My parents as grandparents
In June 1996, my Mum and Dad were promoted to grandparents when our eldest child was born. Until then, their lives had settled to the peaceful rhythm of having three grown children, plus two new sons-in-law. But as my husband and I made the decision to move back into the family home, my parents soon had the added responsibility of helping care for a screaming infant grandson. Thus began a revolution in the home which had begun, without their knowledge, nine months earlier.
As baby paraphernalia cluttered the family home, our lives underwent a radical transformation. Family meals were no longer civilised affairs filled with conversation about work and current affairs. Instead, food was bolted down between feeds, our conversations punctuated by the outbursts of a tiny tyrant who was simultaneously cooed over, cuddled and appeased. Family outings were, similarly, no longer a simple choice of what to eat or buy. Instead, our destination would be the ubiquitous air-conditioned shopping mall, chosen for stroller-friendliness, family restrooms where Baby could be fed in peace, and whether the food could be served before Baby’s next feed or nappy change.
If becoming a parent can feel like an upheaval, becoming a grandparent is no less chaotic. But my parents weathered this transition at a relatively youthful age. Dad was barely sixty and Mum was still in her mid-fifties. Retirement seemed a long way off, and the presence of a third generation added a new dimension to family life. Car seats, high chairs, babysitting in the evening so that we could still go on dates: they handled all these with grace and some panache.
In the last eighteen years, my siblings and I have provided my parents with a brood of 9 grandchildren, with the eldest now in his late teens and the youngest barely 6 months old. Here are some of my reflections as a daughter watching her parents make the transition over almost two decades, not just to being grandparents, but keeping in step with the growth of the youngest generation.
A waltz to unfamiliar music
When my son was born, I was 25, about the same age as Mum had been when she began to have children. As parents-to-be, my husband and I attended pre-natal classes, read stacks of parenting manuals, and discussed the impending arrival endlessly. We prayed together and received much prayer as we anticipated our impending change of status.
No such preparation existed for grandparents-to-be. Yet somehow Mum and Dad manoeuvred their way through their ‘promotion’. With bated breath and withheld counsel, they have loved, supported and guided each of us children as we have become parents ourselves.
In those early days, as I learnt how to be a mother while living as a daughter with my own parents, it felt like a waltz in which everyone should know the steps, with parents and grandparents trying to graciously make way for each other as all tried to care for a small child together. Sometimes the dance felt more like a chaotic conga with us treading on each other’s toes! Someone once said, “In the Asian family, you are always the child of your parents.” As children become parents themselves, mistakes are inevitably made. A grandmother’s love for her grandchild is no less fierce or protective than a mother’s love, and the temptation to step in and take over must be strong. With hindsight I appreciate how my parents learned to express their own care and concern while respecting the new authority my husband and I needed to have. They showed us that parental love is not weaker when tempered by the need to respect boundaries, especially being one generation removed. In a sense they were still parenting us, and our baby son, but with a new and lighter touch which in the end gave us both freedom and support.
Treading old paths with different shoes
The little girl sat at the dining table, perched on her father’s knee, a frown on her face as she focused her attention on the newspaper spread in front of them. “What letter is this?” asked the man, finger pointed at the day’s headline. A brief pause. “A! A for apple!” the child shouted triumphantly, determined to show off her knowledge.
Fast forward twenty-six years, to the same family home, the same dining room. At a newer, more polished table, the same man sat with another little girl, once again paying close attention to the day’s copy of the Straits Times. “And what letter is this…?” “Z, Grandpa, Z for zoo!”
It has been Dad’s joy and privilege to teach two generations to read. Watching him teach the alphabet to my daughter, it felt like the remake of an old film superimposed upon the original. The memories helped me to recapture the closeness we experienced as children enjoying Dad’s undivided attention, reminding me of the love he poured into making sure we acquired that one basic skill. As each grandchild matures from learning letters to reading books, they keep him young with their animated discussions as each is keen to share their latest discoveries with Grandpa.
The psalmist writes,
“Stories we heard from our fathers, counsel we learned at our mother’s knee.
We’re not keeping this to ourselves, we’re passing it along to the next generation —
God’s fame and fortune, the marvellous things he has done.”
