The loneliness of the long-distance grandma

Long distance grandparenting is far from ideal ...
Long distance grandparenting is far from ideal ... Photo: Getty Images

Seeing your family on a screen is a poor substitute for holding them, writes Gloria Meltzer.

I have become part of the "grandmothers who run round the world to see our offspring" brigade. The world today is full of grandparents like me, grabbing planes and trains, heading interstate or overseas to visit our grandchildren.

As the globe shrank, becoming more accessible and more affordable to more people, our sons and daughters took off in droves to explore its far corners. Lured by the exotic, sometimes disillusioned by their own self-centred consumer society, many preferred the unsophisticated village cultures of the Third World, increasingly finding partners within these cultures.

As parents we are often to blame for this mass exodus. In their youth my two sons were taken to Europe, Bali, Fiji, the Pacific Islands, and as the doors of other cultures opened for them, so did the attraction.

As a result, we of the baby boomer generation have become phantom figures as the next generation, the grandchildren, the ones our own existence originally made possible, barely get to know us.

All year long we walk around with empty arms longing to nurse the new grandchild born far from home, while planning our next annual visit. We miss out on all their milestone stages of growth: the first tooth, sitting up, crawling, first steps, first words. Virtual strangers, we who are left behind pine for our brief, irregular contacts, for our tiny spot in their young lives.

My three grandsons live in Sri Lanka. The youngest was born there to his Sri Lankan mother. He was three months old before I first saw him when they brought him back to Australia for a brief visit. I hardly had time to become acquainted with him. Fortunately with Skype I can see them regularly on my computer screen. They sit on their father's knee staring vacantly at a crazy grandmother frantically waving, cooing and saying hi while they are told to say "hi nana".

Their attention span is practically zilch. This silly old woman madly blowing kisses through the air can't hold their interest.

Little do they realise that even this small contact is exciting to me. I can see them, watch them on the screen as each month they grow, learn to crawl, walk and talk. When they utter "nana" it is music to my ears. I want to reach out to the screen and scoop them into my arms. It is the human touch that is missing. I have been reduced to an image on a computer. I must seem like a robot to them, a madly smiling robot.

Similarly, Skype has helped me keep in touch with my beautiful granddaughter, who lives interstate. Each week she plays me her latest piece on the piano, or prances around showing me her latest karate move. Skype helps bring all my grandchildren to life. So close, yet so far away.

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It is not only me missing out on this personal grandparent/grandchild experience. They, too, are the losers. Their youth is not being nurtured by the warm one-on-one experience of a grandmother who would add another dimension to their world. As my grandmothers did to mine.

Visits to my grandchildren mean coming to terms with how they have changed. Skype doesn't tell the whole picture. One child now walks unaided. The other has a small vocabulary consisting of "I want. Don't" in an accent neither Sri Lankan nor Australian.

All three boys are immersed in the Sri Lankan culture, more at home with their nannies who mind them than with their foreign grandmother, a stranger to them. I feel this acutely, and with a sadness. Life is a series of changes. Having lost the essential early bonding period, I strive momentarily to regain this.

"I love you Nana," says the six-year-old.

"I love you too," I tell him. His words transport me to a place I have longed to be. For the time being I feel like a real grandmother, relishing the feeling.

As he and I build sandcastles on the beaches of Sri Lanka, I make up my mind not to be maudlin, to stop wallowing in self-pity. My grandsons are beautiful, healthy boys, who are growing up in an amazing cultural environment. My loss is their gain, and I'm at peace knowing they are content. And my granddaughter is only an hour's flight away.

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