We knew already, if we were fortunate, that the grandparent relationship was special.
I knew it 18 years ago when my father-in-law (who sadly died eight years ago) cradled our newborn and spoke to him in a voice I’d never heard before. I knew it when my mother-in-law saw genius in the way our son drank water from his bottle.
I knew it from the way my mother pealed with laughter as she recounted instances of my children’s verve – and nerve – on their gallery and restaurant visits.
Since March, for their own safety, these women, tactile and adoring, have been carefully distant. There has been no hanging out with grandma. Rather, there has been stilted exchanges via video call and awkward waves from the end of the drive.
During lockdown, our youngest, 13, all but vanished off Grandmother Radar, so a couple of weeks ago we drove him to see my mother-in-law. She has underlying conditions and has been self-isolating – which she will continue to do, despite Boris Johnson’s announcement that families and friends who have been kept apart can be reunited.
As he shambled through the side gate into her garden, her eyes grew big and she swept towards him as if hypnotised, arms out. My husband had to hug our son so she could experience this pleasure vicariously.
In the helplessness of our deprivation, we appreciate the hallowed nature of the grandparental bond more than ever. And we yearn for normality to be restored. “We will have Christmas, won’t we?” our 15-year-old asked my mother-in-law on FaceTime. She replied: “I’m sure we can sort something out or we’ll be sitting in the garden in our coats!”
The isolation has been harrowing for many older people. For families with new babies and small children, the sorrow has been acute. Being unable to hold your new grandchild, watching your children struggle without your support, and missing out on love and joy is a cruel grief. You can’t make up for lost time. It’s irretrievable.
Lara Crisp is editor of Gransnet, the social networking site and online community for the over-50s. Some of its users have been in heartbreaking situations, she says. One based in Europe had planned to visit the UK following cancer treatment to meet three new grandchildren, but had to put her plans on hold. “Because of her illness, she doesn’t know if she’s ever going to meet them,” says Crisp.
A survey of 1,006 Gransnet users found that, pre-Covid, more than half provided regular childcare.
“So many of them are so much a part of their grandchildren’s lives. They’re doing the school drop-offs, pick-ups, taking them to swimming lessons, helping out on ad hoc babysitting. One was meant to be a birthing partner for her daughter.
“In normal times, it’s estimated that grandparents save the economy £22.5 billion in childcare per year.
“Short-term at least, far fewer will be able to provide childcare. Families will be more wary about asking older family members to help out. But also grandparents will simply say no because their health is under threat.”
Many grandparents, Crisp says, are making decisions based on their own risk assessment of their situation.
Despite the new change in guidance that allows us to see family, we are not allowed to celebrate our reunion with hugs and kisses. And scientists are urging caution. Prof Chris Whitty says he expects “a significant amount of coronavirus circulating” until spring at least. For those with underlying health conditions the easing of restrictions does not alter the fact that they are at risk.
But Crisp suspects that as more employees are required to return to work, many older people will risk their health nonetheless: “A lot of grandparents will feel under pressure to help out. They know their children are stuck; financially it’s the only option.”
While the Gransnet survey shows that currently, just 15 per cent of grandparents are providing childcare, 11 per cent are over 70 and have underlying health conditions.
Crisp also notes that for some grandparents, the enforced break from nannying that was provided by lockdown was a respite. “It’s hit home how exhausting and damaging to their health it was, and they never realised it or hadn’t been brave enough to broach it with their families. As much as they miss their grandchildren, for some it’s been a wake-up call that they may have been overstretching themselves.”
In the meantime, 46 per cent of grandparents spoke to their families more frequently in lockdown.
They adapted, finding creative ways to stay close – such as sending seeds through the post for the children to grow. It seems many grandfathers are veteran gamers – playing Fortnite or Clash of Clans with their grandsons has been a wonderful way of maintaining a close bond regardless of distance.
Despite such resourcefulness, the challenges are formidable and, even with the changes to guidance, the future is uncertain. What will it be like to be a grandparent at a time when the pandemic is in retreat, but undefeated? What will change? What already has?
Like many, my mother-in-law, Cheryl Robinson, 69, has been bereft of hugs with her grandchildren since lockdown began. “I can’t tell you what that does to me,” she says. “I’ve always been hands-on, and I feel the distance to my core.” She adds: “You wonder if that will affect the closeness of your relationship.” Grandsons Oscar, 18, and Conrad, 15, chat readily and often, but “I feel more vulnerability around Caspar. At 13, he’s a little bit more distant”.
