Words: Emily Howarth
My grandparents’ house is an art gallery showcasing our childhood. We always go in through the back door, and right through the house the walls are adorned with the artwork, poetry and photos we have produced over the years. The earliest are by the back door: faded sheets of sugar paper with a squiggle of crayon or paint. In my nan’s scrawl underneath is a name, age and date. Each one carries a memory.
My grandfather recently went into full-time care. He had a fall and a minor bleed on the brain. Now when I visit him the memories I have are not memories he recalls. Although this is painful, reflecting on them has made me appreciate the ‘grandchildhood’ I had, and the effort they put into caring for us.
Although I am the tender age of 25, and far from being a parent (never mind a grandparent), I can already see the unique role grandparents are able to play in the raising of children. As I spoke to the real experts of grandparenting I learnt that with great responsibility comes a need for an awful lot of wisdom. Here are the lessons numerous grandparents shared with me.
Lesson one: pray without ceasing
My nan had a quiet faith. I don’t remember her ever talking about it with me, even when she knew I had become a Christian. However, when I was applying to my second job and telling her about it over the phone (no mean feat when she refuses to wear her hearing aids), she told me she would be praying. I knew without her telling me that prayer was at the heart of all her love for us grandchildren. My childhood was protected on every side, cushioned by her conversations with God.
Likewise, grandfather of four, Martyn, spoke dotingly to me of his grandchildren. He considers prayer to be the most vital part of his role.
Lillian Penner is a grandmother and author of Grandparenting with a Purpose: Effective Ways to Pray for your Grandchildren. She told me that becoming a grandparent strengthened her prayer life: “Reflecting on my new responsibility, I realised my prayers were too general and vague, and I became convicted with how I was praying for my grandchildren…After I asked God for wisdom and read several books about grandparenting and prayer, my praying changed dramatically. I discovered God’s word was a great resource to help me with my praying, not only for my family but also for myself. It is our responsibility and privilege to touch the lives of another generation for eternity powerfully.”
As Christians, we know that prayer is important in every situation, and this is certainly the case when we take on the mantle of grandparenting.
Lesson two: it’s all about balance
Retirement is no holiday and many of the older generation are finding it harder now than ever before. Cavin Harper founded the Christian Grandparenting Network and is something of a guru on the topic. He explained the concept of the ‘club sandwich generation’. He described the situation for “those of us coping with parents with diminishing capacities and adult children producing a growing quiver of grandchildren”, adding that: “The demands can range from something relatively easy to extremely difficult and heartbreaking. In my own ‘sandwich reality’, I struggle regularly with fatigue and depression to some degree – something new to my adult experience.”
Cavin is far from alone. In the UK there are now 3.3 million families comprising four generations. If current patterns continue, that could rise to 4.2 million by 2030. Many are struggling, just like Cavin. But he is learning to cope by cultivating a good group of people around him, and by making time for his relationship with his spouse and with God.
Even if this isn’t the reality for some, many other pressures can come grandparents’ way. Enid is grandmother to five. Her husband John is a pastor and they spend a lot of time dedicated to church life, volunteering and serving. She shared: “The thing is, when you’re involved in church you tend to get busy with church life. And sometimes that actually gives you less time because you’re doing other things. There comes a point when you have to say: ‘I don’t want to do all those things at church because I want more time with the grandchildren.’ It is a balance thing, and I think I probably didn’t always get that right.”
Enid ended our conversation by saying how much she values spending time with her grandchildren, even now they’re older: “See your grandchildren as often as you can, because they grow up quickly and the opportunity to really get to know the children goes.” Distance can add an extra layer of complexity. Enid and John experienced this at first, as they lived in Essex while their grandchildren were growing up in Teesside. But she says that although it had its challenges their visits lasted a week, offering what she described as “real quality time”.
My own grandparents lived five hours away from our childhood home. Looking back, I think they found that quite difficult, especially my nan. However, we would stay with them for several weeks each summer holiday. They would continue with their usual life rituals for the most part and we would fit in around them. Like Enid, I still see that as quality time. When I was born my grandparents would regularly trek up the M6 to see us and help out in whatever way they could. Although I was too busy being a baby back then to know what was going on, I appreciate their sacrifice so much now that I am an adult.
Paula was a single mother and one of her daughters was a single parent when she gave birth. She first became a grandmother at 32, while she was pregnant with a child of her own. Paula told me: “I didn’t support my own mental health very well at all. Life was so unbelievably chaotic. I found time for myself…we had a church group called Oasis and that was my haven. I started going when I was breastfeeding my son. My oldest daughter went to the same group and still goes now. Those were the times for myself, also prayer triplets and home group. I so appreciate the support of those few main people who are still in my life now, who really came alongside me, where I could be completely honest. I saw a Christian counsellor once a week for ten years, and I still know her now. [It was important] to have someone I could share stuff with and be completely honest, with no judgement.”
