How to be a Great Grandparent!

How to be a Great Grandparent!

We haven’t got so much time left, so we value time more. And we know that those little ones are only going to be little for such a short time. Whereas our kids (who are the parents) can easily miss this, as they struggle with mortgages and work and all that.

A conversation with Janice Marriott

by Paul Freedman

No – we don’t mean ‘great’ as in four generations. We mean ‘great’ as in terrific, exceptional, cool, fabulous, groovy … oh yes, and awesome!

So, what got us thinking about greatness and grandparenting? 

Well, some of us on the Grapevine team happen to be grandparents. And we think about it often. But what really pushed our buttons was this brilliant new book by Janice Marriott, a leading Kiwi author of books for children, teens and adults. 

‘Grandparents Talk’ features frank and honest interviews with a variety of different grandparents, celebrating the unique bond between them and their grandchildren.

We caught up with Janice at her charming Mt Eden villa, and discovered a really great grandma with a twinkle in her eye, loads of wisdom, and an infectious chuckle that punctuates every other sentence.

What on earth prompted her to write about grandparenting?

JANICE: Well, for a start, I’m a grandparent. And I came up to Auckland especially to be a grandparent. My son sort of invited me, “Do you want to be part of it all?” Up till then I hadn’t really given it much thought. But I decided, yes, I’d like that. So I migrated to Auckland … 

It was a huge wrench, leaving friends and everything, and being completely focussed in on the family. But my grandson’s now five and going to school. And I found I absolutely loved being a hands-on grandparent. I even started thinking to myself, “I’m indispensable to this family! They simply couldn’t cope without me (chuckle)!” And I found myself wondering, “What would New Zealand be like today without grandparents?”

We had it quite easy when I was growing up, and when I was young and first working. However …

For young couples these days with children, with huge mortgages or rent, with long commutes … life can be really gruelling. And I believe that grandparents play an essential role in the economics of our country – we keep the young ones working!

Now, I’m not an academic, and I’m not really a researcher. But I decided I’d better find out if this really was the case. I did all the obvious searches and discovered there’s absolutely nothing, nothing at all, to tell us how essential grandparents are. We don’t figure in statistics, and there was no information in the last census about grandparents doing child-care or anything like that.

So, in the end, I thought, “I’ll just go and interview a whole lot of grandparents and see what turns up …”

GRAPEVINE: How did you find and select them?

JANICE: Oh, I just asked people if they knew any interesting grandparents – that kind of thing. It wasn’t hard. I found some through radio talkback or magazine interviews – people I thought had something to say. And I also wanted people who came from a wide geographical base, not just Aucklanders or city types. 

GRAPEVINE: So, what kind of age-range, culture-range and geographical background did you end up with?

JANICE: Well, I managed to get a wide cultural range. Age range? I suspect I don’t have quite enough young grandparents. I don’t have many grandparents in their 40s (and there are some!) or early 50s. But I’ve got some very old great grandparents who are working full-time, looking after their great grandchildren. Which I think is just phenomenal!

There’s one woman who’s a complete hero. She’s in her 80s, and she looks after a teenage grandchild. He lives with her – she cares for him, gets him to school every morning. She also ‘parents’ a great grandchild who’s six and is severely autistic – he can be extremely disruptive and violent.

And she does other things as well! She’s a professional cake decorator, making exquisite, fancy cake designs. She also knits beautiful layettes for newborn babies. And she does all this in a house that’s surrounded by a high, deer fence with padlocked gates because of her great grandson. 

She lives amongst complete chaos … and yet she creates these beautiful things! 

GRAPEVINE: And when you found these wide-ranging grandparents, was it easy to get their stories? Or did you have to coax them out?

JANICE: Actually, it was easy. If you just sit someone down and say, “Tell me about your grandchildren!” you normally get a flood! I met everybody – although I had to Skype one because she was in London. She was an example of a grandparent who’s moved overseas specifically to look after grandchildren.

I found her situation and the choices she’d made after her husband died very interesting. “What do I do next?” sort of thing. And what came through was that, as we get older, the key thing for most of us is that we want to be useful. That’s a major factor for many, many grandparents.