My mother Mary, 67, agrees: “You take it for granted that you throw your arms around them. I realise so much of the relationship is in the touching, the hugging, the kissing and the tickling.
“When you take all that away, it becomes a little bit artificial. You sit there, eyeballing each other, and the conversation isn’t as flowing. If you write an older person a note or email, they write back. Children don’t do that. Zoom has been fantastic – though the younger ones tend to drift away.”
This short-term loss of connection is tough, but for those who are forced to continue self-isolating, the thought that it might last feels intolerable. Gill Mathias, 70, is a psychotherapist specialising in mental resilience, and a grandmother of seven.
“I use the word grief,” she says. “I know it’s a temporary loss rather than a permanent one, and that there are these platforms – Houseparty, WhatsApp – but a virtual hug is no substitute for the real thing.”
Even she briefly succumbed to the fear that the physical distance may weaken her bond, but her conclusion was: “If you have bonded with your grandchildren, it will be fine. Children are resilient and they’ll take the relationship back to where it was.”
She urges grandparents who remain unable to see their grandchildren not to lose heart and to be proactive: play Monopoly online, write letters, send cards.
My mother has taken to leaving cheesecake on our doorstep. Cheryl is teaching her granddaughter, 13, French via Zoom. We have gone on parallel walks, sat through oddly formal garden teas. It is dispiriting because the imposed social distance feels unnatural.
It’s their grandmothers’ loving presence that we miss and mourn. But now my boys are teenagers, at least we no longer depend on them for hours of sanity/career/money-saving childcare.
My mother-in-law, while hoping for vaccines, immunity and miracles, can’t foresee a time where she can safely give her grandchildren a squeeze: “I just don’t think we’re there yet. The children are out in the world a bit. And I want them to be. I don’t want them to feel inhibited. They’ve got to live their life. I don’t want them to have the burden of what they might give me. I’ll carry that, not them.”
Michael Spears, 72, grandfather to Mia, four, also faces a dilemma. He says: “My daughter Charlotte is a single mum, and it’s tough on your own. Right since birth, we were always there for her. It was our pleasure.”
Lockdown put paid to that, and they even stopped waving to him from the end of his garden path, as it was too distressing for Mia (and Spears himself).
But despite his asthma, he’ll resume minding Mia – who has her own bedroom in his house, stuffed with toys – when she returns to nursery for three hours daily in September, and Charlotte returns to work.
Charlotte simply won’t be able to manage financially otherwise. “I am worried,” he says. “But if we don’t take some risk, nobody’s ever going to get back to doing anything.”
Gill Mathias, 70, psychotherapist, Leicestershire
‘I tell myself, these tough times are going to pass’
Being a grandparent is one of life’s great joys and privileges, and I love every moment. I’ve got seven grandchildren – the eldest is 16. I have a very close relationship with them. I’ve been ultra-involved in their lives.
My daughter lives an hour away and for many years, every Monday, I’d leave home at six in the morning so that she could go to work. I would have one child, two children, three children, even four children to look after.
I did all the after-school activities and I always took supper. On Monday night, they knew they’d get a spaghetti bolognese or a shepherd’s pie – nothing terribly exotic – but that was my contribution.
Then I would stay, take whichever children were at school-going age on Tuesday, and collapse into a heap when I got back on Tuesday night.
So when, on March 22, we were told “right, isolation, you cannot see other people, you cannot see your grandchildren”, I felt quite grief-stricken. It was just horrid.
My youngest son produced a child last October, so all my interaction with them has been online – and that’s surreal. I finally had a picnic with them the other day, but I couldn’t pick up my granddaughter.
I said, “Oh, can’t I hold the baby?” and my son said, “No, Mum, you absolutely cannot”. I really wanted to break the rules, but I didn’t.
Children abide by the rules to the letter. You walk towards them and they say, “Not yet, Bubba! We can’t give you a kiss or a cuddle.” Which makes the people who have flouted the rules a real irritant. During this pandemic I turned 70, and my daughter came over with two of her four children. It was the most desperate feeling because I couldn’t hug these two children who wanted to hug me, and when they drove away I felt so empty and alone.
I felt as though a bit of my heart had been ripped away. She brought a cake made by the children and champagne. I ate the cake alone and the champagne is still in the fridge.
The Government realised there was going to be a huge mental health pandemic, and said that any older person who was living alone could form one bubble with one family, as if living together permanently.
So I have been able to form a bubble with my eldest son and his two children, who live three or four miles away. I can hug them, and give them kisses and cuddles.
Over lockdown, my other grandchildren and I discovered TikTok and Houseparty, and of course we communicated by phone. I’m a very sporty person so we also played cricket, tennis or table tennis in the garden.
