When Your In-Laws Become Your Lifeboat

grandpa and granddaughter Katie Parquet
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Several years ago, I broke down crying in Walgreens while buying diapers. I wanted a second baby more than anything, but I couldn’t get pregnant. I was there to buy adult diapers for my father-in-law, Frank, who has Parkinson’s and dementia and had just moved down the block from us.

After living their entire lives in San Diego, CA, my in-laws (unbelievably) relocated to Queens, New York. I couldn’t imagine how they made the leap to cold weather and an NYC-sized apartment—but they did it for their five-year-old granddaughter, Stella. My mother-in-law, Genevieve, has more energy than anyone I know and was eager to play spy games, bake and do arts and crafts. “I’ll babysit as much as you need,” she said. “And if you have a second one, I’ll watch him every day so you won’t need daycare.”

It sounded dreamy but improbable. How would my mother-in-law manage to watch an infant while her husband’s Parkinson’s progressed? My in-laws flew across the country and moved into their new home less than a month before Frank lost full use of his legs and became bedridden. I knew he would need more and more care, and eventually, Genevieve would, too. My brother-in-law also lived in New York and was on board to help. There was no question that it was time for my family to pull together.

I loved the idea of being a true intergenerational family. But I was afraid that my partner and I wouldn’t be able to help much with caregiving as full-time working parents. Still, we learned to weave the grandparent generation into our weekend and evening routines, swinging by to drop off groceries, install lightbulbs, help out with a sponge bath.

There were nightmarish times: ER trips at 3 a.m. after my father-in-law fell out of bed. I spent many lunch breaks at work calling the Veteran’s Association, begging for a hospital bed to be delivered and for home health aide services. My stress level was so high that I feared I was hurting my chances to have a second baby at 38. I didn’t let that stop me.

“I’ll babysit for the second one—don’t you worry.” Genevieve never stopped believing.

Despite the uncertainty of Frank’s health, I felt a deep sense of calm every time I stepped into my in-laws’ building. Their apartment was right above a pizzeria, so we inhaled the warm, cheesy smell during the elevator ride. When we opened the door to the apartment, Genevieve’s golden doodle, Tilly, pounced and slathered us with kisses. Stella helped herself to Oreos from the pantry, knowing she never needed to ask permission. Then she headed into the playroom—where four dollhouses awaited.

During the first year, my partner and her brother traded off with their dad’s care, and I shouldered more of the parenting at home. Some nights my partner stayed over with her dad to care for him. Genevieve wasn’t able to babysit much, but she was still an invaluable addition to our lives as parents. I turned to her for parenting advice many times, knowing that she would never give advice unless asked and was never judgmental.

I signed up my kindergartener, Stella, for an after-school program, but Genevieve jumped in to do early pickups. Whenever Frank was having a good day, Genevieve swung by the school at 2 p.m. Together they ran around the house with walkie-talkies and spy costumes, and designed clothing using the full-sized mannequin Genevieve bought. Frank often seemed cheered up having a kid around. When Stella was nervous in the presence of someone so sick and in a hospital bed, I told her to high-five grandpa. Now they always high-five. No words need to be spoken when there is so much love.

That night when I wept in the Walgreens adult diaper aisle, I couldn’t imagine the life I’m living now. Frank has been stable enough to “graduate” from hospice services. The unstoppable Genevieve has babysat 30 hours a week for two years. She watches our long-awaited second baby, named Fiona Genevieve after her grandma. The baby happened because of modern medicine, but also all the extra support and love.

When my in-laws moved down the block, our family became stronger, more loving and complete. Baby Fiona, born on Cinco de Mayo, was the perfect latecomer to the party. And we have much to celebrate.

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