So, most of them were very easy to talk to. Although there was a South Island farmer whose voice sort of disappeared at the end of every sentence. So that was a bit of a challenge! But he was a lovely man. And his story was fascinating, because he was training two granddaughters to eventually take over the farm. 

And there were others who were also eyeing-up their grandchildren to take over their businesses. So that was a completely different kind of grandparenting thing – compared with those talking about crunching Lego underfoot and making Play Doh.

GRAPEVINE: I guess with people living longer these days – and being fitter as they age – there are lots more really active grandparents doing all this stuff. Did you get any sort of handle about the percentages involved?

JANICE: No. My sample is tiny – far too small to be of any statistical use. But what I did find interesting is that some grandparents talked to me about the difference between their current role, and how they remember interacting with their own grandparents. They found that, these days, they have much more fun with their grandchildren. They do things with them – they play games, Lego, Scrabble – whereas their grandparents used to be just ‘part of the scenery’, not people they went adventuring with or had fun with. 

Some of them even had quite forbidding grandparents …

Te Maari Gardiner, who’s a wonderful woman and lives in a tiny place on the volcanic plateau, remembers her grandmother who occasionally came on the bus to see them. She had a moko, was always dressed in black and would just sit in a chair. The children never climbed on her lap or anything like that. 

Now that Te Maari has grandchildren of her own (eight at last count!) she decided that the time had come for her to have a moko too – and she now has one. She describes the powerful influence that grandmother had on her. 

GRAPEVINE: Did she see her moko as a way of sort of ‘entering eldership’?

JANICE: She did, yes.

GRAPEVINE: One theme that seems to come through in a number of your grandparents’ stories is that involved, care-giving grandparents have time to notice and enjoy the growth stages and signposts in their grandchildren’s lives that they missed in their own children.

JANICE: Well, I don’t want to sound cocky (because this could all come out wrong) … but lots and lots of grandparents told me something I feel very strongly myself: we are better at looking after our grandchildren … we do it better than we did with our own children … and we enjoy it more. 

I don’t really know why this is – except that I think the older you get the more you treasure the important but fleeting moments of life.

We haven’t got so much time left, so we value time more. And we know that those little ones are only going to be little for such a short time. Whereas our kids (who are the parents) can easily miss this, as they struggle with mortgages and work and all that.

GRAPEVINE: Did any of your grandparents use that old line: “It’s nice to be able to hand them back” when the nappies need changing or whatever?

JANICE: Some of them did – it’s a cliché, isn’t it? But there’s the other way of looking at that, too. It’s also nice for the parents to be able to hand them over to us. It’s a win-win situation to share children – particularly little children. Little children are exhausting. They’re continually curious, and everything has to be immediate. It’s good for the parents to get a break from them. So, I think extended families – kids who have loads of adults around them – that’s the ideal way to bring up kids. 

It reminds me of that adage, “it takes a village to raise a child.”

GRAPEVINE: Skype seems to feature in a few of your stories. Are technical innovations like Skype bringing new dimensions to grandparenting?

JANICE: Yes, Skype makes a huge difference. Many New Zealanders are in the unfortunate situation of having their grandchildren overseas, and they miss them terribly. Actually, I’d love that statistic to be included in the next census … “How many grandparents can’t play with their grandchildren?”

Anyway, so those people Skype. Wylie and Sue, for instance, who I just loved meeting! They’re a South Island farming family. All their grandchildren are overseas – far away in England. What they do to compensate is that every morning, at six, they sit up in bed with the lap-top and have their breakfast … and they’re ‘with’ the children and the grandchildren having dinner in London. (Chuckle) I just think that that’s so wonderful.

And then there’s Marietjie. Her grandchildren are in London too. She makes a huge effort to use Skype really creatively. She’s South African, and she makes little African animals. When she puts them close to the camera they can look huge! She enacts little dramas with them on Skype, and incorporates what the children have been doing in these dramas. 

She tells a hilarious story about how she was ‘child-minding’ her granddaughter via Skype, and Marietjie could see the high-chair threatening to fall over because the baby was rocking back and forth. So she yelled out, “Byron! Your daughter’s falling – come quick!” Now, Byron was sitting just off-screen – watching the All Blacks (this would’ve been the World Cup in London). So, he grabs the high-chair, then turns to his mum and demands, “Don’t you realise I’m watching the ABs and it’s a critical moment?”

