The biggest complaint about grandparents is that they live too far away! The only advantage of being far away is that you might not worry so much about the children: you know everyone has to solve their own problems. However, if one of those problems is that you're too far away, here are some things to keep in mind.
Don't wait for an invitation! You may have a long wait—and not because they don't want to have you, but because there is rarely a perfect time for a visit. Ask your daughter or son — and especially their spouse — when would be a good time for a visit. Give them some concrete dates to choose from. That way, you all make a commitment and the visit will happen.
The occasion for your visit doesn't have to be Christmas or Hanukkah or a family reunion. If families saw each other more often, reunions wouldn't be such a big deal, anyway. If you visit during an ordinary part of the year, you'll learn the routine. You'll become familiar with where the school, the dance class, and the grocery store are — you may even get to know some neighbors. On the next visit, things will feel much cozier for everyone and you can be more relaxed, as well as more helpful. Don't wait for a big event. You are the big event.
If strained relations are keeping you from seeing the grandchildren, rise above the situation. You love those children despite their parents' bad graces — the two are not related. Why should the children miss out? Don't let pride get in the way of those sweet kisses. You don't have to make up — some issues may never be resolved. Simply put the conflict behind you. If a disagreement is keeping you from your grandchildren, then you are losing. Love is waiting in your grandchildren's hearts with your name on it. It's yours, you deserve it — go get it!
Remember how back in grade school a week seemed like a million years? Imagine what six months must feel like. See your grandchildren as often as you can. You want to know the children, not just remember them as babies. You don't want to be remembered by what you gave them for their birthday. Photographs are wonderful, but your scrapbook will be a lot more fun if the pictures of your grandchildren include you.
How long is too long? If the travel time is great, you are likely to stay awhile. If you are sleeping on the couch, one week is plenty. If your children have a guest room or you are staying elsewhere, go for two weeks — a longer visit would most likely be too much. Even if you are on great terms with everybody, having a house guest is not only a lot of work, but also very stressful. (Even good things can produce stress.) The stress level doubles when the guest is somebody's mother.
Letting your family know, in advance, the date you will be leaving will frame the visit as a controlled event. When you arrive, sit down with everyone to discuss your plans. (Do the same thing when they visit you.) Build some structure into the visit by defining the things that you really want to do. Without structure there is chaos. On the other hand, too much structure is no fun. Your daughter or son may have tickets for you to visit a nearby attraction or see the new play. Perhaps they have reserved a rental car for you. Commit to what you would like to do with or without them.
Be assertive about the type of visit you prefer. Do you want to relax as if on a real vacation, or do you want to get involved and be helpful? If you do want to help, let them know how. Explain that you don't feel safe driving with the children, so you won't want to drive car pools. But say that you would enjoy making dinner Wednesday night and taking everyone to brunch on Sunday. Or whatever you prefer. Maybe you'd like to help by getting the adults a glass of wine before dinner. Maybe you would enjoy giving the baby her bath or shopping with the 10-year-old for new shoes. Allow for choices and be careful not to step on toes, even when you are helping. Be supportive of the one who's doing all the work.
Maybe you'll feel like going gangbusters once you arrive, fully capable of doing every activity with the kids for 48 hours. But it won't be worth it if you can't more for three days! Remember, kids are accepting. They'll be just as happy lying on the couch with you, reading or watching cartoons, as long as you are together.
Let the children keep to their routines. Experience your grandchildren's life with them. Accompany them to their activities, unless your presence is embarrassing for them. No offense personally, but teenagers will appreciate it if you let them decide where you take them. Bowling might be off limits; gymnastics might be fun. On your turf, and as an adult, you automatically make this choice. Treat them with the same respect. You are on their turf.
No matter who is visiting whom, don't try too hard to impress them. You want to get to know your real grandchildren; let them get to know the real you!
Dr. Bettye M. Caldwell Ph.D. Professor of Pediatrics in Child Development and Education
Parenting advice is given as a suggestion only. We recommend you also consult your healthcare provider.