Time, Please: Reflections on Raising Children Far From Grandparents
Our first daughter was born a couple of minutes after midnight, and to this day I am not sure if my mother accepts that her granddaughter's birthday is the day she was born in England or the day she heard about it in America.
This issue of being in two different time zones as we began the adventure of parenting in another country would persist. All visits began in a fog of jet lag, theirs or ours. On our visits to them in the States we would find ourselves waking at 3 am and watching Bowflex informercials or TV Land reruns in the kitchen while trying to feed a baby, entertain a toddler or contain small children in a way that would not wake the house. It was around this time that prescription medicines began to advertise on television, which was not done in the UK, where the NHS and your GP decided what scripts would be written. If a vaccine, say for chicken pox, hadn't been approved to be made available for all, for free, in the UK, then you couldn't get it. Period. Americans with their dry eyes and their prescription eye drops seemed like petulant children. Why aren't they working on a vaccine for malaria? I asked the television, my husband, anyone who would listen at 4 am, still no sign of light in the sky.
Parents of young children live or die by the nap and feeding schedule. In the US, we were five hours off, strategically planning the outings to the aquarium to avoid arriving at the precise moment that one child passed out from exhaustion and was pushed insensate past the river otters and starfish petting pond that would amuse and tire her out for a nap when we could be reading the paper or shopping at Banana Republic.
Around this time, my parents were in their 60s, in good health, not working, free to drink wine at lunch, answerable to no-one. They discovered Tivo. They had civic activities. Their life was sunny and American.
It was when they visited us in the UK that their age would tell, each visit seeming just slightly more undone by the indignities of post-9/11 air travel; a foretaste for us of when the children would be more self-sufficient and the parents a little less so. Small children demand physical stamina, and over time the grandparents were not as keen for long rambles on the Heath or as confident about being able to manage a trip to the playground where strollers needed to be folded or carried up steps or two children tracked, one a runner. And so we would set forth en masse, managing, explaining, minding out for steps and curbs, arranging expeditions to entertain three generations. We went from the vinyl interiors of adventure playgrounds situated under flyovers to the picturesque market, butcher and Spanish deli where we did our weekend food shopping. Instead of day trips to Hampton Court or elegant hotel teas we went to the zoo, to bouncy castles, to playgrounds, to the supermarket.
Whose jet lag was worse? Ours or theirs? I think theirs. They were all well-travelled, but it had been a while since they had to cope with a flat and the little things about how it was different: the alphabet on the dial of the washing machine, the way the electrical outlets and the cooker had switches, the way you had to dial a zero in front of the number, that we didn't have a disposal, that was just a drain, and what looked like olive oil was in fact French hand soap. Also the speed and impatience of us in that relentless perpetual motion of parenthood, of working parenthood, of thinking our own parents to be somehow timeless, always this particular age, oldish but not really old, while evidence to the contrary abounded in the form of children outgrowing their shoes and our own, let's call them laugh lines, or the scowly furrow in my brow from thinking about logistics all of the time.
Each visit had slightly new parameters and boundaries to determine. What could or couldn't be accomplished? How best to spend the limited time that we had together? How well would they and our children understand each other? Hopefully, with us worrying about naps and meals, they were free to get on with it, and I think they did. They found, as grandparents and their grandchildren do, ways around us, with games and candy and rolls of quarters.
But 14 years, which is how long we were in London, is a long time in any life. My mother-in-law called one day to announce she was in love and then that they were getting married. During a routine check-up my father discovered that he had cancer. On a visit home, few years ago, I found a sippy cup in the back of a cupboard, the kind we used to buy there to bring back to the UK. It was a relic of bygone years and I held it as an archaeologist might an ancient skull, marveling at the proof it provided that these people had in fact existed here before us in another time, so long ago.
Pictured at left: The author's daughters with their grandfather during his visits to London.
Rebecca Moore is the mother of two teenage daughters. Before children she wrote fiction for Sassy magazine, and played squash in New York City. While the children were small she did yoga, read poetry and learned to cook in London. When they were older, she and her husband returned to America. Now she blogs at What would the Wertis say?, reads some of her posts on the local public radio station, and plays tennis. By day, she is the Director of Communications at Randolph School in Huntsville, Alabama.