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The Life-Changing Experience of Being a 3 a.m. Grandpa

I love 3 a.m. It was probably ingrained in me from my medical practice. Thirty years ago, during residency, I was on call every third night and got up multiple times at 3 a.m. to attend to patients. Even later, after the training, if a patient called, I got up and went in to see them. I am used to getting up at 3 a.m. and, frankly, I love that time; a time so silent and calm, when most humans are asleep.

So when my first grandchild was born, I volunteered to do the 3 a.m. shift. My daughter-in-law was recovering from a traumatic birth injury and she, my son, and new grandson moved to our home until she could get back on her feet.

Taking the 3 a.m. shift involved sleeping in the baby’s room and when he awoke, going down and warming up a bottle of breast milk, feeding him, changing him and getting him back to sleep. After about three or four times of this, we got to know each other, my grandson and I.

First, he would want to eat, then be changed, then be held. I held him with his head down in the crook of my elbow and we stared at each other in the silence and semi-darkness. At first, I thought that he would have gone back to sleep at that point – but usually, he didn’t.

So often we would simply look at each other. He is a bright, open, curious person; that sort of deeply-staring-type of baby and I was mesmerized. Even in the semi-darkness, we would just stare deeply into each other’s eyes. It was then that an incredible magic would come over me—a deep, meditative, relaxed feeling. I guess you could call it love on steroids, or love with a kick.

I’ve been a life-long meditator, but this was more than the deepest type of meditation I’d ever experienced. He would always win the staring contest and the first-to-fall-asleep contest. It was then that my mind would begin to wonder, and where it wondered was to this child—my first grandchild; and about other children being born.

I wondered what was going on in his little brain and how many millions of neuro-connections were happening per minute. I wondered if he had enough nutrition to make those connections high quality. He was, thanks to the toughness and resilience of his mother and to modern breast pumps, getting breast milk exclusively. I wondered if she had enough Omega-3 fatty acids in her breast milk for him.

So many children don’t get enough nutrition or they get exposed to toxic substances, so those millions of connections don’t happen properly. I wondered if he felt safe and loved; actually, there was little to doubt about that. We had a houseful of people to love him and he seemed happy and content most of the time. I thought about the hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of children who don’t have that, whose childhood from the very beginning is full of toxic stress that we know can set them off on a life-long course of floundering rather than flourishing.

But mostly I wondered how many more times I would get to witness the miracle of being “The 3 a.m. Grandpa.” Probably not many, I thought, and indeed that was true. Soon, I lost the privilege of having the 3 a.m. shifts when his mother recovered and they moved back to their own home.

Soon he grew up to the ripe old age of five months and no longer wanted to sit and stare at night; he wanted to get up and do things. Now, I am a “double father” – a father to my son and daughters and a grandfather to my grandson. I can now appreciate what I couldn’t the first time as a father: the wonder and miracle of 3 a.m.

I still wake up periodically at 3 a.m. Sometimes it’s because I’m worried or have too much to do or have drunk too much coffee. But now when that happens I think about the memory of that deep dive into those few precious times that I was “The 3 a.m. Grandpa.”

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