The Gift of Grandparents… and of Grandparenting

There is a Mother’s Day and a Father’s Day, but no Grandparents’ Day. Perhaps there should be. After all, when we reflect on the people who most influenced our childhood, who helped create our best memories, those lucky enough to have had and known grandparents often recollect times and occasions in which they feature.

When we’re very young, our grandparents seem ancient. Relics, almost. We cannot imagine being that old. They watch us, wearing life’s battle scars, and we look at their hands and faces, thinking that they seem so much older than our parents, who already seem old enough! Through the wrinkles, they follow our lives, our firsts, our early achievements, our tantrums. Then we grow older ourselves and, with any luck, we get to know them.

The relationship between grandchild and grandparent is unique and special for both. There is nothing quite like the bond that develops, bridging not one but two generations, between old and new. It is so deep that those who have known the love of a grandparent never forget it.

A child’s relationship with their grandparents is undoubtedly very different to their relationship with their parents. To a youngster, parents can seem to spend most of their time feeding, bathing, dressing, checking, shuttling, texting, and stressing. By contrast, grandparents may be retired or approaching retirement, and can often seem to have a lot more time on their hands – in part because their own children have grown up, fledged the nest, and now have children of their own.

This luxurious time that grandparents seem to have, coupled with the patience and experience of those who have ‘been-there-and-done-that’, can bring a sense of tranquility to a family system, which rubs off on the children. Time offers the opportunity for the young not just to learn from the old folks but to form bonds over laughter, entertainment, games, discussion, and a heavy dose of unconditional love. If geography allows, the relationship can be hugely beneficial on all sides.

Maria is a case in point. When she was 21 years old, she had her first child. Now, in her mid-50s, she is a grandparent. She recalls the close connection she had with her own grandmother, one of the people she felt closest to in life. Unfortunately, Maria and her eldest grandchild are separated by distance, one being in Italy, the other England. She explains how grandparenthood changes someone as much as parenthood does. It also changes the family system.

“Becoming a grandmother, the first time was a step in consciousness for me,” she says. “It was suddenly very easy to see that this was related to my own personal ageing. It didn’t really matter how I felt. I happened to feel young and energetic, a far cry from the cliché of the grey-haired grandmother sat knitting in front of the fireplace, but even if I saw myself as full of life, still doing crazy things, from the moment my first granddaughter was born, I felt I could no longer hide behind youth. Evolution was progressing and I had a great happiness in my heart that life will go on beyond me.”

It goes without saying that to hold one’s child in one’s arms for the first time is memorable, but so too is it to hold one’s grandchild for the first time, especially if it is a grandparent’s first grandchild. This act can sometimes be the culmination of (what seems like a) long wait. Yet to grandparents, the reality and joy of grandparenthood can be very different depending on a range of factors.

“Unfortunately, I have not been blessed with the gift of their presence because they live far away,” says Maria. “But I do feel closeness to them all the more in my heart and I am happy if we can only see each other a few times a year. With my third grandchild, the joy was no less, and in terms of distance, we are quite close. The desire to welcome, feel and embrace new life again is pure joie de vivre.”

Geographical proximity helps, but it is not the defining factor that determines the strength of a grandchild-grandparent relationship, since with the help of technology and video-calling, the barrier of distance can be somewhat overcome.

Maria says the best bit about being a grandmother is “the sound of the children's laughter, seeing their innocence and their big eyes, experiencing their world of thoughts and being able to participate in their first steps, their first words, and their sparkling vitality that is so contagious”.

She agrees that not having the day-to-day tasks and pressures of a parent makes a big difference. As she puts it, the benefit is in “not having to bear so much responsibility for their academic development and being able to just be a grandmother who listens to them, takes them seriously, and has a lot of time for them”. She adds that “the gratitude of knowing that they’re healthy descendants is a grace that makes us humble towards life”.

Grandparents can convey not just values but also stories from their own life and upbringing, offering memories of what growing up was like when they were children. This can help give their grandchildren an insight and a sense of perspective and place. This helps the young child realise that time passes and things change. It can also help build a bridge spanning two generations, between a childhood spent several decades ago and a childhood today. Building a picture of yesteryear, perhaps with photos, helps fuel a child’s imagination.

“We live in a completely different time and have completely different possibilities and interests,” says Maria. “Surely the devotion to one’s own grandchildren has a lot to do with the experience of one’s own grandmother. If the memories are positive, you want to pass on that positivity [of being with your own grandmother] to your grandchildren. Values play a big role. Of course, it can work in reverse – if we didn’t have a good relationship with our own grandmother, we want to do better for our own grandchildren. It’s the same for parents and their children.”

It ever was and ever will be that grandparents will want to spoil their grandchildren (sometimes when the parents are not looking) and children who grow up knowing a loving grandparent are lucky. It reminds us that life constantly evolves, that lives are built and in turn they build new lives, and that in this cycle grandparenting is one of life’s most precious joys and most precious gifts.