Celebrating that special relationship between grandparents and grandchildren

Festive season presents opportunities to enhance a special relationship

It’s not only plum puddings that Ann Fleming is making with her grandson Cian Domican on a Thursday evening in the run-up to Christmas. It’s a whole concoction of tradition and memories.

For this annual ritual in the kitchen of her home in Kill, Co Kildare, the pair take out the recipe that Cian’s other grandmother, Joan Domican, always used before her death from cancer 15 years ago, when he was aged just two.

“It keeps her memory going and makes it a bit of her Christmas too,” says Ann, who did wonder this year, now that Cian is 17 and has switched from a local school to the Institute of Education in Dublin city centre for fifth year, would he still be up for it.

However, when she enquired: “Do you want to do your granny’s puddings?”, it was clear that was a given. For the rest of Cian’s life now, one whiff of plum pudding is sure to transport him back to this kitchen and a tale of two grannies.

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It is a relationship that is mutually enriching

Christmas is such an evocative time of year, with a focus on tradition, it is an opportunity to celebrate that special bond between grandparents and grandchildren. And it is a relationship that is mutually enriching, not just when the children are small.

A longitudinal study in Boston found that an emotionally close grandparent-adult grandchild relationship was associated with fewer symptoms of depression for both generations.

Grandparenting is, generally, good for health, says Christine McGarrigle, a researcher with the Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (TILDA), at Trinity College, Dublin. It is associated with higher quality of life and lower depressive symptoms.

However, that positivity is most likely where grandparents aren’t over-involved in care of grandchildren. About 50 per cent in Ireland provide some kind of grandparenting, according to TILDA, ranging on average from 28 hours a month before retirement, up to an average of 38 hours per month after they have retired.

Considerably more extensive hands-on time is linked to higher depression and lower quality of life, although that very much seems to depend, McGarrigle stresses, on whether or not they have a choice to do their grandchild care.

As long as they were able to get out and about, in addition to looking after grandchildren, it was good for them.

Longitudinal study

“It was when people were more constrained, it started to have a detrimental effect,” she adds.

The longitudinal study at the other end of the lifespan, Growing Up in Ireland, found that 91 per cent of three-year-olds had regular contact with grandparents.

Every Thursday is grandchildren day for Pearl Kilkenny-Fleming, a widow for the past seven years, who has three adult children, two of whom have children of their own.

All four grandchildren, ranging in age from 16 to five, live near her in Stepaside, Dublin. “I am very lucky,” she acknowledges.

It’s “set in stone” that at least three of the four will be with her on Thursdays. “We do special things and we have little rituals. I don’t know how a grandmother copes who has them every day because I couldn’t,” she says frankly.  “And if I did, I would have a very different relationship with them. I am primed for Thursday so I can enjoy it and plan what we are going to do.”

Baking gingerbread men in the run-up to Christmas is one must. They also go as a big family group to the pantomime in the Gaiety.

For the first time, Pearl is not cooking the family Christmas dinner this year and is going to her son’s house instead.

“I think I am ready to let go,” she says. “I can have a little part of it – and I only want a little part of it.

“The children are delighted that this is the first Christmas they are staying in their own home. I always went up Christmas morning for breakfast anyway and had a look at what Santa Claus had brought.”

David Seaman has loved being a first-time grandfather to Ruairí for the last two years. He calls him “my shadow” as the toddler loves to follow him around at home in Celbridge, Co Kildare, often copying what he does.

“We come from a family where my grandparents lived in our house and our children’s grandparents lived in a flat at the back of our house.

“I have great experience of grandparents myself and I saw what my parents got out of being grandparents.”

His own grandparents grew up in Victorian times, with both his grandfathers having been born in 1878.

“They remembered things like the Sugar Loaf being set on fire for Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee”.

Even after the turning of two centuries since his grandfathers’ childhood, David still takes from his memories of them how he wants to be as a grandparent to Ruairí.

There's a lot of "living history", he says, in the grandparent-grandchild relationship. He learnt a lot about 1916 from his grandfather, who was a member of the Dublin Metropolitan Police and, at one stage during his career, was stabbed on O'Connell Street. David's own children used to listen to the stories of their maternal grandfather, who had seen the world with the merchant navy.

Ruairí will share his third Christmas with both sets of grandparents; he and his parents plan to stay Christmas Eve with one set and Christmas night with the other.

Without the gift of bilocation, Kay Murphy of Shannon, Co Clare, can spend Christmas with only one pair of her four grandchildren. She is off to Denmark for the festivities, where her eldest son Leigh lives with his Danish wife Dorte and their children Trine (13) and Peter (11), in Roskilde, about 30 kilometres west of Copenhagen.

“It’s a very traditional and very different kind of Christmas. It’s not at all materialistic as it is in Ireland. I love it.”

But the rest of the year, she sees plenty of Gearóid (six) and Eoin (four) who live just about 10 kilometres from her home. “They keep me well occupied. I have a great bond with them.”

As the mother of five sons, there was “extra, extra excitement” when Kay’s first grandchild turned out to be a girl.

“This little lady arrived and she was just a princess.”

When Trine and her younger brother were smaller, “there was a huge void in my life because I had no ongoing contact with them”, says Kay. “But I went to Denmark about three times a year and I spend every Christmas there if I can.”

She also kept in contact through Skype “so they would remember me but, naturally, when they were very small, they wouldn’t remember me from visit to visit. Initially there was a language barrier as well but now they’re bilingual and it doesn’t apply anymore”.

Kay is busy as president of Active Retirement Ireland (ARI) "but when I am available at all, I really, really love being with my grandchildren. It's a bond that you have to experience to realise how special it is".

