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The Woes and Blessings of Being a Grandmother

Especially when your grandchild lives far away.

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High angle view of a deflated golden balloon
John J. Custer
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I became a grandparent last September, at age 60. I loved her when she was just an abstract notion, a bump in my daughter’s tummy. Yet, I hadn’t realized how fantastic it would be to meet the 8-pound baby girl whom I got to hold as soon as my daughter and son-in-law came home from the hospital.

What a gift. I had thought those days were past, those days when the adrenaline rush of falling in love makes you feel alive. I vowed to be the best grandma ever, even though my daughter and her family live in London and I live in New York.

Elena Bowes and her brand-new granddaughter
Elena Bowes and her brand-new granddaughter
Courtesy Elena Bowes

I am not alone in trying to be a doting grandparent. According to a 2019 AARP grandparenting survey, more than half of all grandparents in the United States have at least one child living more than 200 miles away.

Beyond this great love, grandparenting in the modern world can be frustrating and confusing. My daughter didn’t need me as a baby-related resource. A digital-trained millennial, the Google on her smartphone is more up to date and convenient than asking her mother — who gave birth 30 years ago — for advice.

Numerous apps and smart gadgets make her life as a parent easier and more reliable than tapping me for hazy memories.

Sometimes I feel like an alien in her tech-savvy world. She can watch Ava sleep from anywhere in the world, as long as there’s internet. When my daughter was a baby, I had a baby monitor that allowed me to go as far as the kitchen — maybe the front step.

My daughter also has a devoted husband who often works from home and is very involved in the parenting. She needs me in less personal ways — to walk the dog, to get prescriptions, to grocery shop.

She has also been very clear about boundaries. Her nuclear family is at the center of her circle, and I am outside that circle. While that’s a good and healthy development, for a grandmother who is also a mother, it can feel like a big loss.

I am willing to adapt — though it does trigger loneliness. I do try to see Ava every two to three months. I want her to know me.

I spoke to several grandmothers who voiced a range of emotions, from frustration to acceptance. Amy Clark's 2-year-old granddaughter, Adeline, lives nearby her in Connecticut, and Clark sees her weekly. “This little girl is the light in my life. I can’t get enough of her,” she says. When she was a new mother, she recalls being too busy doing things or thinking about what needed to be done to enjoy her child. But as a grandparent, Clark has found, “You don’t have all that stuff going on in your head, so you can really be in the present with your grandchild.”

London-based Sandy Greene, who has three grandchildren, empathizes with my disappointment at not being called upon as a source for motherhood lessons. “This generation thinks they know everything,” she says. “I tell my daughter that the internet doesn’t know everything. Word of mouth works well too.”

Unlike vocal Greene, I rarely offer suggestions to my daughter because I remember how much it bothered me when my mother-in-law used to correct my parenting skills. I also think my daughter is doing a great job — juggling work, family, husband, with little time to herself — and I tell her so.

While deflecting parental advice has been consistent throughout the generations, the internet definitely makes it feel as if the knowledge chasm is widening. Online sites do educate parents about toxins in water and food recalls, so it can also create an overabundance of caution.

“I call them the worrywart generation,” says grandma Carol Eland of Seattle. She notices there’s a lot of handwashing, a lot of germs to worry about, and everything is organic in her grandson’s home. “There’s no such thing as serving macaroni and cheese out of the box anymore,” she says. “You can’t buy Popsicles; you have to make them.” She admits that she does loosen things up when she has her grandson all to herself.

As Eland puts it: “I can do whatever I want.”

Maybe Eland shouldn’t get too comfortable. Another reality of grandparenting in the modern world is that our children see all, thanks to apps on their phones. Eileen Spencer babysits her 9-month-old grandson during the week while her daughter works as a nurse. One day during the middle of Sully’s nap, Spencer got a worried text from her daughter at work. Do you think he’s ok? He’s sleeping with his face down. Spencer offered to wake him if her daughter was nervous. Five minutes later, Spencer received another text. It’s ok, he moved.

Perhaps our kids think we are too old to be modern and savvy. According to the U.S. Census Bureau in 2021, the median age to have kids jumped from 27 in 1990 to 30 in 2019 — and people are living longer than ever. So, basically, parents and grandparents alike are dealing with babies at an older age than our parents. And those lucky grandmas who actually get to be hands-on say the downside is the heavy lifting.

Katherine Fitzgerald just spent 10 weeks in London helping her daughter with her toddler and newborn baby. She trained before the trip, doing core-strengthening exercises and walking a lot. “Babies are not that heavy, but you're constantly leaning over and picking them up and putting them down to change a nappy or for a nap,” she says. She adds that getting down on the floor for playtime wasn’t the problem; it was the getting back up again that was hard.

While experiences differ from grandma to grandma, we all do agree on this universal truth: Do not criticize your daughter or daughter-in-law’s mothering skills. Being respectful of the parents’ wishes before your own will grant you a welcome pass to visit. Bad behavior can get you banned. Let the parents parent and enjoy being the goofy and fun grandma. You’ve earned it.

Author photo: Courtesy Elena Bowes; balloon: Getty Images

Do any of you live far from your grandchildren? Let us know in the comments below.

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