned milk diluted half and half with water.”

My wife Diana’s Welsh Nana sometimes repeats stories. She's allowed to—she's over 80. I heard the one about the Carnation canned milk for the first time almost a decade ago, but it wasn’t until hearing it again last week that I realized why this moment had stayed with her after all of these years.

The story goes like this: My father-in-law Andy was a big, hungry baby. She tried to nurse him, but he just kept crying. So Nana went to the town doctor (this was a small enough town where there was only one doctor) and he instructed her to buy a can of Carnation milk, dilute it with water “half and half” and feed it to him. She proceeded to do this and it helped satiate his hunger. He stopped crying.

This story was the first thing she thought of when Diana told Nana she was pregnant, and Nana has told us this story almost every time we have seen her since. The first few times I heard this story, I didn’t understand why Nana seemed to get choked up every time she told it. So she gave her baby some canned milk, big deal. People do this ALL of the time now with formula.

Hearing this story again after becoming a dad, I realized that this story embodies some of the most powerful and undeniable emotions about being a parent.

The experience of being a parent is a mix of instinct, social expectations, and spirituality. These three things combine in almost every action and choice parents make and nowhere is this more present than in feeding children.  The most basic biological instinct for parents is to feed their child. When this doesn’t go as expected it touches a deep primal instinct.  Sometimes societal norms make parents feel better about their plight, but often they only make these feelings worse. 

Nana couldn’t feed her child enough food by nursing him. She couldn't fulfill the most basic and most necessary need that babies have. What was she supposed to do?  She was a mother when formula was not widely used.  There weren't entire sections in the book store about child rearing, and the vast parent support network over the Internet was non-existent.

The answer she got from her doctor was simple and logical. He didn’t make her feel guilty for not being able to supply enough milk. This doctor gave her the tools to fulfill her instincts as a mother to feed her baby.  She was not a failure because she couldn't provide enough food for her baby. She could—she was just going to do it in a different way than she expected.  This doctor helped her comfort her son and stop his crying.

For this, she has forever been grateful. Even though the doctor passed away, she continues to send Christmas cards to his wife. When we drove past the building that used to be his office last weekend, she excitedly pointed it out as it came into sight.

When I visited Nana last weekend and she told us this story, I saw her glance over to my father-in-law. For a moment I could see that she wasn’t looking at a middle-aged man, but her baby. For a split second her memory took over and she remembered that baby in her arms, hungry and crying, the doctor who showed her the way to take care of him and what it felt like to soothe this baby that now sat next to her driving through the small town she once called home.

Sometimes we get annoyed when elderly people tell the same story over and over, but there’s a reason that this happens. We don’t always catch the meaning of these stories the first time we hear them.

Next time you hear that story from an older relative for what seems like the fiftieth time, give him or her your attention.  Really listen and even though the words of the story may come out exactly as you predict, you may learn something about life that you will never forget.  

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