As part of her ARI work. Kay visits secondary schools to encourage first-year pupils to keep up connections with their grandparents. When you get to the age of 12 and 13, it can be a case of “not yer wan in the corner again”, Kay suggests. “They’re out there, they have their own interests.”

First chance

She tries to impress on them how grandparents like her “have such history, such experience and such stories”. If the youngsters don’t keep the bond going, “it can get to the stage where it’s awkward and they can’t go back”.

Does she spoil her own grandchildren?

“Well, within reason, I wouldn’t override any decision that would be made at home. I would always go by their parents; they’re raising their children.”

Although, she reckons she used to overcompensate with gifts for the Danish grandchildren because she was only seeing them a few times a year and Trine was her first chance to buy girly things. Until, during one visit, her granddaughter, at age 10 or 11, said to her: “By the way Nana, I don’t like pink that much anymore . . . .”

“I learnt that lesson,” says Kay. “Now I don’t buy her anything, I take her shopping.”

She says grandparents have to bite their tongue at times but “I reared my own, that was my job, I’ve done that my way”. And she won’t apologise for using the wooden spoon but acknowledges “that day has gone and I’m not saying it shouldn’t be but it’s different times”.

Having produced five boys herself, she is “distraught” at having only four grandchildren so far.

“I keep telling them, ‘stop practising now and start having children’,” she adds with a roar of laughter.

Ann Fleming loves having Christmas at her home with all the family and doing the cooking. Along with Cian, her other two grandchildren, Fionn and Kate will help with prepping the vegetables.

She’ll have the table all set about two nights previously because it’s a very busy time of year for her, as she is a member of the liturgy group at St Brigid’s Church in Kill. Ann is also a volunteer on Third Age’s Seniorline, a confidential listening service (1800 80 45 91) that will operate throughout the Christmas period.

“You do get sad stories and you also get people who just ring for a chat and say ‘you’re the first person I have spoken to today’, which is very sad.” The days she is on, she generally does the 7pm-10pm shift and is glad if she can cheer people up a bit before they go to bed.

In her house, Christmas dinner goes on all evening and when it’s time for the pudding, it is set alight with brandy, the lights switched off and Cian carries it in. “Then there will be music and they’re dancing around the room.”

Granddaughter, Kate, is always keen to help clear up, Ann adds. “Her eyes would be down to her chin with tiredness and I’m shattered myself but she will be helping – she loves it.”

That special relationship: grandparents on grandchildren:
"When I had my own children small, I had this fierce responsibility for them and I think I may have been an anxious mother. With these, all of this has dropped away. They don't have to be good, they don't have to be anything. They are just who they are."
- Pearl Kilkenny-Fleming, grandmother of four

"As a grandparent you are there to listen, to support and not to judge, and also to share some of your own stories with them. Grandparents have that time and the wisdom. You build it up over a period of time. It's just wonderful."
- Bridie Crowley, grandmother of five

"I adore being a granddad. Although he's still very young, being just two, I feel extraordinary close to him. He follows me around a bit and loves to be doing things I am doing."
-  David Seaman, grandfather of one

"it is great to have grandchildren. It's different from your own, you are more relaxed with them. I love them to bits."
- Ann Fleming, grandmother of three

"As a first-time grandparent I really can't explain the emotional rollercoaster I was on when I held her in my arms for the first time. I really, really love being with my grandchildren. It's a bond that you have to experience to realise how special it is."
- Kay Murphy, grandmother of four

Three-generation celebrations:
Three-generation celebrations can be a challenge as well as a joy, particularly during the heightened expectations and excitement of Christmas time.

It’s lovely for grandparents to be able to take a childlike view of festivities again and their hands-on presence can be invaluable for busy, stressed parents.

However. "It can be painful for grandparents if adult children decide they want to make their own Christmases. That is when difficulties can arise," says psychotherapist and relationships counsellor Bernadette Ryan.   "It can be difficult for grandparents to let go of their role in the whole Christmas showpiece."

Then there is the sadness of families where emigration means the different generations are unable to gather around the one table on the big day, whether they want to or not.

Grandparents need to be flexible and, perhaps, a separate day for family of origin celebrations works better

If there is any tension over Christmas arrangements, or in the relationships between children’s parents and grandparents, “the key thing is to focus on the children”, says Ryan – what is going to make it for them? This means grandparents need to be flexible and, perhaps, a separate day for family of origin celebrations works better. “I do think grandparents have to be open to stepping back and allowing these new families to form their own Christmas traditions,” she says.

But there is an onus on parents too to recognise and respect that the “relationship between children and grandparents is really important. It helps them to build healthy, loving and caring bonds”.

Ryan continues: “It is lovely for children, particularly in this day and age, to have access and connections with extended family. A lot of people live in isolation now, so again it is about the children and making memories for them.”

She cautions against grandparents having unrealistic expectations about what it will be like to have family and grandchildren home from abroad for Christmas.

“There is a gap there from the time they were parents. Their house is probably not childproof; they have got used to their own space. Be realistic about that and prepared for it.

“Like all families, it isn’t going to be The Waltons. And, if there are precious things, put them away.”

Ryan says she feels for young parents today – “because we are into the age of perfection around Christmas time. There is a lot of pressure on them for things to be just so”.

Grandparents need to realise their adult children are probably under far more pressure in this regard than they were. The time that they can give in being with grandchildren, taking them outdoors and making things with them will be much appreciated.

Don’t be fixated on who does what on December 25th, it’s only one day. And the school holidays are very long.

Finally, don’t forget that one of the best Christmas gifts young parents can get from their parents is the offer of a sleepover for the grandchildren.

Priceless.