The Loneliness Of The Long-Distance Grandma

07/08/2015 07:31 am ET Updated Jul 08, 2016

"Hi Darling ... Are you going to sing Twinkle, Twinkle for Grandma and Grandpa?"

"No Twinkle, Twinkle."

"How about Baa Baa Blacksheep?"

"No Baa Baa."

My two year-old granddaughter clambers off the sofa and disappears from the screen. It's eleven o'clock London time, six o'clock New York time and Dalia is cranky because she needs her dinner.

My daughter suggests we Skype again after she's eaten. But back in London Grandma and Grandpa have had a long day and need to get some ZZZs.

Then Dalia reappears demanding to see our cat, Hank. She's dotty about him. "Hank va cat! Hank va cat!" When we try to explain that Hank has gone walkabout and can't be found, she gets her Pampers properly in a wad and starts howling.

"Right I need to feed this child," her mother says. "Speak tomorrow."

Even when our granddaughter is in a bad mood, my husband and I recite the phrase, which has become the mantra of so many long-distant grandparents: thank God for Skype. We are old enough to remember when transatlantic calls cost a fortune and the only way expat families could communicate with relatives, was via airmail letter.

These days we get to see and hear our grandchildren who live on the other side of the world. But it's not the same as cuddling and tickling them, kissing them and smelling them. Even with Skype and FaceTime, being a long-distance grandparent stretches your heartstrings to breaking point.

According to a UN report more than five million Brits live abroad. The figure for the USA is thought to be between three and six million. Less impressive, but it doesn't account for Americans moving state, who might as well be living in another country.

I blame my generation for all this cross-global gallivanting. It's us baby boomers who encouraged our kids to travel. "Take a gap year ... Go to India, Australia, Cambodia. See the world before you get a job and settle down." And off they trotted around the globe. Having given them the taste for exploring foreign lands, we shouldn't be surprised when they announce that they're moving to one.

When I was young we thought twice about moving to the next town, let alone to another country. Nowadays when our children are told that they're being transferred to the company's Dubai office they barely bat an eyelid.

There are no figures for how many pining grandmas there are out there, but it must surely run into hundreds of thousands.

But here's the thing: I'm not pining. Don't get me wrong I adore my granddaughter and I miss her. I hate being a virtual grandma. I'm sad that I can't drop in to say hi whenever I feel like it. I want to have her for sleepovers, take her out to buy princess Elsa dresses and spoil her with too much cake and ice cream. When I visit her in Brooklyn, I cry when I arrive and I cry when I say goodbye.

But my world has not come to an end. That's because I don't see myself as a 'career' grandmother.
There is a trap that many women -- especially retired women -- fall into when their children have children. Desperate to feel needed and useful again, they throw themselves into the role of grandma -- almost as if it's a job. They allow grandmother-hood to define them -- in the same way that, years before they may have let motherhood define them. Having segued seamlessly from Mummy to Grandma they are left in bits when the grandchildren move away.

How is a woman, so needy of children going to cope with only Grandpa for company? These days, his back is acting up and his pecker lets him down. He plays a bit of golf, but since they forced him out of his job his self-esteem has plummeted. He is miserable and irritable and is constantly finding fault with her housekeeping. Has she no idea how to stack the dishwasher properly? Mostly he watches sport or Fawlty Towers re-runs. He's been known to say: "Do you think eleven o'clock is too early for a whisky and Coke?"

When the grandchildren lived nearby, this breed of Grandma not only had a purpose, she had a distraction. A toddler to chase after, older children demanding to be entertained and fed, brought life and light back into the house.

She used to see the kids every weekend and a couple of times during the week. Since her daughter moved to Hong Kong, Sydney or wherever, she sees them once a year. "Now we're retired," she explains, wringing her hands, "and with fares being so expensive, it's impossible to visit more often."

Isn't this a bit of a lame excuse? If you have your health, why not work -- at least part-time? And this goes for both grandparents. Your new job might not be as prestigious as the one you had before you retired, but at least it brings in some cash. Added to that, having people relying and depending on you stops you getting maudlin about absent grandchildren. It works for me. I have deadlines to meet and people who are going to yell at me if I don't meet them. My job also gives me a sense of self. Yes I'm a wife, mother and grandmother, but I try hard not to let those labels fully define and describe me.

"But even if we had the money," I hear you say, "the journey takes 24 hours and when you get there, it takes a week to get over the jet lag."

Take Melatonin and stop being such a wuss. A bit of jet lag is a small price to pay to see your grandchildren. Or -- assuming your kids are happy to have you -- stay longer. Pay for this by letting out your house. Yes it's a risk, but tenants pay a deposit. The place might be a bit grubby when you get back, but the likelihood is it will still be standing. Many people let their houses to vacationers via agencies like Airbnb and HomeAway.

When Dalia was born we moved to New York for three months. My husband and I are lucky. We have jobs that allow us to work anywhere. So moving abroad for a while didn't feel like a big deal. On the other hand I was leaving my 86-year-old mother, who was in the early stages of dementia and relied on me because I live around the corner. But my brother and sister -- who live further away -- stepped in. I still felt guilty, though, about going. Yet had I stayed, I would have felt guilty about not being with my daughter. This of course is a dilemma faced by so many middle-aged, 'sandwich generation' women, who are struggling to support adult children as well as elderly parents. We never get the balance right. We're always failing one or the other.

Some people thought we were crazy going to the US for such a long time. They seemed to think that going for so long was above and beyond the call of duty. But we're a close family and my daughter was anxious for me to be at the birth and to stay on afterwards to give her a hand.

We arrived at the beginning of February, two weeks before Dalia was due. On the day she was born, her grandpa stayed in the delivery room until the pushing began. I stayed to support and cheerlead. I watched my granddaughter come into the world. It was the most magical moment of my life.

Over the next few weeks, winter gave way to spring. The magnolia tree blossomed in the garden and Dalia smiled for the first time. Her grandfather and I were there to see it. By the time we left she was laughing and bashing the toys suspended over her play mat. Our phones were full of photographs and videos.

Being a long-distance grandparent isn't easy. To make a success of it, you have to put in the work: visit often, Skype every day, read the grandkids bedtime stories even if you have to stay up until one in the morning to do it.

Until recently, I worried that our Skype calls didn't have much impact on Dalia. Did she really know who I was? Then a few months ago when I arrived for a visit, she came charging up to me, me smiling all over her face. "Hank va cat? Hank va cat?"

Technology be praised! She knew me. I was cat woman.

(Losing Me, by Sue Margolis, published July 7, New American Library)

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