I have a fantasy based on a children's book I used to read to my children when they were young. I no longer have a copy and cannot remember all the details.. The book was titled, Aunt Nina's Visit by Franz Brandenberg. It was all about young children and pets rushing to the door when their aunt arrived, bestowing kisses on her and hugs and begging her never to leave. Granted, it was about an aunt rather than a grandmother, but the message was the same--how the generations can form important bonds.
Yet, the book as I recall never said anything about how the children’s parents felt or reacted. I assumed they were delighted with her presence for all the presents and love she always brought, as well as attention and babysitting to give the parents some relief. That single book informed how I expected my visits to the next generation would go.
And then I became a grandparent and started to regularly visit a daughter who lives five hours away by car. I discovered the reality is a bit different. It requires a deft balancing act of helping but not being overly intrusive. Here’s how I’ve fine-tuned my visits so everyone in both generations wants me back.
- I try to come when the parents most need me. They may have a meeting out of town or are sick or their child may have a day off from school and there’s no back-up care. I know I’m providing a vital service, which makes me feel good—validated and needed.
- I always bring something for the younger generation. I know my daughter says I’ve created a monster by always having presents in tow. And my older grandson quickly learned to ask, “What’d you bring me?” I find it more endearing than annoying. I’m from the school that believes that spoiling him and now his brother is part of an inherited birthright. And the gifts are never something extravagant but more like a new book about a subject that he’s interested in—now super heroes versus a year ago every single Thomas the Train book that was written. The little one, only 1 ½ years old, may get new cute socks, a small toy or a soft squishable bath book. We know at that age the wrapping paper is part of a gift’s appeal.
- I always try to help in a way that matters. My daughter and son-in-law appreciate good food but find it hard with their busy schedules and the kids to find time for a “normal meal.” That means something other than eggs and avocado toast or mac ‘n cheese with spinach. So, one of my prime tasks is heading to one of my two favorite grocery stores in their area and making a “nice” meal. Nice in this case means an entrée or protein, fresh vegetable, side starch, fresh bread, Dixie ® cups in different flavors with the wooden spoon built in, a treat my older grandson—and his dad--have each almost come to expect. I also may bring a bottle of wine for the parents to drink or stash. For a second night, I like to take them and the kids out to whatever place they like.
- Playing with the kids involves something I’m good at and that their parents don’t have as much time to do. That usually means writing an original story with my older grandson and illustrating it together with magic markers or paints or just painting together. He thinks I’m the best family artist, so I have a high bar to meet. When we tackle other types of play—putting together puzzles, building a tower or even pretend cooking at a grill or with a shopping cart filled with pretend food, I always encourage him to help clean up, so the house doesn’t look like a tornado came through when we’re done.
- If you’re up early, feed and play with the grandkids. I’m an early riser and this helps. Sometimes, we’ve just read a book quietly, though we’ve also gone out for a walk with my daughter sometimes joining us so her husband can sleep in on a weekend.
- I observe my daughter’s no-screen rule. I try to keep my cell phone tucked away, which I’m not always good at doing. I also try to stay off my laptop unless I have a deadline I must meet. And I don’t turn on the TV even for news or any TV show unless the kids are asleep or away from the house. Of late my daughter, a child psychologist, has allowed her older child to occasionally watch a movie such as Moana, Pippi Longstocking or The Wizard of Oz.
- I never criticize my daughter’s choices or get angry at her kids. I’ve listened well to what my now 99-year-old mother said, “We had our time to raise children and now it’s their time.” Even when I was frustrated at my older grandson’s lack of interest in helping me clean up, I kept silent after my second overture. His parents have developed their rules and behaviors and so I honor them. If he and his brother were in danger, of course, I would speak up.
- I never stay too long. I agree with the common wisdom that guests smell like fish after three days, and I usually opt for two nights with them unless a longer visit is requested for whatever reason. In between we FaceTime often, and I also send postcards of my favorite sights and artists, so they get the concept of real snail mail arriving at their door. I hope my grandsons at some point will start sending me cards as well. The older one is just starting to write. And maybe someday he or his brother will start a postcard collection that reflects our strong connection.