The trouble with being a long-distance grandparent

Lara Crisp
The Duchess of Sussex shows her newborn, Master Archie, to her family - PA

Precisely five years ago, I found myself in the same situation as Meghan Markle. Minus the husband prince. And the fancy maternity wardrobe. Or the floating yoga room.

Ok, maybe not that similar at all. But I had just given birth (mercifully, with zero press interest) and my parents also lived on the other side of the world.

While Meghan’s mum Doria Ragland flew from Los Angeles, my mum – and personal cavalry – also flew in from South Africa, a few days before my baby’s birth. For my mum, it meant she got to spend as much time as possible with her brand new grandson. Two weeks later, she left knowing that, as a long-distance granny, the newborn cuddles were over and she wouldn’t get to hold him for at least another year.

On Tuesday, Doria was seen walking her two dogs near her home in Los Angeles, two weeks after the birth of Master Archie. She had reportedly arrived in Britain three weeks prior to Archie’s birth, to help Meghan through the final stages of her pregnancy. 

As editor of Gransnet, the social networking site for the UK’s 14 million grandparents, I know all too well the heartbreak involved in being the long-distance grandparent, how isolating it can feel to miss important development milestones, be absent from birthdays and Christmases and, most importantly, not to feel that little hand in yours or have their heads rest in the crook of your arm when you’re reading them a bedtime story.

Lara Crisp with her family Credit:  

So how do long-distance grandparents keep it together? What advice would they give new grandma Doria Ragland to build a strong relationship with her new grandson/daughter, even if she may not be physically available on a regular basis?

Plan your next trip

Always have a date in the diary for your next visit. Even if you’re still saving for the flight, block out February 2020, or whenever, so that you have something to look forward to and make plans for. As one grandmother put it: “I spend a fortune travelling back and forth, to the extent that my grandson told his teacher that I live at the airport!”

Have them visit you

Sometimes, it may be easier for the family to come and stay with you instead. If finances permit, offer to pay for some of your children’s travel expenses to remove any potential barriers for the parents.

For the grandchildren, make a little home away from home, especially if it’s their first visit. Stock up on some of their favourite food and have a little box of toys at the ready. A great suggestion is to include a few of your own child’s toys – children love to see what their parents played with, and it’s a great conversation starter and opportunity to talk about family connections.

Leap the language barrier

One Gransnet user commented on how frustrated she was by cultural differences while she was visiting her family overseas. It’s a common issue, and there’s not much to be done about it except to be flexible, find out as much as you can about their country and customs and try learning at least a few words of your grandchild’s native language.

When I was little, my Austrian (long-distance) grandparents spoke only a few words of English, and I spoke about as much German, but we managed to bond regardless: I have fond memories of our broken and sometimes very amusing conversations and miscommunications.

Keep in touch

Visits are fine and dandy, but how do you keep that level of contact alive once you head back home? This is when modern technology really comes into its own. Video calls – free using Skype, FaceTime and other platforms – have revolutionised long-distance communications, especially for very small people who prefer to nod or shake their heads when answering questions. Now you can see them, the children can show you their toys and art projects.

The long-distance bedtime story is also becoming popular, whereby the grandparent buys two copies of a children’s book and sends one to the grandchildren.

Send love in the post

Video calling isn’t the only way of keeping in touch. There’s still something very special about receiving letters, postcards and little gifts by mail. Children will treasure them and they’re a reminder as they get older that you are always thinking about them.

Whatever you try, it’s worth saying that just making an effort – being aware of the distance and trying to overcome it – is the most important thing. Like many Gransnet users, Doria will discover that being a long-distance grandparent isn’t ideal – but if you keep busy, the time until those next video calls and visits will fly by.

Lara Crisp is editor of Gransnet