What a difference a generation makes in the expectations and realities of grand-parenting.
When my brother and I were growing up on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, our maternal grandparents took care of us often because we lived on farms only eight miles apart. The arrangement was a convenience for our parents and one treasured by our grandparents. By the time my own children came along, the grandparent relationship was very different – and the physical distances between grandparents and grandchildren, much greater.
My mother had returned to work full-time when I was in high school in 1960, and my dad had given up farming for a nine-to-five job. They lacked the flexibility of people who had retired, and my husband and I lived four hours away in Richmond with our son and daughter. When I returned to the workplace part-time – and then full-time when our younger child entered kindergarten, our busy lives permitted a maximum of four or five trips a year to visit grandparents.
Lives separated by great distances with limited vacation time are not generally very flexible. My mother occasionally sent Hallmark holiday cards with the headline which read, “Across the miles…” and expressed feelings of disconnection from her grandchildren. I had easily developed my own support network as a young mom, but she hadn’t figured out ways to stay in touch with her grandchildren.
When my husband and I became grandparents for the first time 11 years ago, I was determined to stay connected even though we both had very busy professional lives and our new grandbaby was in NYC. I started the process by taking a week’s vacation after our daughter-in-law’s difficult Caesarian delivery and traveling eight hours to help Out. Her own mother, in Poland, couldn’t come over at that time, so I had an early opportunity to bond with baby Sophia.
I knew Tom and I couldn’t travel eight hours to New York frequently, so as Sophia got a bit older – and then had a baby sister, I developed a few strategies for staying in touch and creating familiarity with us.
1. Give a lot of moral support across the distance to the parents of your grandchildren.
If your children are aware, through phone calls, emails and notes, of how much you care, they’re much more apt to talk a lot about Grandmom and Granddad (or whatever you prefer to be called) and to show the kids images of you that help reinforce your identities with them. Though we haven’t done this, some parents and grandparents separated by great distances use Skype and other voice chat software which allows a video phone-call over the Internet.
2. Think of fun, cost-free activities grandchildren will associate with you each time they see you.
While they might associate you with that perfect teddy bear you gave them for Christmas, what you give doesn’t have to be material. It might be learning to play patty-cake or repeating “This little piggy went to market” every time you count their toes – or learning to cut snowflakes from folded paper. You’ll know you’ve really scored once you play a game with them, and they ask you to “do that again” the next time you’re together.
3. When you travel, be sure to send the most age-appropriate postcard you can find from your destination to your grandchild.
Children love getting mail addressed to them. Write what they’re most apt to understand when a parent reads it to them, and print your message in all caps once they begin learning the alphabet.
4. If you don’t travel, make a postcard that will entertain a child for a couple of minutes – or longer.
You can cut up a cereal box, using the design on the front as an eye-catcher and then write your message on half of the back, with the other half for the address. If they’re older, you can explain this as a form of recycling. (The card’s weight will be heavier than a regular postcard, so be sure to use a full first-class letter stamp rather than a postcard stamp on it.)
5. Make up a simple, one-page story, using the child’s name, and mail it to the child.
Add stick-figures illustrations to make it come alive for the child – no one’s going to judge your artwork6 To go a step beyond the one-page story, purchase a very small item to send with a related story.
A $2.99 plastic duck that I sent along with a made-up story about the adventures of Sophia and duckie was a bigger hit than any larger or more costly gift I could have bought. I kept the story going by creating sequels in succeeding letters.
7. Instill a sense of family history early by reminding your young grandchildren of what you’ve done together previously.
Even if you did something pragmatic like painting the children’s room during your last visit, this is a conversation-starter the next time you talk to them. Ask them if they like it – and what does the color remind them of? Do they remember what the old color was?
Our two grown children have fuzzy images of my own heavy-set, maternal grandmother – their great-grandmother – on the farm, her apron flapping as she ran out of her house upon our arrival to scoop them up in her arms during our infrequent visits. Our two granddaughters’ memories will be very different of us, but our homemade postcards and stories that their mother has saved help keep their associations with us alive across the miles.