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Paolaexpat shares some thoughts (and useful tips) about being a granny abroad. Featuring: Dino!


‘Don’t worry, Mummy, when I grow up, I’ll learn to be a mummy, and when I know, I’ll teach you,’ said my daughter Luisa, five-and-a-half, one cold November evening in Brussels as I struggled to simultaneously wash the dinner dishes and get pyjamas onto three-year-old David, while six-month-old Emilia sucked happily at my breast from her kangaroo pouch. I must have been looking washed out. I never was a confident mum.

The immortal words were quoted again by my husband in his speech at Luisa’s London wedding last June. My three grandchildren (two are Luisa’s and one Emilia’s), at that precise moment, decided to engage in a spirited but cheerful rugby scrum in the middle of the guests, as their dozen or so little friends, all under six, cheered them on.

And what wonderful mothers my daughters have turned out to be. They have it much harder than I ever did: both juggle their jobs (travelling to and fro by bike whenever possible) and home, childminders, nurseries, and schools, with very little help. And what’s more, they live in places (Edinburgh and London) where kids are constantly sick with runny noses, coughs, cold and fevers.

When mine were small, we took off from Brussels to Barbados. We exchanged cold granite cathedrals for sun-drenched beaches, and grey drizzle for stunning sunsets. We had help in the house, and I only ever worked when my children were safely in school. And so we continued, travelling the world until they grew up and flew the nest.

granny abroadTime whizzed by, and in a flash I was a granny of three, instead of a mother of three. Sam was born in London, when were once again living in Brussels. I was pacing in anticipation in the Forêt de Soignes one June evening when the call came.

‘I’m in labour.’

What absolute joy. I got the Eurostar, and spent a happy ten days in London. Luisa was in the middle of MA exams (kids ‘plan’ their families differently from the way I did), so I fed Sam bottles of expressed milk, and took him by taxi to the university where they had a special feeding room.

I kept saying to myself: I love this child so much, it’s simply not possible that I will have enough love left in store for any more grandchildren.

But of course, I did.

Two-and-a-half years later, I was living in Dhaka, Bangladesh. There was no quick route for Edinburgh, so I went and parked myself at my parents’ place in Rome as I waited for Emilia’s call from Edinburgh. When it came on a January morning, northern Europe was buried under a thick blanket of snow and ice (kids’ ‘family planning’ once more…). All London airports were closed, as were Brussels and many other possible transit stops. Finally I managed to get a flight via Amsterdam, and miraculously, on to Edinburgh.

Another week of bliss followed Finn’s birth. Pure, unadulterated cuddling.

It was nine months later that I travelled from Dhaka to Johannesburg for the birth of my third grandson. Luisa had moved there for work, and I needed to be around in advance, to look after Sam.

The night Max was born I didn’t sleep a wink. Luisa and her partner were at the clinic, Sam was sleeping peacefully, but I was simply too excited. As early as possible the next day, I drove Sam to meet his baby brother. Am I crazy, I thought, driving in an unfamiliar city after a sleepless night, in this state of euphoria? But we made it safely, and yes, there was still plenty of love to go round.

It’s hard, being a granny abroad, in many ways. You miss out on first steps, first words, birthdays, first days at school. But with What’s App and Skype you feel you are almost right there. We receive videos of the children singing for our birthdays; we receive their drawings, and we chat regularly. That feeling when you first hear the word ‘nonna’ coming from a little mouth across the iPad screen is indescribable (even though it was probably an attempt at ‘banana’ that you heard).

And of course, we go over as often as possible. When we are with them, I feel as insecure as I did as a mum. Perhaps even more so, because I feel I must respect my daughters’ parenting styles. I adopt the ‘io non dico niente’ – ‘I’ll say nothing’ – approach. If one says ‘He’ll only go to sleep if you lie beside him in his bed for half an hour,’ or ‘Don’t use soap, only oil,’ or ‘Put him on the naughty step if he has a tantrum,’ then so be it. They know exactly what they are doing, and all three boys are growing up into superbly strong, loving and ever more lovable individuals.

My advice to long-distance grannies? Discretion, I would say, is the key.

  1. Use social media as much as possible to stay in touch. But remember your kids are busy adults, with lives of their own, and a set of in-laws (or two) competing for quality time. They have friends, interests, and lives outside you. I rarely call without warning…but we keep in touch via What’s App. We have a ‘family’ group where all our interests and activities are posted for everyone to see. We make Facebook groups for major reunions (we have lots of those!)
  1. Don’t feel guilty that the other in-laws are doing more than you do, or are seeing them more than you are. Just be grateful. (One of my co-grannies takes not three, but six grandsons on holiday for a week every year…I confess I don’t envy her…I am simply full of admiration.)
  1. granny abroadJust as they have their lives, you must have yours outside them. You can’t live only for them. Develop your own hobbies, be passionate about them. Do your own thing. Aside from my work, I belong to two local and three online expat groups. I take photos, have an organic garden, do yoga and swimming. And I knit and cross-stitch (admittedly, for the grand-kids…). I even have my own label, Nonna’s Knits.
  1. Visit them as often as they want you. Of course, everyone’s circumstances are different, but we stay in a hotel nearby (near enough for me to walk down at 6 a.m. and give my daughter an extra hour in bed as I play with the kids; near enough for me to read their stories at night), which gives both them and us the privacy we need.
  1. The most important rule is ‘Io non dico niente.’ Respect your children’s parenting styles. No point in saying ‘What? You’re taking him out in this weather?’ Don’t even venture ‘Now that’s interesting: when you were little, we didn’t have a naughty step, you were sent to your room’. You will simply be told that a child’s room is supposed to be a happy place, and should be kept that way. If you feel a child’s first solid food should be banana at four months, and you are told no, it’s apple at six months, or carrot at seven months, let it be. Your kids know. Better than you ever did.

Just look at your kids, these wonders of creation. See how well they are managing, and tell yourself ‘I must have done something right.’ No, correction: ‘I must have done everything right.’ They have learnt: now sit back and let them teach you.

Accra, Ghana
October 2015


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