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Psychotherapist Gael Lindenfield examines the roleof grandparents today.
No one warned me that in my early 40's. I would start cooing longingly into prams. I was totally unprepared to meet this new aspect of myself. My own nest had just emptied and I was eagerly filling the 'vacuum' with innumerable career and globe-trotting adventures. Admittedly the master vision for the rest of my life did include a few happy granny and grandpa scenes, but they were more distant and more a family joke than a serious prediction. So this strange primitive urge to extend my family into another generation was both perplexing and even a little irritating.
When the right time came, I had, of course, every intention of becoming a conscientious, involved grandparent. But that was more about doing the right thing for the children than fulfilling a deep instinctive need of my own. As a psychotherapist, I am hyper-aware of how life-transforming a good relationship with a grandparent can be. It offers so much more than treats, extra quality time and cheap nannying. Good grandparents help build psychological security by making their grandchildren feel part of a much wider, diverse and stable supportive family network. They also give them a sense of their place in history and evolution and give their life a meaningful sense of perspective.
Even when we reach adulthood, our psychological health can be affected by the relationship that we may or may not have had with our grandparents. I frequently work with people who have (to put it mildly!) a less than perfect relationship with their own parents. Many times I have been able to help people heal emotionally by simply reawakening a cherished memory of a much happier and more unconditionally loving relationship with a grandparent.
Alan was, in his own words, ‘a hopeless case of workaholism’. He still fell driven by trying to please his ambitious, perfectionist father. But, fortunately, I discovered that he had also received a much more unconditional kind of love from his calmer, happier and affectionate grandfather. Putting a photo of his granddad on his desk helped Alan keep his promise to himself to maintain better balance in his life.
Similarly, another client, Angela, had very low self-esteem. We found that by just recalling her grandmother's look of pure joy when she used to greet her after school each day, Angela could give herself a powerful boost of confidence whenever she needed it.
Until I became a grandparent myself, however, I never appreciated how important Alan and Angela must have been for the happiness and welfare of their grandparents.
Nowadays, the chances of children and grandparents having such intimate, mutually satisfying relationships are fast diminishing. Recent research revealed that in Britain, one out of twenty grandparents is likely to have had no contact whatsoever with at least one of their grandchildren during the past five years. There are many reasons for this new distancing of generations. Sometimes, it's mere geography that keeps them apart. I recently met a woman who proudly showed me a picture of her family in Australia. Unfortunately, she told me, she hadn't ever visited them, and hadn't even seen her five-year-old granddaughter. Her son had brought over his seven-year-old son six years ago, but he hadn't had the time or money to visit since. She explained that she herself had a heart condition, which would make a long flight too risky.
The positive aspect of this story was that, however sad this situation was for both parties, there appeared to be no bitterness or resentment. But many grandparents feel quite differently. They're being forced apart from their grandchildren by less acceptable factors of modern society. Perhaps pressure of time maintains the distance. After all, nowadays, even if close extended families live within easy visiting distance, they may still not see much of each other. Parents often spend so much of their precious weekends cleaning, shopping and decorating that they hardly have time to get to know their children. Equally, the children themselves may have such a heavy weekend of programmed activity that their time is also stretched to its limits. A visit to or from grandparents feels like a luxury that no one can afford.
Another increasingly common reason for estrangement is the break-up of family through divorce or separation. Many grandparents who consequently lose contact with their grandchildren go through a painful bereavement process, which can even lead to emotional and physical illness. This is because they never give up hope. They will not accept the finality of separation or loss. It seems that the grandparenting instinct and bond is so strong that it is rarely killed by even the most bitter family squabbles and separations.