Being a Long-Distance Grandparent Isn't So Bad

Our columnist misses the kids, but finds a few benefits.

By Barbara Graham

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 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."


Wow good article. I have been living in Ca and my husband is living in AZ I have 4 grand daughters here. I am relocating to AZ to be with my husband we had to take a 6 month break. So these last 6 months I have been almost full time Grammy to a 6,5,17 mo,and 2 year old. We have been married for 23 years so even though I really do not want to move to AZ I must try and save my marriage.

I am so sad at the thought of leaving them. The older one who is almost 7 is very angry with me. Not sure how to help her? I hope I can do this I am looking for a balanced life why is it so hard?

michelefun on 2015-07-26 14:04:17

I especially like paragraph #5 about not being involved in the everyday drama of our adult children's life. This article about son/daughter in law in the opposite for me my daughter and her constant complaints about her husband. This is one of the best reasons to leave town. I have been the Nanny for the last 9 years to my grandson and then granddaughter and the drama of my daughter has been emotionally stressful I was living her life not my own. My husband and I are moving to Florida in 3 months and I can't wait to start the adventure and not being responsible for another family's day to day life.

annjilly on 2014-06-22 08:26:21

I think I have read this already, couple years ago, I would like all creative tips about how to stay in touch, talk, share, be involved being long distance Grandmother. I especially sympathize with the person who is 12 hours away.

cloud7 on 2013-05-12 07:09:02

Thanks for these words of wisdom. I have been searching the internet for advice about how to deal with the sudden move of my daughter and her family. Mostly, what I have found, are heart-wrenching letters from other grandmothers who are suffering the same fate. I've never quite understood what comfort there is in finding out you are not alone in your grief. I have lived long enough to know that I will eventually adjust to not having my daughter and grandchildren nearby, but right now it is almost unbearable. You silver linings make sense.

Jordanna on 2013-03-05 08:51:59

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