(Ps 78: 3, 4. The Message)
Grandparenting is like a walk over old paths for my parents. The things they did with us as children, the values imparted and wisdoms shared, we now see them share with the younger generation. For my children, it has been invaluable to have core family values and biblical truths repeated to them by different voices, often reinforced by their grandparents’ gentler authority, and a much-needed touch of humour: “Why shouldn’t you do that? Well, you see, when your mummy was your age…”
A is for apple, I is for i-phone
“Mum, did you see what Grandma posted on Facebook today? It’s really funny!”
Grandparenting is not a static state: with grandchildren constantly growing and developing in a changing world, there are always bridges to cross and divides to close. Mum and Dad’s retirement life has felt adaptive and challenging at a time more normally associated with stability. At a time when most retirees might be travelling the world or taking it easy, Mum and Dad have continued their efforts to keep up with the things which might threaten to increase the gap between themselves and the youngest generation.
There is the generational divide. Grandparenting a toddler is vastly different from that for a teen. My parents have an impressive knowledge of the cartoon characters and Marvel superheroes which the youngest children love. But more impressive still is the afternoon which Mum spent in the Christian bookshop, quizzing the staff about the latest hip hop albums for her teenage grandson. How many seventy-year-old grandmas in Singapore can say they have heard of Christian rap artistes like Lecrae and Trip Lee, let alone bought their albums?
In bridging the divide, my parents have also learned the different love languages – cuddles and peek-a-boo speak to the 6-month-old as much as the teenager appreciates sympathetic silence, interpretation of grunts and a ready supply of his favourite prata and ice Milo.
There is the technology divide. Babysitting in the early years meant knowing which Tweenie and Barney videos were most likely to pacify the grandchildren. These days with Granddaughters no. 8 and 9, it is more likely to be Peppa Pig or Angry Birds on Grandma’s i-pad, while keeping abreast of Granddaughter no. 3’s movements on Whatsapp, and commenting on the photos and status updates of Granddaughter no. 2 on Facebook!
Most challenging is the geographical and cultural divide. For my children, growing up in the West, products of a bicultural marriage, it can sometimes feel like Grandma and Grandpa are from a different world altogether. My parents have to work doubly hard to communicate their concern for grandchildren living thousands of miles away in a different time zone, with different societal norms. Yet whether through Facebook ‘likes’, telephone calls or extended visits in the school holidays, there is no doubting the place which Grandma and Grandpa have in my children’s hearts. When asked what they value most about their grandparents, all my children replied without hesitation, “They’re so kind. They’re really funny and fun. They always have time for us. They always listen to us. And they love us all the same.”
The epicentre of family life
All parents go through the ‘empty nest’ phase, when physically or emotionally, their children are grown and their life takes place outside the family home. For my Mum and Dad, the transition to ‘grandparent’ status meant that the nest was no longer empty. Their house, my childhood home, is the gathering place for the entire clan, and when Grandma and Grandpa preside over a meal where we are all present, we have to eat in shifts, huddled round crowded tables.
For me there is a wonderful sense of rootedness in seeing my own children eat, share jokes and watch TV in the same place where my childhood memories were made. From being a nuclear family of 5, my parents are now the epicentre of a family of three generations divided across the world. In recent years our family has endured significant storms, and my children have shared joy as well as deep sorrow with their grandparents, uncles and aunts, and cousins. As advanced age makes its mark, we are also realising that Grandma and Grandpa need our care and attention – they have looked after us for so many years, and now they in turn need valuing and looking after.
One underlying strand of truth running through all of Scripture is the value and strength which the Lord has placed in families which know and trust Him. The Bible speaks in countless ways of God’s hand at work in the lives of those who belong to Him, to their children, and their children’s children. While not all our family have always been active in their faith, we can see clearly the actions of God through successive generations, drawing us increasingly closer to Himself. For the youngest generation, my Mum and Dad’s role in their lives is a living demonstration of love and stability which I pray will lead to an enduring trust and hope in the Living God, whose love is unchanging through all generations.
“Know therefore that the Lord your God is God; He is the faithful God, keeping His covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love Him and keep His commandments.” (Deut 7:9)
Lynette Lim-Teagle is the middle child of two retired doctors, and mum of three children aged 15 to 21. Married to Peter, they are based in Oxford, UK, where she is involved in international student ministry, church leadership and PhD research, but her roots (and tastebuds!) remain in Singapore where she grew up.