Usually I write about communication in relationships. Of late I've been blessed with a new grandchild plus another scheduled to arrive next month, so babies and grandparents are occupying my thinking. Grandparenting in these times presents unique opportunities and also challenges, the biggest and most common being the challenge of kids and grandkids living many miles away. When grandparents long to hug, kiss and share in the lives of their grandkids, living far apart can be tough.
Whatever the challenges, for many seniors, the news of a pregnancy, and especially of a forth-coming first grandchild, can be emotionally potent.
What is a grandparent to do once the baby arrives? The following article by Joan Baronberg, an early childhood educator who has written about her personal experiences with welcoming her first grandchild, addresses this question.
LONG DISTANCE GRANDMA
by Joan Baronberg
“Our” baby is 2 weeks old. This long distance grandma is tired. And I’m not even the mommy or daddy. We are all jubilant because baby is now here with us, and she is lovely and adorable. But, as any one who has had a baby can tell you and often does, it is not only a miracle but also a work-out.
Many long distance grandmas are not able to be physically present for the actual delivery, but I was. I waited next door but was not actually in the delivery room. I listened and anticipated and worried and commiserated for the seven hours my daughter labored. As her husband commented, “They don’t call it labor for nothing."
It was astounding to see our new granddaughter when she was only a few minutes old. I watched as the nurse checked out her five fingers and toes and the new mom and dad sighed with satisfaction and exhaustion. I held the baby. I said stupid things to everybody. Then my husband and I left. Now those are all the perks of being a grandparent.
We got some sleep and then went back to the hospital. My daughter stayed in the hospital just short of two days, and it seemed to be our role there to celebrate, comfort, problem solve, and often just stay out of the way. Then my husband (no room for me in the car) drove them home. These were such memorable days. I recommend it if you can travel to the birthing site.
Many potential grandparents ask if it is best to go for the delivery, just after the delivery, or a few weeks later. Of course there are pros and cons for each. As a long distance grandparent, one is likely to have to make those choices in advance. Travel arrangements and prices, plus work schedules and other commitments, play their part while babies rarely adhere to their due date. Being at the delivery has its highs as do the moments and days just afterwards. The best plan obviously is to ask the parents-to-be what they prefer for your available time. In some cases, it is hard for them to know in advance what would be most meaningful and helpful for them. Having the discussion, even without reaching a definite conclusion, allows all parties to show respect for the others.
Now that the baby has arrived
I was fortunate to be able to stay on for a month after the delivery. At no point did the parents want me to sleep over in their apartment. This might or might not be different in situations where there is more room and independent space. The caveat though is that the new parents need to develop their own schedule and sharing of baby responsibilities. They need alone time and space for this. My role was as a supplement or adjunct when dad went to work. This was very important in allowing the new mommy a chance to rest, shower, and even think a bit in private.
Many new parents, including my kids, don’t want visitors at first. Immediate family do not count as visitors but do need to remember that the new parents and new baby are not there to entertain them. Rather the immediate family is there to help. This can take many different forms, and a role can be found for each person: driving to do errands and shopping, cleaning house, doing laundry, cooking and serving meals and cleaning up afterwards, answering phone calls and mail deliveries, holding baby, and very occasionally tendering advice.
Photography can be an issue in this digital camera age. Again, the best plan is to check with the new parents on their philosophy and what they want or do not want concerning pictures of baby. Personally, I find it annoying and intrusive for lots of people to be taking lots of pictures lots of the time. But what counts is what the new parents want. It’s usually a balance of eagerness to see and record this awesome new arrival and yet not have picture-taking happening all the time. Ask the new parents to tell you their preference and then help remind others of this.
The first weeks of bringing baby home can be seen as the survival stage. For first-time parents, this is a total shock. Moms can be in pain and/or discomfort recuperating from the birth and even when this is minimal (and often it is not), sleep deprivation from before, at, and after the delivery makes an enormous impact. Long distance grandmas who are not on the spot for these first weeks should remember that the new parents can barely breathe or think and should not be expected to answer phone calls, email, or Skype. If they are able to handle any of these, it’s a bonus.
How to survive the survival stage is a challenge. Grandparents get to coo, either long distance or in person, while the parents get most of the work. For a new parent it’s often hard to coo when there is so much to do 24/7. A few earth mother types love every minute of this stage, but more are primarily tired, worried, confused, and somewhat resentful of all that their bodies have gone through and even the demands of the new little one. Since most grandmas have gone through this themselves, we can totally understand—but we have to remember to do so.