I thought that was wonderful – a little domestic drama, all transmitted via Skype.

The thing that came across uniformly – right across all the distance barriers and cultures – is just how much all the grandparents love their grandchildren. I know I feel this special bond but it’s nice to know that everyone else does too.

GRAPEVINE: There seem to be two different sorts of grandparents helping their wider families, don’t there? First there’s what I guess you’d call ‘normal’ involvement, where the grandparents do babysitting, pick them up after school, maybe a bit of financial help.

And then there’s the other sort, where something catastrophic has happened in their adult children’s lives. They’re out of it – and the grandparents are catapulted into raising their grandchildren. It’s like they’re totally responsible for them. Did you get a sense of the ratio between ‘normal’ and ‘crisis’ grandparenting?

JANICE: The ‘crisis’ ones are definitely not in the majority in the book because they’re not in the majority in life. I don’t think there’s any reliable way of finding that sort of thing out, but in the 2013 census, ten thousand grandparents were registered, through CYFS, as being sole-charge carers for their grandchildren. That number has increased dramatically over the years … and there’d be many more not registered.
When I started the book I didn’t know anything about this situation. I hadn’t, for example, heard of the organisation ‘Grandparents Raising Grandchildren’. Then I met Di Vivian (founder and leading light in G.R.G.) and interviewed her … what an extraordinary woman! What she’s accomplished is inspirational – it shows what one person can achieve. And many, many grandparents I’ve met have had something to do with her. 

However, I didn’t want the majority of grandparents in the book to be in that crisis situation. I really wanted a book that reflected the joy of grand-parenting. I also wanted it to represent more of what I felt was the whole range of grandparents’ experiences. But gosh, I was impressed by those crisis grandparents and the challenges they face! Di Vivian’s statistics show clearly that the main reason they’re in that role is either drugs or alcohol. 

It seems so tragic, doesn’t it?

GRAPEVINE: Did you get any sense that some of the crisis grandparents were doing what they were doing with a certain sense of resentment or dismay? I mean, here they were supposedly at the end of their working lives … with a little nest-egg … looking forward to a well-deserved rest … maybe travel … and now it all goes down the tubes because they’re starting all over again with kids!

JANICE: Well, Di Vivian herself says that’s exactly how it felt to her! So, I did get a bit of that feeling. But then I also got the feeling … “What else can you do? These are my grandchildren.” That’s the thing that overwhelmed me – the way grandparents give of themselves, really, really deeply.

I find it constantly amazing that they cope so well with all that anger and grief they must feel. And, yes, some of them possibly aren’t coping all that well. One of them confessed to me that she’s still going through counselling … still very stressed. But the grandson she’s raising is now 12 and he’s a lovely kid that she’s proud of. So, although it’s been hard on her (especially financially), she does feel a sense of satisfaction.

GRAPEVINE: Something that struck me as I read all these stories was the complexity of the multiple relationships in these families: grandparents whose daughters have children from more than one man; sons who’ve had several partners. Did you find this a bit confusing or surprising?

JANICE: I did a bit. Some of the families I interviewed were unbelievably complicated. They have their own children; they’ve got adopted children; there are grandchildren from the adopted children; there are second marriages; and there are extra partners here and there …

In my own family, there are none of these complications. But here there was all kinds of complex stuff going on. And in those complex families, I was really amazed how the grandparents have a kind of calming, anchoring influence. They’re a sort of focal point.

GRAPEVINE: Do you think the grand-parental ‘home’ (I mean the building itself) adds to this sort of bonding effect?

JANICE: Yes, I do. And that’s something I learned from the Maori and Polynesian people I interviewed. They all said that a ‘big lounge’ is what they needed in a house. The family home is very important. And obviously the various elements in these big, fractured, braided families feel free to visit and overlap and interact in these big homes. 

GRAPEVINE: Did any of your grandparents confess that they felt a tension, a disagreement maybe, between the way their adult children were disciplining or teaching or even socialising the grandchildren, and the way they felt it should be done?

JANICE: Yes, absolutely! This can be a key problem. How the successful ones cope is by realising that their grandchildren are NOT their children. As grandparents, they have to be in the back seat, letting the parents bring up their children with their own values and practices. 

