Grandparenting from Afar

By Karen Nettler, MSW

I grew up in the 50’s and 60’s being blessed by the relationships I had with both sets of grandparents and one great-grandmother.  In fact, my great-grandmother’s death when I was 21 years old was the first close family loss I experienced.  All of my grandparents lived nearby — my father’s parents lived within walking distance of my home.  It was not unusual for them to drop in for a visit.  My mother’s parents had dinner with us on Tuesday nights and my grandmother would then sleep over our house (in my room) before heading off to work the next day.  Even as I write this, a smile comes to my face when I think about those days: sitting at the piano with my paternal grandfather, enjoying the stories of the “old country” from my grandmothers, and especially the delicious pastries my maternal grandfather brought from the Bronx each Tuesday afternoon!

Fast forward to today, and I am now relishing being “Bubbie” to twins (a boy and girl) who are now 2 years old and live in Michigan.  I have longed for this stage in life yet never anticipated that my grandchildren would not be a regular part of my daily life.  But with a little determination and planning — and with the technology we have today, I have managed to build a strong relationship with Whitney and Isaiah.

How have I done it?  First and foremost, I have committed myself to visiting them in Michigan every 4 – 6 weeks.  I hold very special status with the airlines!  These visits allow for me to be on-site with them for the entire weekend:  when they wake up, go to sleep, play and even get cranky.  It’s total immersion time for me as my daughter and son-in-law often take advantage of the opportunity to go out as a couple or to run errands.  It is pure joy — and a ton of work — to watch two toddlers at a time.  I’ve become a regular at the local parks and library where the kids love all the stimulation, and I enjoy the company of other Bubbies, parents and nannies.  I also get to meet their friends, so I can relate to “their world” when I’m back home communicating with them by phone.

Modern technology is a faraway grandparent’s best friend.  When my daughter announced she was pregnant, I gave up my flip-phone and bought a Smartphone just so that I could Facetime with the kids.  I keep copies of their favorite books in my home so I can read to them; pretty soon we’ll be reading to each other as they memorize the words to the books.  I also keep some finger puppets and other bright colorful objects around the house to keep their interest, since looking at Bubbie is not the most exciting activity for a toddler.  Keeping abreast of what captures their interest (versus mine) and honing in on those topics has been so rewarding for me — and I think for them.  I’ll never forget the look of amazement on their faces when Elmo showed up at my side during a recent conversation.

In addition to reading and entertaining, I have found another use for Facetime as well.  I have started sending gifts for occasions like the first day of school, so that I can watch the kids open them while we are on the phone.  That way they know the present is from me, and I get to see their excitement when they open the gift.

Even when we’re not on the phone, I have found ways to connect by creating photobooks of their milestones and memories while I’m at home.  This allows me to reflect on all our special times even when we’re not together.

Time will tell where our relationship will go in the years ahead, but I’ll do my best to keep up with their interests.  Time to stop writing; I have a plane to catch!


Karen Nettler, MSW is a former Director of Community Connections for JCS.

Because children don’t come with an instruction manual, JCS offers a variety of programs, services, education and support for parents and families with children of all ages. Click here or call 410-466-9200 to learn more.

*Editor’s note:  Since writing this blog, Karen has announced she is retiring from JCS.  She and her husband are moving to Detroit to be closer to their grandchildren.  Mazel Tov to the whole mishpacha!


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