Amsterdam Mamas: Tips for becoming a grandparent abroad
Building and maintaining relationships with grandchildren can be difficult when they live abroad, but as Lisa Benoist shows, being an overseas-grandparent is not an impossible task.
As a parent I have always felt that my primary role was to raise my children to be happy, healthy, responsible and independent adults. It is a high aim but I have no doubt that we all do the very best we can, especially when you consider that this is a job for which few of us ever receive training, remuneration, sick leave or holiday allowance. We do, however, take a great deal of pleasure in watching our children develop and grow into fine young adults.
For some of us, the realisation that we have succeeded in our jobs comes when we are faced with the proof that our child has become truly independent: their departure from the land of their birth to take up residence in another country and/or on another continent. It can be a sad time for parents when their chick flies the nest but equally it can be a happy one because we know that they have developed drive, ambition and the confidence to carry them through. Well done us, we must have done something right!
At first all is fine for those of us left behind. The new-found slower pace, quiet and freedom to do what we choose, without concern for the children, are very pleasurable, especially when the adult child keeps in touch by telephone and email. It is great, too, when the son or daughter is established in a desirable holiday location and the parents can visit: we had many happy holidays in Paris when my elder daughter lived there.
However, when the once-child finally marches fully into adulthood by becoming a parent in their own right it gives rise to some worrying questions for the overseas grandparents-to-be. Before I explore those we need to talk about the scary T-word...technology.
There are technology natives, those who have grown up with new technology and are comfortable with it, and technology immigrants, those of us who are too old to have experienced computer technology in childhood. For us new technology is initially a mystery: it can be scary but, if we are to become overseas grandparents, we need to acquire at least a basic level of skill.
If we can master email we can write to our children/grandchildren and – if all is working as it should – have our message, or theirs to us, arrive in seconds. With a digital camera or camera phone we can send and receive photos almost as quickly. There are online chat facilities where we can have real-time (well, almost) typed conversations with our offspring. I struggle with these because my typing is so much slower than my daughter's so she has taken another turn in the conversation while I am still typing the response to her earlier one. Internet calling via Skype is good, and cost effective. I am particularly lucky that my daughter has a UK Skype number and my mobile package allows free calls to UK landline numbers, so I have free calls to my daughter – a real boon.
Best of all, I think, are video calls from a computer, Smartphone or tablet because then we can see each other. I first became involved with video calls when my elder (Amsterdam-based) daughter sensibly presented me with a webcam to attach to my computer. Her thinking was that my baby grandson would be able to see me when I was in the UK and he was in Amsterdam. My husband set up the camera for me and showed me how to use it (it really helps to have an electrical engineer in the house!) and I opened a free Google mail account so that my daughter and I could use the Gmail video call facility (other brands are available). I now have a little computer tablet which I can use away from home for calling, too. It is brilliant being able to see each other when we speak...and an amazing way to keep in touch with my grandchildren. Also, I am happy to report, all of our video calls are free, once the home broadband service is paid for.
So, back to the questions overseas-grandparents-to-be might be asking themselves.
1. How can I support my child through the birth of her/his first baby?
My tip is to be available – on the telephone or computer – to listen to anything that your son or daughter wants to tell you and, as always, to try to read between the lines if you are not told anything.
Don't try to ‘fix' any concerns or difficulties they may have, just listen and try to guide them into their own train of problem-solving thinking. Be tactful when sharing your own experience or giving advice; expectant first-time parents need reassurance, not horror stories, as they can usually find plenty of things to worry about by themselves.
Never criticise: they are adults now and should be respected as such. If you are able to visit your son or daughter during this phase see if there is anything you can do to help out as it takes time and energy to entertain guests that expectant parents often don't have. Also, don't expect to be present at the birth unless you are specifically requested to be there.
2. How can I help when the baby arrives?
If you can visit, great. When my husband and I first visited our daughter a week after the birth of our new overseas grandson we booked into local accommodation rather than risk adding to the strain of new parenthood. We visited every day and helped out with baby cuddling/soothing, parent reassuring, laundry, shopping, cooking and so on but left the new family to spend some quiet time getting to know each other, too.
If you are unable to visit, do explain to your son or daughter that you would like to support him/her at this time and ask what would be most helpful: regular calls/emails? Sending baby clothes/equipment? Arranging a food hamper to minimise catering worries? Making something special for your new grandchild? I made a cuddly toy for each of my grandchildren but a memory book or box can also make nice gifts. It depends on your skills.
