The other day I had the joy of meeting our eight-month-old granddaughter for the first time since she was a very new baby indeed.
Well, I say it was a joy — and it was certainly a relief to see her and her three-year-old brother after so long — but I’m sorry to report little Etta herself took a very different view of our encounter.
Indeed, it’s fair to say that she reacted to my arrival at her door as if Freddy Krueger from A Nightmare On Elm Street had come to call.
At her first sight of her doting grandfather, Etta’s face contorted in all-consuming terror, the corners of her mouth turned down and she let out a heart-rending howl that didn’t cease until what seemed like an eternity later, when she was securely back in her mother’s arms.
It’s fair to say that she reacted to my arrival at her door as if Freddy Krueger from A Nightmare On Elm Street had come to call
Now, I may be wrong, but I suspect a great many other grandparents will endure similar unflattering experiences when they’re finally allowed to meet beloved babies who have known nothing but lockdown since they were born.
But I must explain, before you ring the Covid police and have my whole family dragged away in handcuffs, that my visit was perfectly in accordance with the rules on childcare bubbles, as far as I understand them.
‘A childcare bubble is where one household links with one other household to provide informal childcare to anyone under 14,’ says the Government’s website. Tick.
‘All adults in both households must agree to this arrangement.’ Tick.
‘Informal childcare means it is unpaid and unregistered.’ Tick.
On the day in question, our daughter-in-law had a GP’s appointment for a very painful condition (now mercifully on the mend) and our son had to drive her to the surgery. So someone had to babysit.
The week before, Mrs U had done the honours, looking after the grandchildren during Etta’s first ever experience of separation from her parents, when dad and mum were at the hospital.
But though my wife is generally wonderful with babies — and our grandson Rafael was ecstatic to see her again — she reported on her return that Etta had wailed non-stop from the moment her parents left until they got back.
I wondered if I might have better luck. All right, I can’t claim to be quite as besotted with babies as my wife. But on the whole, I flatter myself that I’ve always rubbed along with them pretty well.
Indeed, I’ve often thought how happy life would be if only adults were as easy to amuse as babies, shrieking with laughter over games of peek-a-boo or ‘whoops-a-daisy into a ditch’.
I must explain, before you ring the Covid police and have my whole family dragged away in handcuffs, that my visit was perfectly in accordance with the rules on childcare bubbles, as far as I understand them
With Rafael, all it takes to make him collapse in mirth is to repeat in a comedy French accent the brand-name of his dungarees: ‘Jojo Maman Bebe.’
But Etta, I fear, is an altogether tougher proposition. My every attempt to cheer her up succeeded only in prompting another screech of anguish.
‘Mama, Papa and Uncle John, went to the market one by one. Mama fell off…’
‘Jojo Maman Bebe.’
‘OK, how would you like to play with your lovely new mobile?’
‘Waaaahhh! Waaaahhhh! Waaaaahhhh!’
What I found so surprising was that in our frequent Zoom meetings, Etta had always seemed the happiest baby imaginable, beaming at her grandparents and chuckling away at who-knows-what private jokes.
In that respect, she appeared to be just like her brother, who is the most sociable little chap you could hope to meet, perfectly at ease with his extended family, friends and strangers alike.
Indeed, a harsh critic might say that he can even become a bit of a bore, with his incessant chatter about his many enthusiasms to anyone prepared to listen. (Don’t get him started on the subject of Ghostbusters; you’ll never hear the end of it.)
But then the big difference between Rafael and his baby sister, of course, is that he knew life before lockdown.
In the first two years of his existence, not only did he grow used to seeing his grandparents, uncles and aunts in the flesh, he also, since both his parents are teachers, learned to socialise with other children and adults at his child-minder’s, where he went as soon as his mother returned to work from maternity leave.
Etta, on the other hand, has had no human company whatsoever for the great majority of her life, apart from that of her parents and big brother.
And until Mrs U stepped into the breach a fortnight ago, Etta had never once been separated from her mum and dad simultaneously.
No wonder the poor little thing was terrified and miserable when the grandparents she knew only as faces on a computer screen suddenly materialised on her doorstep, as flesh-and-blood human beings.
And no wonder our daughter-in-law, like so many others in her position, is desperately worried about how her baby will react when her maternity leave ends, and it will be Etta’s turn to go to the child-minder’s.
If my guess is right, there’s an awful lot of trauma ahead for the very young when the Covid restrictions are finally eased.
Since the first lockdown began, a year ago this month, we’ve all heard and read plenty about the ‘separation anxiety’ dogs are likely to suffer when their owners are no longer permanently on the premises. (I myself may even have burbled on about our beloved pooch, Minnie, a little too often for some readers’ tastes.)
How strange we’ve heard so much less about the post-lockdown trauma that awaits so many of our children and grandchildren, who have grown up in a world in which all strangers wear masks or exist only in two dimensions on video calls.
But then, now that I come to think of it, many adults may also be in for a bit of a culture shock when we’re finally given our freedom — or a little of it, at least.
As for myself, God knows I yearn for the end of the lockdown, when I’ll be able to go to the pub again, revisit the galleries I love and maybe even take Mrs U on holiday somewhere beyond Utley Towers (though I’ve lost all hope of our trip to Scotland, which I paid for in 2019).
It will also be good to see my 98-year-old mother-in-law while she’s still with us. Resilient old thing though she is, even she can’t be immortal.
But I have to confess there are some aspects of the lockdown I’ve come to enjoy, in my lucky position as the owner of a spacious house with a garden.
I’ll miss the clean air, the light traffic and the absence of aircraft noise. Above all, I’ll miss the cast-iron excuse to do, well, practically nothing apart from writing a weekly column and vegetating in front of the TV.
No sticky dinner parties, no duty visits to people I’d rather not see, no feeling I ought to go to the cinema to watch the new film everyone’s talking about. Just blissful indolence — but then, as Mrs U will attest, I’ve always been the laziest man on Earth.
Still, even your bone-idle columnist must admit that the joys of freedom far outweigh the odd upside of house arrest. And let’s face it, we adults have had quite enough experience of life to prepare us for the return to something like normality when it comes.
I just wish that the same could be said for poor Etta, and the many other babies and toddlers like her, for whom ‘normal’ means ‘lockdown’.
When we regain our freedom, let’s spare a thought for the child-minders and reception-class teachers who will have to cope with the fallout. Rather them than me!
What I found so surprising was that in our frequent Zoom meetings, Etta had always seemed the happiest baby imaginable, beaming at her grandparents and chuckling away at who-knows-what private jokes