For me, grandparenthood has been a crash course in letting go of any and all expectations about my role. Four years ago, my son and daughter-in-law moved from Europe to Washington, D.C., where my husband and I live, to be near us when their first baby was born. Needless to say, I was in heaven.
Heaven lasted exactly two months. That's how old Isabelle was when my son's photography career took him and his wife back to Europe. And they kidnapped the baby and took her with them!
I was devastated, but I dealt. I visited as often as I could — more often than the other two sets of grandparents, who live in California. Secretly, I was glad that my son and his wife were equal-opportunity heartbreakers, and that none of the other grandparents got to see Isabelle and Azalia, her baby sister, more than me. If anything, I had the edge.
Until this past summer, when my daughter-in-law's father died suddenly and my son and his family decided to stay in California. My higher self was happy for the maternal grandmother, who had just lost her husband. However, my lower self was thrown into a panic. I worried that, out of sight and out of mind, I would become a mere footnote in the girls' lives.
But now my son's work is taking them back to Europe again, and I have given up stressing about any of it or trying to predict what will happen next.
Two things are clear: First, I have no say in their decisions (even though I have opinions). Second, since my only child has grown up to be a roving citizen of the world, I am destined to be a long-distance grandparent.
As tragic as this seemed to me a few years ago, I have made my peace with the situation. There are even some pluses that I never imagined back when my son and his family left Washington and broke my heart.
Five Silver Linings
1. No guilt. If I'm not around to be asked to babysit at the last minute, I can't say no when I have a conflict — or when I'm simply too tired and would prefer stay home and read a book.
2. No blame. How can my son or daughter-in-law possibly be annoyed at me for being unavailable to help out, or for hovering, intruding, or sticking my nose where they think it doesn't belong?
3. The grandchildren never take me for granted. They are primed for my visits, which are something of an event. I come bearing gifts. I take them on special outings. I play with them until I'm so exhausted I can't see straight or remember my name.
4. Their parents never take me for granted either. They are so thrilled to see me, especially when there are no other grandparents around to provide backup, that they practically run out the door when I arrive and leave the kids with me. I take care of them until I'm so exhausted I can't see straight or remember my name.
5. My life is more in balance. Having some distance keeps me from being consumed — and subsequently derailed — by the day-to-day stresses, disappointments, frustrations, and, alas, joys felt by my son and daughter-in-law as they grapple with raising two young daughters in our complicated world. I have my own life, husband, career, friends. This allows me to enjoy concentrated time with the grandkids and their parents without becoming too dependent on them emotionally or blurring boundaries that are best kept well-defined.
So, you may ask, if being a long-distance grandparent is so great, what would I do if my son announced that he was moving his family back to Washington tomorrow? Would I want to risk the guilt, blame, exhaustion, feelings of being taken for granted, and mushy boundaries that would no doubt result from having them nearby?
In a New York minute.
Barbara Graham, a Grandparents.com columnist, is the editor of the anthology, Eye of My Heart: 27 Writers Reveal the Hidden Pleasures and Perils of Being a Grandmother (Harper), which tells "the whole crazy, complicated truth about being a grandmother in today's world."
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