Long-distance grandparenting

One can share the emptiness with other LDGs in blogs, but pouring out one’s heart is no substitute for a grandchild who pops in on the way home from school or comes around on Friday evening.

Grandfather and granddaughter [illustrative] (photo credit: REUTERS)
Grandfather and granddaughter [illustrative]
(photo credit: REUTERS)
I may have made some fundamental mistakes when I was bringing up my sons in the ’70s and ’80s. These days I wonder whether the fact that I now live in Israel while my family is scattered untidily over the globe is a result of my misplaced ideas and ideals.
In the 1970s, a communication revolution was in progress.
In those last years before the digital age, booksellers were selling psychology books like hotcakes. We read avidly and learned that “the healthiest position about life… means that I feel good about myself and that I feel good about others and their competence” (Eric Berne, Transactional Analysis).
Among other popular topics were bestsellers on effective parenting. Parents were determined not to repeat the sins of their fathers (and mothers). Our children would always know they were loved and respected. We learned that our parents had doubted our competence and spoken down to us. They had induced guilt and neuroses with commands that began with the words: “What you should do is…!” and “Why haven’t you…!” and “When are you going to ….!” We enlightened parents of the new age diligently practiced new ways of talking to our children, encouraging them to talk back to us so that we could understand them.
“I’m OK, you’re OK!” Oh, what a joke! My sons were gently guided rather than tyrannized to achieve their academic potential. They were enrolled in every available sporting activity until they discovered their own enthusiasms. (Nevermind those finely tuned rosters of parents slipping out from meetings at work to ferry their and other people’s offspring to cricket, soccer, surfing, swimming, ballet, singing, hockey, basketball, bar mitzva classes, etc.) Naturally, in this welter of psychologically healthy living, their emerging Jewish identities could not be ignored. Fortunately, in Australian cities, Maccabi meant Jewish identity, and cricket could be merged.
Australia? What was a nice Jewish girl brought up in a small community in a south London suburb doing in Perth, Western Australia, in the ’70s? We, a nuclear family of dad, mum and three little boys, had emigrated from the UK to Australia in 1976 for a brighter future for all of us.
This move had definitely not been on my radar screen.
I was infected by the Zionist bug when I was 10. However, life turned up a few obstacles and I had to postpone aliya until I was nearly 50. By this time, my sons were self-confident adults who were prepared to visit Israel and to make up their own minds about living here. They decided against.
Now my sons and grandchildren live in Australia and Spain, my siblings live in England and Toronto, and I need to check the World Time application on my smart phone before I make a family phone call.
I made two more serious errors.
The first was that I did not produce a daughter. I muse that had she existed, wherever she now lived, she would feel obliged to be in contact with me at least twice a month to check that I was still alive and ambulant. She would, I speculate, feel guilty and torn about her prosperity in a country where one doesn’t scan the headlines each day for bad news about enemies on their doorstep.
The second critical error was a failure to instill in my male offspring that paramount message concerning the pivotal role of grandparent in the family structure.
There granny sits, wisely surveying the family, a source and a resource with her life experience. There is grandpa, with his amazing fund of stories of other times, and places he lived and worked in as a young man. How odd that I never appreciated this in my own grandmothers.
(My grandfathers passed away before I was born).
Since acknowledging to myself that my golden years were not quite what I had hoped, I began speaking to others whose family planning, in the widest sense, had failed as mine had. I discovered that Long Distance Grandparents, LDGs, are a sizable proportion of the older generation. I began to read voraciously anything that had “grandparents” in the title: magazines, online articles, books, even research projects. There is a lot of sound information for the “apple pie” type of grandparenting activities: recipes, how to give advice so that it doesn’t sound like advice, how to share babysitting hours and say a clear “No” when one longs to reclaim some of one’s own life.
When it comes to LDGs, suggestions are limited. One is counseled to become computer literate and buy a webcam.
With Skype, one can watch such milestones as early smiles and first steps. During snatched moments when the little ones are interested, one can read them stories, play games or comment on their artwork. One can share the emptiness with other LDGs in blogs, but pouring out one’s heart is no substitute for a grandchild who pops in on the way home from school or comes around on Friday evening.
It could be worse. There are wretched stories of grandparents who have been written out of the family script by the spouse of the offspring. His or her family lives just down the road. Some grandparents have found that they had no legal access to their grandchildren. In some places, England being one of them, Family Law has now been amended.
WHAT A SHAME that reincarnation is not part of Jewish wisdom. If it were, I would do my best to come back next time as a high-caste Hindu matriarch. I would bring up my sons to know that their brides would be moving into my house, decisions about their parenting practices and their children’s education would only be taken after consultation with me, and I would never have to think for a moment about whether or when I should move to a beit avot.
The writer is a retired child and family psychiatrist who grew up in London and worked in the UK, Australia and Israel. When not traveling to see family, she lives in Jerusalem. Her recently published book of short stories, Families Once Removed, explores some of the effects of distance on family relationships.