In September 2016, my daughter and son-in-law stopped by for a visit one weekend and explained that they were moving to Missouri. We listened attentively as they listed out all the reasons of why and how they came to this decision which they concluded with a final request—they wanted to move in with us for four months until they were ready to embark on their new adventure.
As parents, we were always supportive of our children moving away from us at some point after high school graduation. It would be an opportunity for them to grow in their independence, responsibility, and increase self-reliance. My husband and I were excited for this new chapter they would be starting together and agreed to them moving in with us temporarily. Their move-in date would be the following month; however, we received a call the following week from them asking if they could come over again.
When they arrived, they had a gift bag in hand and were beaming. They handed it to us and explained it’s a small “thank you” gift for letting them stay with us. We opened up the bag and took out the present—it was a package of newborn onesies. Unbeknownst to them the previous weekend, they were pregnant and we were going to be grandparents for the first time!
Emotions of joy and excitement flooded my heart. With my next breath, however, I realized that with them moving I wouldn’t be able to be there for my daughter for her entire pregnancy; potentially, I would miss the actual birth; and how would we actively be a part of our grandbaby’s life? I was overcome with sadness and burst into tears as this reality hit me. I explained away my tears as “tears of happiness,” not of my fears. I was excited for their independent move, but didn’t factor grandchildren into the equation.
Fast forward—nearly a year later—I can now tell you that the fear I felt during the announcement was unfounded. And here’s why—love is not limited by distance. Grandparents can form a bond with their grandchild regardless of how far away they are. It takes effort, time, and work, but it can be done.
Here are some tips in the form of an acrostic based on my grandparent name—Grammie—though Mie-Mie for short. We have implemented many of these tips already. For others, we have to wait until our granddaughter—whom we affectionally call Sweet Pea—gets a little older.
Giving—I remember my grandparents set aside money for me while I was growing up and when I turned 22 they gave it to me. I was in college at the time, newly married, and pregnant with our first child. The timing was perfect and helped us as a family to bridge the financial gap on the life changing events that were happening. I am forever grateful for their investment and practical gift of love. My mom set aside a fund for our children and we will continue that legacy for Sweet Pea.
Respect parents—we raised our kids, now it’s our daughter and son-in-law’s turn to raise theirs. It’s important for us to respect the way she and her husband want to raise their daughter. Understanding how we can best support them, and what they deem is acceptable, from using pacifiers to knowing at what age can we start giving her ice cream, helps us to build trust. It’s important for us to ask questions, respect the answers our adult children provide, and follow through with the goal of cultivating a healthy relationship between parents and grandparents.
Adaptable—being nearly 2,000 miles away from our daughter’s family has caused us to be adaptable to the distance. We need to leverage technology to help us develop our relationship with Sweet Pea as she grows up. Texting, FaceTime, Facebook, and Instagram are avenues for us to do that. But let’s not forget the traditional snail mail option—letter writing.
We missed our daughter’s baby shower and birthing. But we were able to make it special and share in both celebrations by going to a pottery shop and painting a star-shaped jar. Once it was completed, we filled it with strips of three different colored patterns of scrapbook paper, one color designated for each person—Sweet Pea, my daughter, and son-in-law. We wrote special messages on the strips of paper for them, rolled them up individually, and put them in the jar. When they received the jar, they were able to read the messages for Sweet Pea aloud to her and receive special encouragement for the mom and dad-to-be.
We also wrote a welcome letter to Sweet Pea with a box full of handcrafted blankets, burp cloths, newborn onesies and miscellaneous goodies. Although we weren’t physically present at her birth, she came into the world knowing that her Papa and I love her.
M—make Memories—we started making memories for our grandbaby the moment we found out the baby would be a girl. Since mom and dad were still not set on a name, I decided to call her Sweet Pea in the interim after the delicate, fragrant, yet hardy flower—with her parents’ permission, of course! Now that she’s born and has been named, our affectionate interim name has stuck. We still call her Sweet Pea.
Another memory we look forward to making when Sweet Pea gets older comes from a story of a new friend I met while visiting Sweet Pea earlier this summer. She has a friend who is in the same boat as us—a grandchild who lives hundreds of miles away. This friend often FaceTimes with their granddaughter and every time they “signed-off,” Grandpa would make a Three Stooges style motion by waving his fingers over his head while creating a funny sound. When this grandchild came to visit him for the first time—meeting at the airport luggage carousel in person—she recognized him instantly and ran to him. She stopped right in front of him and mimicked his “sign-off” motion while giggling before leaping into his arms. She knew who her grandfather was despite the miles between them.
M—remember the new Mom—it’s so easy to get enthralled with the baby, but don’t forget about mom regardless if it’s your daughter or daughter-in-law. New moms need encouragement, affirmation, and gentle love during this time. Validating your daughter’s ability as a new mom is important. Let her know that she is doing a great job. If she expresses insecurity, lovingly guide her and teach her in needed areas.
Motherhood doesn’t come naturally to everyone. In our case, both daughter and son-in-law took naturally to caring for their newborn as fish take to water. Still, encouragement is important and a simple way to cultivate your relationship. Extending practical help by washing clothes, bottles, dishes, or cleaning the house is a way to support your grandbaby’s mom.
Influence—As grandparents, we have a unique relationship. We are able to dote on and spoil our grandchildren as much as we would like and return them back to their parents to do the hard work—teach, discipline, and protect. Grandchildren need someone to listen, understand and offer wise counsel when needed. As I look back at my relationship with my grandparents, they were good listeners, offered encouragement when things were hard and helped me to see my parents’ perspective, which made me pause and evaluate what choices I should make. They influenced me in a positive way and always pointed me back to my parents and their love for me. While our Sweet Pea is not yet three months old, I am looking forward to her tween/teenage years. I want to be available to be a sounding board, to help her to see things from varying perspectives so that she can make good choices for herself that will result in positive outcomes.
Encourage—We have a privileged position as grandparents—to encourage, affirm, and be in our grandchildren’s corner. They will face much opposition in the world we live in today, but we can be a shining light in their life—that when all else fails, they can count on their grandparents to be there for them. We see the best in them—their potential, strengths, and weaknesses. We are their biggest advocate and can rally alongside our adult children to help them see the vast potential and goodness in their children.
As we delightfully prepare for Sweet Pea’s first visit to our home later this month and celebrate our first Grandparents Day, we will ensure the memories we create with her over the years include the legacy of our own grandparents, respect for her parents, and taking advantage to pamper mom. When it’s time to say goodbye, the distance will not dictate how involved we are in our granddaughter’s life; instead, we will creatively find ways to nurture a loving and fun relationship with our little Sweet Pea.
Contributor Terry Ann Lee, with Aging and Disability Services, is the editor of AgeWise King County and coordinates a variety of Age Friendly project initiatives. Baby photo: Shanette Landes.