We are originally from Germany but have lived in the UK for over ten years. Visiting family had never been a problem pre-children. Once our first son came along, it got a bit trickier, but we still braved the journey to see his grandparents and other family members. Going abroad with two children (three years later his brother was born) got even more stressful and we only went once in three years. The bond to their paternal grandparents had never been very strong (nor the one between their dad and his parents) and as the years passed it got weaker and weaker. (Unfortunately, there is no relationship at all to my parents).
We were quite sad about this development as we always felt that having other adults, especially from different generations, in our children’s life was very important. Children learn from watching and interacting with adults and we believe the closer the relationship and varied the adults the more a child gains from these experiences. We wanted our children to form close bonds with adults who love them as they are and who want to accompany them on their journey through childhood.
Seeing that they were not able to form a close bond to their grandparents when our eldest was almost two, we read about the idea of a “Leih-Oma” (borrowed grandmother) in Germany, a service where potential “grandparents” can register as well as families searching for a grandparent, then they are matched by an agency. We decided to start our own quest. We designed a leaflet headed “Granny Wanted” which said a bit about ourselves and the person we were looking for. We put those leaflets up in health food shops and cafes. We made it clear on the leaflet that we were not looking for a babysitter but a relationship with someone built on mutual support. We didn’t just want to hand the kids over to our “Granny”, we wanted a relationship with her (or him, we didn’t actually limit our search to women). That meant helping each other, maybe going shopping for the other, sharing meals and generally taking part in each other’s lives and hopefully becoming friends. We received calls from three ladies and we asked them many questions during the initial call. For example, why they had responded to our advert. One woman, Helen, who responded, said, ‘I love children, and having no children of my own, thought, regretfully, that I would never be a granny. When the opportunity appeared, I jumped at the chance!’. On the phone they talked about themselves (two didn’t have children of their own) and we talked our approach to parenting. It was very important to us to find someone who would be interested and supportive of us. At the same time we didn’t want to set rules for our Grannies, they still needed to be themselves, not another version of us. We agreed on a set of “basics” that we consider essential in a respectful relationship. Helen feels that ‘what was important at that stage, was that you had a flexible approach to what this might become. I thought it important that we should all be happy to see how things developed, and not have any rigid expectations of how it would be.’
“'They brought food, played with our older son and gave us a rest. It was invaluable having them around'”
Initially, we saw all three of them regularly. At the beginning we went to their houses or they to ours and we would play together. Later, we started to have meals together, go on outings and as time went by got to know each other and build up trust in each other. Quite soon it was apparent that one of the grannies wasn’t able to commit herself the way she had initially thought she could. We still kept close contact with the other two though.
When our second son was born, both were a brilliant help. One looked after our older son during labour and the birth and the other was there first thing in the morning to meet our newborn. They brought food, played with our older son and gave us a rest. It was invaluable having them around. We were so much more relaxed and it was easier than it had been with our first son. It was also great to see our baby forming a close relationship right from the start to his “grannies”, who had become friends by then.
Sadly, the relationship to one of our grannies didn’t recover after a misunderstanding but luckily we still, after four and a half years, have Helen with us. Even though we moved to a different county, our relationship stayed close. Now we all live in the same town again and the boys love seeing Helen. They have a good bond to her and she usually takes them out once a week. When she brings them home we eat together as a family and we go on outings together every now and then. We have spent Christmas with Helen and she comes for the boys’ birthdays. We know we can call her in an emergency and I hope she would do the same.
LISTENING TO EACH OTHER
What we found invaluable is to also socialise as adults every now and then. So we’ll meet in the evening, when the kids are in bed, when there is time to have a proper conversation without being disturbed. We talk about what’s going on in the children’s lives, what they need and how best to respond. Helen will listen and offer her opinion but she goes along with what we feel is right for our children. This forms the backbone of our relationship, or, as Helen puts it, ‘honesty and openness, willingness to talk about things, and tolerance and respect for each others’ approach to life were all important to me. In fact it was very quickly apparent to me that we shared lots of similar values and approaches to life, which was good.’
I have often talked to friends who complain about their parents arguing with them about how they “should” raise their children or getting defensive and angry when they make other parenting/lifestyle choices.
We are lucky not to have that dynamic in our relationship with Helen. She trusts us to choose what’s right for us and our children. It probably helps that we don’t have emotional history to muddy the waters.
We have found that this can be a very rewarding relationship for both parties, extending your family is a positive experience. Of course it also provides parents with a well-earned rest, children with another close adult and grandparents with a new purpose in life as well as the magic inherent in watching children grow up. However, regular good communication is key. Sharing thoughts, needs and wishes in a respectful manner without being critical or judgmental is essential for a successful granny-parent relationship.
Nedua lives in Gloucestershire with her two sons. She uses active listening, art and coaching to support parents in nourishing their couple relationship.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS:
- How can you trust a stranger with your children? We built up a relationship to our grannies over time and got to know them and their families and friends. The town we live in is small and people know each other. There is probably an element of risk, like with anything, we went with our gut feelings and watched the reactions of our children. Plus, we spent the first months all together.
- What do adopted grannies do with their grandchildren? The same that biological grandparents do; play and have fun and integrate them into their lives.
- Do only people who don’t have their own children adopt grandchildren? Not necessarily, some have children who don’t have children of their own.
- What about the biological grandparents? In our case, they don’t know about our adopted granny as they live in another country and are not really part of our life. I think when there is a good relationship, but maybe grandparents are far away, they would benefit from knowing and as long as both parties are open about expectations, feelings and boundaries, there should not be a problem. Children don’t know how many sets of grandparents they “ought to” have, so the more the merrier!