8 Jul 2021

Grandparenting from a distance

From Nine To Noon, 11:28 am on 8 July 2021

Closed borders have forced many people into long periods apart from loved ones living overseas in the last year or so.

Writer and anthropologist Helen Ellis knows all about having geographically scattered relatives - she and her husband have been 'distance parenting' for over 30 years and 'distance grandparenting for 20 of those.

Helen addresses some of the issues and struggles of having family so spread out in the new book Being a Distance Grandparent.

Helen Ellis and husband Clive on zoom to son's Chicago wedding

Helen Ellis and husband Clive on zoom to son's Chicago wedding Photo: Chicago Wedding photo courtesy Vanessa Buholzer (official photographer)

New Zealand is home to a very number of 'distance grandparents' says Ellis, who has three of her four children and five of her six grandchildren living overseas.

Communication is the key to keeping up healthy relationships, Ellis says, and tweaking small things can help you get the most from your interactions. 

Think about how your Zoom calls are structured, she suggests - do you need one-on-one time with someone as opposed to a group call? 

Rather than tell your family members how much you miss them, it’s better to say you're proud of them and will continue to love and support them from afar, Ellis says.

“That is wisdom that will reap huge benefits.

“The number one emotion that our 'distance' sons and daughters are experiencing is the guilt. The guilt of the left-behind family...when we pour it onto them, that doesn’t help them. They’ve made decisions to live there and they’re coping with all sorts of things.” 

The pandemic has made life scary in many places and "being stronger back here" is the role of the distance parent or grandparent, she says.

It's helpful that, in the age of Covid-19, many rites of passage seem to be live-streamed now, Ellis says.

“Even if Covid tones itself down and we get back to a new normality, I think we’ll be finding ourselves having more of these events telecast.” 

Recently her son got married in Chicago, and she invited people over to her place to watch the wedding online.

“It was absolutely amazing and I’m regretful that we never got to Chicago, but I also feel very blessed that we hosted this because it made such a big difference for other people.” 

Creating rituals with your family overseas is another way to maintain connection, Ellis says. 

One way she does this is by sending fruit cake to her grandchildren in the United States.  

Grandchildren born in the same country as their grandparents experience the sight, sounds and smells of their world.

Those born elsewhere are born into a different culture. 

“You have to be realistic about what they can absorb and become involved in and become enthusiastic about.” 

You can't expect children to always want to connect with you, Ellis says. 

“Kids are kids. Whether your grandchildren live down the street or on the other side of the world, some of them are really into their grandparents and some of them aren’t. It's not something against them, it’s not a bad thing.”