As I embraced my son-in-law at the Christchurch, New Zealand airport, I noticed the dried spit-up on the collar of his fleece vest and felt a surge of affection well up. I knew it wouldn’t be long before I would be sporting a similar look. My son-in-law had been away from his work as a family physician for a month while caring for our daughter, who had given birth to their second child, Maria, by cesarean section. We had traveled for over 26 hours and more than 7,000 miles to greet our new granddaughter and settle into a month of family care activities that would allow our son-in-law to return to work. We could scarcely wait to hold our baby granddaughter and embrace our daughter and 5-year-old granddaughter, Summer. She was excited to greet us and provide an enthusiastic show-and-tell about her new baby sister.
Our son-in-law helped us get checked into our rental about a 7-minute walk from our family’s apartment in Central Christchurch. We were tasked with transporting our granddaughter to and from school and caring for the baby in the mornings to allow our daughter to catch a few hours of desperately needed sleep. We would also be doing the bulk of the grocery shopping and preparing most of the evening meals. My husband endured some stressful hours practicing driving in left-hand traffic with the steering wheel on the right-hand side of the car, a challenge for aging brains but also one that he gallantly met. My job centered around caring for Maria. Early mornings found her sleeping on a pillow on my lap. As she did, I delighted in watching her facial expressions and imagining the intricate web of neural pathways being woven in her developing brain. A gentle, but continuous, jostling kept her sleeping soundly and peacefully. When awake, I enjoyed seeing Maria respond to a variety of images and sounds. Surprisingly, diaper changes were a delight for me. I loved the intimate interaction that brought her the comfort of being clean and dry.
On some days, Maria would awake before her mother did, and I had the chance to feed her a few ounces of breast milk. Once, when I told Summer that I was going to feed Maria, she stared up at my chest with widening eyes of wonder only to be assured that a bottle of her mother’s milk was available for me to fetch from the refrigerator. Watching my daughter nurse her child brought back sweet memories of nurturing my own three infants years before. I pondered anew the tender beauty of the mother-baby bond with thankfulness and maybe more than a wisp of longing.
At six weeks after Maria’s birth, our daughter’s midwife arrived to conduct her final assessment of the health of mom and baby. She was a wise, older woman: calm, encouraging, and supportive. In the New Zealand public health system, mothers are assigned midwives in early pregnancy to accompany the expectant mother through the entire process of gestation, labor, and delivery. When our daughter was pregnant with Summer, her firstborn, this same midwife was a godsend, for she was far away from her own family and full of concerns and anxiety. The midwife hands off the family to Plunket, a public health agency and charity that provides comprehensive care to children under 5 and their families. During the following week, the first home visit by Plunket took place. Maria’s measurements were taken, advice was respectfully offered, tummy-time was highlighted, and questions were addressed. I was filled with gratitude for the wonderful quality of care my daughter and her family received at this vulnerable phase of life. Maternal-child health is a high priority in New Zealand, which provides a sharp contrast to the permissive abortion policies that are practiced there as well.
As Maria grew and developed, we all found ways to calm and stimulate her. Curly lettuce plants growing in pots on the patio and a pantry packed with a variety of objects of different shapes and colors seemed to capture her attention. But her big sister’s energetic antics proved to be most entertaining of all and brought lots of giggles and smiles. My favorite activity was strolling with Maria to the Christchurch Botanic Gardens, a public gem in the central part of the city. At this historic place, I was able to introduce her to the natural world. A baby-sized sense of wonder appeared on her face as she gazed at the sunlight filtering through leaves, at the blossoms of spring flowering shrubs and trees, and at ducks and birds that ventured a bit too close, at least for my comfort.
Before we departed for the U.S., we left Maria with a keepsake to express our joy and love for her and her family. We want her to know as she grows older how much she means to us. We want to tell her that the lengthy trip and long days caring for her family were worth every minute. We want her to understand that her birth and life bring us joy, and we were thrilled to be with her. Maria’s arrival into the world and into our family is an honor and blessing that is enriching our lives immeasurably. Despite the thousands of miles that now separate us from our Kiwi granddaughters, the gift of the preciousness of their lives remains with us every day, a gift for which we are exceedingly grateful.