Bring in the lactation expert
Some long distance grandmas will be asked by their daughters (in person or via telephone at some unexpected hour) why isn’t nursing going as easily and happily as they had thought it would. The widespread assumption in our society today is that nursing is the best way to feed babies, and many of our daughters (and sons and sons-in-law and daughters-in-law) have bought into this almost as a dogma. The tide may be changing a bit as evidenced, for example by a new book (Is Breast Best? Taking on the Breastfeeding Experts by Joan Wolf, NYU Press, 2011), but it hasn’t made widespread impact yet. Your daughter or daughter-in-law may be experiencing surprise that nursing is not as “natural” as she expected, and she may be going through periods of disappointment and guilt about this. If she asks about your own experiences, it is fair game to recount them; otherwise, it is probably better to just listen.
The same dogma vs. reality check may apply to other choices the new parents are making and perhaps re-thinking. There’s the question of disposable diapers vs. cloth ones. Here again, philosophy butts its head against day-to-day reality. All those books sitting on the shelf nearby tell the new parents one thing, while the survival stage may whisper something else.
What we know as grandmas is: It’s not easy.
Which side are you on?
I’ve been talking with two grandmothers-to-be, both on the dad-to-be side of the picture. This variable—of being on either the family side of the mom-to-be or dad-to-be can be a very important variable. Girls, from 1 day old and onward, are notoriously close with their moms and traditionally have quite a different relationship with their mothers-in-law. This impacts a lot of decision-making and emotional attitudes. From the grandmother’s point of view, the grandchild is neutral territory but the new mom may be territorial in a different way.
Both of these grandmothers readily accept that their daughters-in-law are far closer with their own moms and will want and accept different kinds of help from them than from the maternal grandmothers. More easily said than lived, I bet.
They have referred to themselves as “merely the mother-in-law,” but I doubt there’ll be a term “merely the grandmother from the father’s side.”
The virtual world
I have to say that, despite being an older generation, we are pretty good technologically and really open to what technology can do for the long distance grandma. Before the baby arrived, people assured me that I could keep in touch happily via Skype. I have to say that Skyping was quite delightful for the very first months, but it is not as satisfying as the baby gets more aware and more mobile. Your face on the computer screen is likely to be quite confusing to her—is it real? Can she touch it? Will you sit next to her? No, no, and no. The baby reacts like a rational human being: she reaches out to touch you and when that fails for the most part, she is distracted by those fun keyboard buttons. So what it ends up is she either muddies up the computer screen at her end with her fingerprints or she disconnects you entirely by touching the keys.
I just realized that I had said to myself, in a semi–automatic way, that I had better brush my hair so as to be ready for the telephone call. Can you imagine ten years ago even contemplating how you look before getting on the phone?
Something beats nothing
It’s wonderful, but is it the same as being around the block? No. As Sabrina has pointed out, “We can’t all just drop in each other’s places for a short visit; for a casual dinner; for a quick hello.”
Not being close by feels like a deprivation not only in terms of seeing the baby’s growth and forming a natural attachment but also in terms of being helpful. I regret not being able to babysit on an ad hoc basis or a regular basis. I can’t help my daughter take a break, take a nap, get some mental down-time or just receive a mother’s hug when she needs it. It doesn’t seem fair.
Yes, everything has to be planned out and in advance and is a big deal. Is it perfect? No. Is it a workable compromise? Yes.
I spoke with a grandma in Ft. Collins who is 47 years old. She wishes she could quit her job so she could visit her new grandbaby in Ohio. Another grandma told me that she’s in her mid-60s and worries about her health and endurance in flying long distances to visit the grandkids. I identify with that. This week I saw a long distance visiting grandpa cry as he held his new grandson and later told me: “I’m staying for two weeks now since I don’t know when I can come back. Travel gets harder and harder for me.”
Time, strength, and expense are all issues that won’t go away for us long distance grandparents.
In ye olde days when a new baby was born, many people gave government savings bonds as a gift. Today we have to start a travel fund. Gas, airline tickets, vitamins, and even postage are not cheap. But is it worth it? So far I’m just guessing but by all reports and my expectations, I’d answer: 99% yes!
For more posts by Dr. Heitler, see here or here.
Denver psychologist Susan Heitler, PhD is author of the PowerOfTwoMarriage online program for teaching the skills for relationship success.