For Paula, a big part of making sure she achieves a good balance is by prioritising her daughter who is a single parent. “With each of my daughters my relationship is quite different. My oldest daughter and her husband have got four children. My middle daughter has two children from different dads and is a single parent. We have a beautiful relationship because of the unconditional love God gave me that I can give her. I think that makes the ultimate difference. It makes such a difference to her life. My other daughter just had baby two. She’s got a partner, so I offer her a different kind of support, by giving her time out for her university course. But with my middle daughter I feel she needs my support a bit more, especially when she was giving birth”.
Lesson three: keep talking
In the Bible, Laban is not held up as a great example of parenting (or anything much, for that matter). He was conniving and cruel in his treatment of his son-in-law, Jacob. The two of them never saw eye to eye. When the relationship finally broke down so much that Laban felt he had to leave, they talked together and agreed terms for the sake of Rachel and Leah. In Genesis 31:55, Laban touchingly takes time to kiss his daughters and grandchildren goodbye. Our differences might not be as big as Laban and Jacob’s, but closing down conversation was certainly not recommended by any of the grandparents I spoke to.
Caroline Bradley works for Care for the Family and is grandmother to two little girls. She told me how important it is to have a two-way relationship with the parents of your grandchildren. She and her daughter-in-law live close to each other and have built up a deep and genuine relationship. From the moment the grandchildren were born Caroline made sure to never intrude on the parenting choices her son and daughter-in-law made. “My job was to step back and encourage them as a little family to bond, to do things their way and adopt their parenting choices. When I was given the privilege of caring for my granddaughters I did everything to the timing my daughter-in-law wanted, the amount of food and the waking times. I promised and reassured her I would follow anything she wants me to do. That built trust, and she knew I was genuinely honouring her as a mum”.
Having a bond of trust allows your opinion to be welcomed. But Caroline thinks it’s really important that grandparents only give their opinion when it is actually asked for. She told me that as a grandparent she felt it was important to avoid conflicts and never say small things that could imply judgement. She also points out that it’s really important to say sorry, as grandparents aren’t always right!
Similarly, Enid and John weren’t sure when they heard that their son and his wife were considering homeschooling their five grandchildren. They were honest with them about their concerns but respected their final decision: “We talked to them about how we weren’t very happy about them doing it, but we promised never to fall out with them over this.” Their grandchildren thrived as a result of their homeschooling and Enid showed grace and respect by saying very honestly that it had actually been a good decision for them, sharing each of her grandchildren’s successes. She said: “You’ve got to get used to the fact they will do things differently from the way you did them.”
Lesson four: make your own rituals
Rituals form the basis of so much in family life. And as Victoria Beech regularly points out in ‘Forming faith rituals’, they don’t have to be super complicated or super spiritual.
Caroline considers these rituals to be really important for building family bonds beyond one small unit: “I feel my role as a grandparent is actually helping those intergenerational and wider family bonds be healthy and strong. My role as the grandma of the family is to make sure there are spaces where my son and wife and his children can gather with my other children, those wider aunt and uncle interactions, for a good sense of identity, belonging and fun.”
This was certainly the case with my nan and her two siblings. Each Boxing Day they would take it in turns to host the wider family, including second cousins and great nieces and nephews. It was hard work to organise, and once they were into their 80s they agreed it was time to step back from this ritual. But meeting up with my wider family once a year gave me a deep sense of identity rooted in our family ties.
These rituals can help to offset geographical distance. Cavin mentions how sending texts and letters can help to build that bond, but indicates that it’s important to not make them agenda-driven or a guilt trip.
For Caroline, it’s all about singing. They have children’s worship songs in the car and sing along whenever they’re driving. She and her daughter-in-law worked together to make that a family habit, especially as her daughter-in-law does a lot of driving. That has become a routine for her granddaughters now. Caroline considers it really important to work with the parents to match the routines and rituals they know, for example bedtime stories and prayer times before sleep or meals.
John and Enid’s eldest grandson is 23 now, so children’s worship songs probably wouldn’t be their point of connection. John and his older grandchildren go to watch Middlesbrough games together. This allows them to enjoy the match, chat and build their relationship. He says that it is in these everyday moments that faith can be shared.
Sharing your faith story can be a part of these rituals without being preachy. Paula was a drug addict while she was a mother of five, but God completely turned her life around. She sees her life story as a key part of sharing her faith but insists that she doesn’t need to overemphasise it: “I am my own witness, so I don’t need to tell them anything – they see it in my life. If I do need to tell them they take that very seriously. You can’t doubt God in my life, to be fair.”
Cathy Jacobs is a grandmother and author of Pass the Legacy: Seven Keys for Grandparents Making a Difference. She considers being the point of steadiness within the family to be a key part of grandparenting. To make her point she tells the story of a beautiful grandmother clock her father gave her when she was a teenager. The clock hung on the wall of her childhood home, and now hangs on her wall as the next generations grow up. She said: “Isn’t the role of a grandmother similar to this grand clock? God planned years ago for grandparents to be a significant, foundational part of the family. Yet today’s world communicates to us that this ‘grand’ role diminishes with time. Not so! God has called this ‘golden generation’ to be a steady, calm voice in a tumultuous, noisy world!”
It is only now that my grandfather has gone into care that I appreciate how much he and my nan were a point of steadiness within our own childhoods. Wherever you are on the grand parenting journey, take hold of that role and own it.