05 December 2007

The Art of the Long Distance Grandma

The holidays are fast approaching and, being away from home, I have more time and fewer distractions from the realization that, yet again, I will spend the holidays without my older children, TJ and Corey (now 27 and 25). And now I will also spend them without TJ's children, Bella and Leo.


When TJ and Corey were growing up, I hated the holidays. I had never been particularly fond of them anyway, and so since Christmas is a BIG deal in my ex-husband's family, when we split up, it seemed like 'easy points' to send the kids with him to spend the holidays.

Corey and Bella

But it wasn't easy. Year after year, just as the intense focus on 'being together and celebrating family' would start, I would start packing the kids up to leave me again. It wasn't long before rather than "not particularly fond" of the holidays, I came to hate them with a passion.

Once I met Rod, I started to feel a little more warmly toward the season. First I started to notice the real beauty of the Victorian holiday decor that was so much in vogue just then. Eventually, I even started feeling less antipathy at the music and traditions, and I even started to be attracted to some of them.


When Jack was born, I actually found myself getting excited about creating new Yule traditions for ourselves as a family. But always there has been a sadness even so because I never got to share these things with TJ and Corey and now I also can't be there to make the house smell warm and yummy with baking cinnamon buns and cookies and hot chocolate for my grandchildren.

Family has always been important to me, but this year, the focus is sharper than it';s been for a while, because I am away from Rod and Jack and I can't busy myself in activities with them or for them when I start to feel wistful.

Instead, as I make Yule card after Yule card, I am thinking about the art of the long distance Grandma.

When your grandchildren live nearby and you can see them frequently, your relationship can grow organically out of who you are and who they are.

When your children and grandchildren live 8,000 miles away, and visits are 'every two years, assuming nothing goes wrong', if you want to be more than a name on a genealogy chart, you're going to have to put some conscious effort into creating a relationship.

When the children don'tshare your mother tongue and are not yet multi-lingual, it is even more challenging, because so much of relationship is based on language and the advise for long distance grandparents in books and on the web assumes at least a common language, if not somewhat regular access.


I think that the key to creating a relationship is make yourself present in the lives of your children and grandchildren on a pretty frequent basis. You have to "be there" a lot, even when you can't be there physically.

There is little you can do when they're very young, but as your grandbabies reach the toddlerhood, you can make sure that your kids have a photo (or two or three) of you. Ideally, you can put one in a baby-proof frame to be placed on a low shelf or table and give the baby a chew and drool-proof "baby's photo album" with photos of every member of the family -- including, of course, yourself.

As soon as they are old enough to understand what a letter is and not chew it up, usually sometime between age 2 and age 3, you can start to send them letters. At this point, the language and the contents matter less than the letter arriving with some frequency. Picture cards with appealing art and a one or two sentence note for Mamma and Pappa to read to them is ideal. (Even better, a photo of you or your home or a pet fastened to the front of a blank craft card, for the perfect "personal" stationery!)

It's important to keep the lines of communication open with your kids so you can hear about it when the children start to develop interests that you can refer to in your letters.

As the children approach three and a half or four, you can start sharing 'real' letters with them. A typed letter of 1,000 words or so will fit on one sheet of paper. Add a few photos, and send them once a month and you are well on your way to creating a relationship with these youngsters that you love from afar.

At this point, if you and your grandchildren don't share a primary language, make sure the letters are at least partly in their own first language, even if you have to hire a translator. It's important that you start to develop your own unique voice with your grand-kids. If they are struggling to understand you, or if your kids are doing the translating, a lot of your voice may be lost.

I was very, very fortunate in my search to hire a translator to come across a very lovely young professional at the local University who was willing to translate my letters for free in the interest of helping a Grandma develop a relationship with her far away grandchildren. But I don't want to create a false sense of my fluency in my grand-kids, so while I send one letter a month through the translator, I also do my best to write in their language in shorter notes and I occasionally send them letters in English as well.

I do send gifts sometimes. It can be tempting to buy lots of toys and gifts for the grand-kids, but I'm not sure that's a good idea. We want to be people that our grandchildren love, we don't want to become their own personal Santa Claus. The occasional small gift based on their own interests or on things that are important to the family are ideal and I don't think a large gift twice a year at birthdays and another gift-giving occasion is a problem -- but if they see you primarily as the source of loot, they are less likely to look past that and see who you are as a person, so keep the focus on your relationship and not on stuff. I send inexpensive colouring books or stickers, sometimes clothes, occasionally toys that I think will last and hold their interest for a long time, and most often, I send them hand made cards that I have created myself. Since I am a paper crafter, it serves as a way of sharing some of my own interests with them.

The most "important" gift I give them, though, is that I scrapbook every photo of them that I can get my hands on and once a year or so, I send those books to them. They are pleased to have books about themselves now -- but this is also a message to their adults selves. Some day, I dream, they will be flipping through the by then familiar and worn books and it will dawn on them that I must have spent hours thinking about them and looking at photos of them, trying to understand what was happening in their lives as I created those books. Maybe it will happen -- maybe it won't. But that's my dream. And should the books survive to passed along to their children, my presence will continue to be felt in a family far from me in time and space -- but a family that I had some small part in creating. Look for ways you can find a way to make your grandchild a part of your own hobby.

Phone calls, while they do happen, are not particularly satisfying for anyone. I understand little of what they're saying, and they understand little of what I say. (That isn't to say I would trade the phone calls for anything -- with practice will come understanding and nothing can replace the music of their sweet chirpings! But if I were counting on phone calls, we would have a strained and uncomfortable relationship.) Fortunately, the job of a Grandma is mostly to listen, so I listen and make encouraging noises and I respond more specifically if I catch a phrase I understand.

I think, I hope, that my regular letters arriving, telling them what I would share with them if I were there -- about my life, about the lives of their Pappa and their uncle (who lives nearby) when they were young boys, and about what I think is important, will help them to know me and to care enough about me to make the effort to develop the relationship from their side, too. Already they have started to send me their art and letters they have painstakingly hand written.

Recently, my daughter-in-law and I have started to compare notes about the books we are taking out of the library to read with our children. Knowing that "Bella and Leo just read this and they liked it a lot" seems to mean a lot to Jack and it helps me to feel closer to Wanja, TJ, Bella and Leo to know that we are haring the same stories. I hope it works the other way too.

So far it seems to be working. The stories I hear from TJ and Wanja and very encouraging, but I am always on the lookout for new ways to deepen the bond between myself and my grandchildren -- especially since visits are infrequent and the language barrier is large. If you have any ideas for me, please feel free to share in comments or by e-mail.

Family is important. It may be easier to maintain familial bonds from across town, but grandchildren need us, even from across the planet. Even with step-grandmas and borrowed grandpas, no one can replace you in the lives and hearts of your childrens children -- and they are worth the bit of effort it takes to create a relationship with them across the miles.

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