My memory of my grandparents is that they were very, very old. They could remember things which were ancient history to me. One granny was sweet: when we stayed with her she always put a glass of milk and biscuit beside our beds to eat in the morning. The other one came from a long line of military men and was very severe: she didn’t like us playing with the village children and expected us to stand round the piano and sing ‘D’ye ken John Peel’ and a song about the British Grenadiers. One grandfather was dead and the other was a lawyer, very clever and keen on board games like chess and Nine Men’s Morris – an Elizabethan game which you can learn to play if you go to Hampton Court.
Neither my wife nor I had role models that seemed to give us ideas about how to be a good grandparent in today’s radically different world from the one we grew up in.
So in January 2017 we talked to some people at our church who we knew were grandparents and asked them what it was like for them. We quickly found that we all felt the same way. We realised that given today’s circumstances in which we all feel healthy and energetic, and we all want to be useful as grandparents for our grandchildren. A quick survey of books about grandparenting showed that there were lots of ‘how to..’ things like ‘Ten Steps to be a Great Grandparent’ but most of them were American based and didn’t feel right for our London based British culture.
So we realised we needed to create a self-help group at which we could learn together from our own lived experience: What worked and what didn’t? What was expected of us by our offspring and what did our grandchildren expect of us? How did we handle the fact that three and four year olds are obviously budding tech geniuses and we felt foolish in their presence? Had we anything to offer grumpy teenagers?
We began with a basic format. We would meet monthly. We would gather for a light supper first – and of course a glass of wine. We would have an open agenda, recounting to one another things that had happened to us as grandparents over the previous month. We would share our thoughts and feelings about the things that puzzled or worried us and we would tell one another about things that had worked and things which hadn’t. We needed to recognise that, just as we had had to learn for ourselves what it meant to be parents of our own children, we now had to learn how to be valued grandparents today. Despite the importance of child-rearing books by ‘experts’ like Dr Benjamin Spock, we remembered that as in learning to be mothers and fathers ourselves, once again we had to be the ‘experts’ in our own cause.
Where are we now? Between us we have around 50 grandchildren from a few months old to some in their twenties. We have learnt that we are good for more than free baby-sitting. We have learnt to listen – really listen – to our grandchildren. Because we have less pressure on us we can be alert and responsive to the innocent, yet profound, questions children ask themselves but find that their over busy parents have not got time to answer. They are full of wonder at the beauty of a spider’s web with dew on it or a clear rainbow after rain. They worry about when we, apparently very old people, are going to die. They love silly jokes. Picture postcards with hand written messages on them are treasured like prizes. When we take time to tell them, teenagers find that our stories about our own growing up are fascinating. We get a huge amount of joy, challenge and satisfaction from them all. But more than that, we have found we get used by our sons and daughters as counsellors on many more things than childrearing. We provide them with valuable escape paths from their overheated nuclear families. Our experiences of having lived real life ups and downs provide a sense of security in the fact that we came through the downs and the ups often had more to them than we expected. This especially true when we don’t try to reproduce what we did, but realise we can trust ourselves to have learned from how things actually turned out, and can go on learning from what we face today. Our group has confirmed our need for a secure place to explore the things that worry and puzzle us. Sometimes we yearn for a compassionate place where we can weep about something that looks like a failure in our own childrearing. We have learned that our best work is done in a group of not more than 10 people. Sometimes our attendance has been more than that so we break into smaller groups for 45 minutes or so and gather threads together at the end of the meeting.
One key thing is clear. Once you are a grandparent, you’ve got a job for life. You cannot resign from it, even if you try to avoid it. Blood might link you to those grandchildren, but that reminds you of the emotional link which can get lost if we don’t pay attention to it. The great thing is that there is a deep reservoir full of life- long learning to be drawn on when we take this indelible but, sometimes invisible, relatedness seriously. Our grandchildren have a lot to teach us – if we are open to it!
Find out more
We are not looking for more members of this particular group. We are open to talking about the formation of more groups like ours with anyone who is interested in sponsoring and forming other groups. We are sponsored by St Mark’s church
in South Teddington and we would suggest that other churches might want to take up an initiative like this. Our evidence is that being an open group with a mixture of members, some of whom are church goers and others with different beliefs, makes for a rich experience as we explore what is being called forth from us. The institutional support of a church is valuable when it sees this as part of its contribution to the wellbeing of its local community.
Written by John Bazalgette at email@example.com
or call 020 8977 1653.