3. How can I establish a bond with my new grandchild?
Again, this is much easier if you are able to visit because it will be hard for the new family to travel at first. When a visit is not viable things are more difficult. My stepdaughter and her husband live in east Africa and had a baby recently. We could not travel to them so had to be content with a home-made card and a package of locally handmade baby clothes. At Christmas there was a special Nanna-made card for our granddaughter and some nursery rhyme books and a CD from Amazon (they manage to deliver parcels to my stepdaughter's office but personal packages rarely reach their destination).
Although we have been unable to hold our new granddaughter we have ‘met' her through video calls. We are able to see her and talk to her and she can see us on the screen and smiles back so beautifully. OK, so it's not perfect but it is so much better than no contact at all.
We are looking forward to their visit to the UK in a couple of months and can't wait to hold and play with the new addition to our family. Meanwhile, I am making her a very special crochet blanket for her cot, in a soft natural yarn (for the hot weather in Africa) with colours chosen by her mum. The hope is that when she is older the things we have sent will help to provide her with a link to us and remind her that we love her. Each family situation is different, so think about what might work for you.
4. How can I maintain the bond so that my grandchild does not forget me between visits?
One way is to work out a plan with your son or daughter regarding how visits can be managed and make these as frequent as you both can manage. My daughter and I sail across the North Sea in turn to visit each other every two months and I consider myself very lucky that this is possible.
In between visits we arrange video calls, about once a week, during which my little grandson and I can see each other. When he was smaller we played visual games, such as peek-a-boo, during our calls and I sang to him. We have some fun role-play games too, for example when I place a random object on my head, say that I have a lovely new hat, and then sneeze and look very surprised when the hat falls off. My grandson shrieks with laughter at my antics, then finds his own strange hat and we play together. I also read stories of his choice to him, holding the book towards the camera so that he can see the pictures but hear my voice.
Sometimes he likes to bring toys to show me and has once or twice tried to pass a toy or book through the screen to me. Last week during our call he brought a musical toy to the computer and danced for me, loving it when I copied him and we danced together. At Christmas we each held some sleigh bells and Nanna and grandson sang Jingle Bells together, a truly treasured moment.
In addition, there are the photographs. With a digital camera and a computer it is amazing what can be done. My granddaughter has a plastic photo wall hanger into which we slot photos of her friends and relatives: simple and easily updated.
When my grandchildren were small I provided each of them with a key ring with laminated photos of close relatives who are geographically distant. The photos show the name by which he/she is known to the child and each card is about the size of a credit card. I make a table on a word processing document and import text and photos in order to achieve a consistent size. These are then cut out and laminated, then cut out again leaving a border of clear laminate around each one so that they are protected from spills and licking. Punching a hole in the corner of the laminate border – but not through the card – helps, too. The children loved these portable collections of their special people and soon learned to associate the faces with names until everyone was familiar.
Another way to use the photos is to make them into a book recording about what happened on a special day, a visit or a holiday. Children love to look through books about themselves and remember what happened and who was there. Last year when my grandson left after a visit I quickly printed some photos from our week and slipped them into a little pocket-sized photo album for him to take on his long journey home. He loved it, and later took it to day care to show the carers his Nanna and Grandpa and cousin.
The one thing that I don't have any useful advice for is the pain of parting from your overseas grandchild at the end of a visit. When my own children were small their Irish grandmother visited us a couple of times a year and we all had so much fun together. At the end of every visit she would always break down in tears and set the rest of us off.
At the time I didn't really understand why she was so sad, as we wrote to her often, called her sometimes and would soon be arranging another visit for her to come to us or for us all to travel to Ireland. However, we did not have email and video calling then and there was no visual contact between visits.
Now that I am an overseas grandmother myself I quite understand her sadness. The worst thing for me is walking away at the end of a visit knowing that I cannot properly prepare my lovely grandson for the fact that if he calls for me on waking the next day I will not be there. Neither can I resign myself to the knowledge that, however exhausting it can be grand-parenting at close quarters, when I wake the next day his happy, expectant little face will not be there encouraging me to kick start another fun-filled day.
Nevertheless, the joy of being a grandparent outweighs all of this, even for the overseas grandparent. All is all it is most definitely to be recommended!
Amsterdam Mamas is a not-for-profit organisation providing support and information in English for international families in the Amsterdam region and across the Netherlands. From small beginnings on Facebook the organisation has grown into a lively community of more than 9,000 members with its own website, podcast, events and regular newsletters circulating to thousands of families each week.
Photo credit: slightlywinded (photo 1), Sarah Ross Photography (photo 2).
Comment here on the article, or if you have a suggestion to improve this article, please click here.