I can’t hug them yet, but I tell myself, these difficult times are eventually going to pass.
As I say to my clients, it’s important to reframe negative thoughts. I think, “I might not be able to take them to the theatre yet, but I can take them to the zoo or play tennis or golf with them.” There has to be a silver lining.
Guy Slater, 78, actor/writer/director, London
‘I miss hugging anybody. Touch is so important’
I used to go over to my daughter’s house once a week to spend an evening with the family and catch up. If there were any big football or cricket matches on I’d go round, and some weekends I’d visit my grandson or my granddaughter at university with the family.
I was close to my grandparents, and it’s a very powerful relationship. I enjoy embarking on social and political debates with all of my grandchildren, even the youngest, who is eight. It’s not a relationship encumbered with routine so an engagement with a grandchild – if they pay the slightest bit of attention to you – is a special one.
In lockdown, I kept myself as busy and creative as I possibly can.
I worked on the proofs of my first novel, Hurricane Maggie, which will be published later this year, and I’ve been writing a radio play.
I also kept a diary addressed to my unborn great-grandchildren about coronavirus.
That was quite therapeutic and allowed me to make something out of the silence, but I’ve missed the grandchildren enormously.
I have to Zoom a fair amount, mainly for work and for charities I’m a trustee of.
It’s all right but it’s not the way to connect with loved ones and grandchildren. I prefer a one-to-one FaceTime.
I have a granddaughter living alone in New York, and when I call her, we can talk and see each other and she can show me the latest thing she’s cooked in her kitchen.
One grandson suggested we form a book club and do Russian literature, so he and I both assiduously read Doctor Zhivago – or re-read it, in my case.
I do pilates and go on walks, and I’m feeling very fit. I just feel very restricted by not being able to hug my grandchildren.
We have had some garden visits, and the easing of restrictions will make a difference. This weekend, I shall go over and see my daughter’s children, and sit in their dining room. But I don’t suppose we’ll be hugging. I would dearly love to. I miss holding those little things – though three of them aren’t so little anymore! I do miss being able to show them affection.
Liz Lisle, 60-something, former primary school teacher, Northumberland
‘It’s just so very sad I can’t sit with a little boy on my knee and read a story’
As I live more than 300 miles away from my grandchildren, I normally visit them every six weeks, and stay for the week or fortnight. I have two grandsons, five and three, and a granddaughter born in May this year.
My daughter was advised by the midwife that no one should enter a house where there was a newborn, who wasn’t already part of that household. That has cut me off from visiting my new grandchild.
My health is good. I’m a fourth Dan in Shotokan karate and during lockdown I’ve been training. I’m not worried for myself. But, over lockdown, I didn’t want to put anyone else at risk because I thought I should be able to see my grandchildren.
If I were to travel by public transport, I’d have had to isolate in their house for two weeks, because there would be a risk of taking in any infections picked up on the journey. Even if I were driving, I’d have had to stop on the way. It’s difficult. I couldn’t help my daughter by looking after the two boys when she went into hospital, which meant that her husband couldn’t be with her for the birth.
Previously, I’ve helped each time. I was there five weeks when my second grandson was born.
Normally, I take over certain duties. I take the boys up and read the bedtime story and it gives my daughter and son-in-law five minutes’ peace.
Or I’ll let my daughter go back to bed for an hour, while we play downstairs. I’m devastated for her because I can’t help her.
Instead, I stayed at home and I still have not seen them. I haven’t been able to hug my grandchildren or put them to bed, or help to bath them. All the things that grandparents do. I do have Skype contact with my older grandson a lot. The three-year-old is not really interested.
He runs by and shouts, “Hello, Nana”. The five-year-old and I have done Skype for some time. It’s been a real advantage. In the immediate future, I suppose it will play a major role. It’s ridiculous to say that you play with your grandson on Skype, but we do play.
I’ve managed to sustain our closeness, but we’ve had such a lengthy relationship. My staying for a week or fortnight in the past really cemented that. It was coming along really nicely with the three-year-old. It’s not quite the same with him, unfortunately.
He hasn’t developed the concentration span that enables him to sit for very long at one task. He needs to be up and doing. When I’m there with him, we share active play together with his toys and games, and we read books too. That’s not been possible during lockdown and I’ve never been able to pick up and talk to my granddaughter.
Now that English Independence Day has dawned and the rules have been relaxed, I’ll be going to visit as soon as I can arrange transport. I’ve been checking out Trainline since the changes were announced. My masks and gloves are ready.