The ones who’ve made that adjustment (and who get on well with their in-law daughter or son) are the ones who don’t constantly criticise or lecture them. Those ones retained that very happy ‘connected family’ quality. There were some that this was a problem for, but very few.

And one of the things that really surprised me was the multi-ethnicity of New Zealand families. Just extraordinary! And what a great way to create a sense of self-identity as a New Zealander …all these wonderful mixtures that we get!

GRAPEVINE: It used to be that there was very little assistance of any sort for grandparents who were raising their grandkids. Foster carers and even aunties and uncles could get financial help, but not grandparents. However, I gather that this has improved recently?

JANICE: Yes. Grandparents are now eligible, if they can prove that they’re the principal carers, to get the same allowance that foster families get. But Di Vivian, of G.R.G., is worried that the Government is now going to take away some other benefits – like the clothing allowance, the one-off, beginning-of-the-year grant which is so important. She worries the Government might be giving with one hand and taking away with the other.

GRAPEVINE: I enjoyed the little panels of bullet-point insights scattered through your book – one of which was a list of ‘What grandchildren give us’, starting with: a new name, a new lease on life, a chance to reinvent ourselves … running through a dozen or so lovely things, and ending with ‘contagious diseases’! (Both chuckle …)

JANICE: Humour is very important … and, indeed, grandchildren do give us contagious diseases. One of ‘my’ grandparents observed that they’d decided not to drive the grandchild to school because they were picking up too many bugs. They worried that, with their own slightly fragile health these days, this knocked them about too much. And that’s definitely something to consider.

GRAPEVINE: Was there a story that especially touched you?

JANICE: Remember the farmers Wylie and Sue? Well, Wylie’s an amazingly practical guy. He built his own aeroplane about 15 years ago and has flown it all over! “It’s the easiest way to get around,” he says! But it’s been sad for them not having grandchildren in New Zealand. They have a river at their door, and there are all sorts of wonderful things they’d love to do with grandkids here. 

However, they handled the separation in a rather amazing way … 

Their daughter in London was having a baby, and she was in a terrible panic. She was planning to have her flat in London refurbished and extended to make it more like a family home. (Her husband isn’t much use in terms of hammers and nails!) So, she just phoned Dad on the farm in Canterbury for help. Well, Dad and Mum put on their dungarees, picked up their tools, flew to London, and completely did up the flat for them! 

I do love that kind of thing!

What really struck me is that grandparents who are blessed with good health and energy have so much to give their grandkids. They know things that have somehow escaped their adult children. And even the frailer grandparents still have so much history and practical love available.

Little everyday things can add up. You can put a sewing machine on the table and make all kinds of things – many grandchildren may have never seen their parents do anything like that! Or a granddad who’s got a shed has the perfect place for kids to go and explore and learn to make stuff.

I had my grandson Tane here last night – which often happens. And we invariably build a fire in the backyard garden. We build a fire, and we send his parents a photo of us sitting at the fire eating hot potatoes. (His parents live in an apartment where you just can’t do things like that.) So, I’m able to pass on to him, in a way that’s fun, all my passion for the outdoors and for nature. 

Most grandparents can do things like that … 

GRAPEVINE: After all the interviews and all the thinking you’ve been doing, have you come to any conclusions about whether there is such a thing as a ‘typical’ grandparent?

JANICE: Typical? No I couldn’t say that, because they’re all so extraordinarily different. But I have come to realise that there’s an amazing, almost irrational love-bond between grandparents and their grandchildren. It goes across all the people I interviewed; all the ages, languages, cultures, religions, and many more who didn’t get into the book!

It’s nothing, really, to do with being proud of their achievements or anything like that. It’s just this very strong natural bond that us grandparents have. We welcome our grandkids into the world in ways that even their parents can’t quite match. 

Another thing I’ve come to realise is the importance of family in everybody’s emotional wellbeing. It’s really hard to be happy and feel secure if you have no family. The book was going to be a celebration of grandparents, but it’s turned out to be a celebration of family life, really. And family life is all about accommodation and tolerance and adjustment, isn’t it?

That’s the biggest thing I learned.