Distant Relatives

13th December 2008

Christmas is a time for family togetherness. Or is it? Heather Harris looks at long distance grand-parenting.

When it comes to the generation gap, 80 year-old Grandad Peter Gosling is an expert. For the past 16 years, Peter who lives in Rutland, has followed his grandchildren to Dubai, Muscat and The Hague, in his determination not to miss out on them growing up.

And Peter is by no means alone. As emigration or relocation overseas is becoming increasingly popular, a new set of global grandparents is emerging – phone bill in one hand, computer manual in the other.
From next year, they’ll also have their very own guidebook as Peter is now putting his experiences down on paper in How to be a Global Grandparent.

“I noticed that there were plenty of books and websites catering for the expat community but that there was nothing for those with grandchildren overseas,” he said. “Our book uses experiences from families that have faced the problem, providing guidelines for those new to the game”.

He has also enlisted the help of co-author, Anne Huscroft, who comes from the other side of ‘the gap’. She moved abroad when her son James was four and was determined that her parent’s first grandchild would not grow up a stranger to them despite living oceans apart.
“Once we moved overseas, I recognised a need to find new ways to keep my parents in Newcastle involved. An important element was to make it fun, so that he’d want to keep in touch rather than see it as a chore”.

Interestingly, many of the parents and grandparents to whom I spoke actually prefer that archaic tool the pen as a means of communication, closely followed by e-mail as the children get older.
As Anne Huscroft recalls, “James is now 13 and enjoys using the computer so it became an obvious tool. Setting it up ourselves using safe sites meant he could have some sort of independent means of keeping in touch”.

For Caroline and John Cain and their daughter, Natasha aged ten, it was the time difference that made computer conversations vital. “Email was our saviour when we were in Japan. The time difference was the biggest problem and the expense of calls. I got spooked when I heard about paedophiles grooming kids using web cam so never bothered. We quickly all got very good on the computer and would send regular photographs as well as messages”.

That’s a comment that resonates with Lisa and Rod Greenland, who moved to chilly Chorleywood from cosy Cairns in Australia when expecting their fourth child.

“I speak to my Mum at least three times a week which is probably more than I did when we lived in the same country and we encourage the children to always have a word,” Lisa told me, although she admits that this can cause problems as her offspring are often reluctant to come to the phone if they’re in the middle of something. For this reason the Greenlands haven’t invested in a web cam which by magic (and a small amount of technical input) allows users to see each other on their respective screens no matter the distance.

Lisa cringes at the thought of her parents actually seeing her trying to bribe her children to speak to them when they’d rather be watching their favourite TV programme!

Tor Spencer, 45, who lives in Suffolk with her two young daughters and has a mother in Melbourne, recognises that situation too.
“I guess we should get into the web cam thing – but the sight of the kids with their unbrushed hair and filthy nails would horrify Mum anyway! Best to hold onto the idea that they are sweet, well behaved children…”

For Caroline’s parents this was a very steep learning curve as they had never even owned a computer previously, let alone worked out how to upload and download photographs. Some older people aren’t so willing to embrace modern methods of keeping in touch, sadly. Mother of three, Wendy Hammond, who moved to England from Hong Kong with her young children can go for weeks without communication from her own mother, who is reluctant to join the techno age.

Having backgrounds in IT has meant that Peter and Anne do devote a lot of time on their website (www.worldwidegrandparents.spaces.live.com) and in their book teaching global grandparents the basics of e mail and digital photography. They also recognise, though, that no matter how frequent the messages, it can never fill that emotional void: a void which, for the older (and generally more stoic) generation, often goes unspoken – particularly to their globe-trotting children.

As Lisa Greenland’s mother, 60 year old Beryl Smith, admits, “My heart flipped. It literally missed a beat when Lisa told me they were moving to England. It was awful to see them go but you have to be supportive. I never dare ask when they are coming home.”
Deb Spencer, in Melbourne, feels the same, “Now at 80, I have reached the time when I long to be closer to Tor and the family. I miss her and them more than they will ever know”.

And judging by the messages posted on the Global Grandparents website, it is at Christmas when the feeling of loss can be most sorely felt. Particularly for those parents, like Valerie, who have recently been told they are to become grandparents for the first time.

“Elation was soon tinged with sadness as I sat feeling sorry for myself thinking of the close relationship I would miss with my new grandchild in New Zealand,” she wrote.

But it’s not all tears amongst the tinsel, as the festive season is also the time when some families do make the often gargantuan effort to get together. And, surprisingly, Mother Nature does seem to lend a helping hand in making these meetings work.

“Even if they haven’t seen us for a long time, they’ve never not recognised us or been afraid of us,” Jane Mead, step-grandmother of an eight year old and twins aged 11, told me from her house in the States.

She also recalls with enthusiasm their last visit, “When they came over from the UK we had to make the hours count. We loved just having the grandkids with us to spoil. We had one day when we ate nothing but ice cream or sherbet, even for breakfast!”

Lisa also believes that the times when her four children – ranging from eight to two years old – do see their Australian grandparents are very special because of the distance involved. “The flip side of living away from the family is that when they do get to see them they are very excited and want to tell them all their news! It’s very intense”.

And for Tor, when they make the 26 hour flight to Melbourne every other Christmas, it’s important to stay for a substantial period. “We go for as long as we can so we can settle in and the girls feel comfortable. There’s always the initial shyness – which Mum is really good at. She lets them come to her… which takes all of five minutes!”

Peter and Anne’s book also tackles issues such as being a good visitor and, equally important, a happy host, recognising how important it is that these eagerly anticipated reunions work out for both sides.
They also encourage the older generation not to leave it to the youngsters to ‘bridge the gap’ and, where health and money allow, to make the effort to ‘get on that plane’.

“Mum visited us four times during our three years in Tokyo whereas John’s parents only came once and it definitely affected their bond with Natasha,” Caroline told me with more than a hint of sadness and frustration.

And as Peter himself explains, “Looking back over the last 16 years, we’ve been able to experience different cultures and have taken great pleasure in seeing the grandchildren grow up in a variety of environments”.

Clearly, there are some advantages to international families, but they are few and far between. If given the choice, all the generations I spoke to would prefer to live, ‘ a car drive away’ from each other.
So this Christmas when you’re gathered round the dinner table with Granny and Grandad, spare a thought for the global grandparents sitting by their computer or phone – somehow a virtual pull of the cracker just isn’t the same…

Pictures posed by models

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