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Loving From a Distance

When I was a little girl, both sets of my grandparents — Nana and Papa, and Grandma and Grandpa — lived within a city block of me. Whenever my parents wanted (and sometimes even when they didn't), they had someone who could change a diaper, identify chicken pox, and take a turn rocking a colicky infant. In fact, a day didn't go by that I didn't see at least one set of grandparents. I still remember staying with Grandma after school, listening to Grandpa play ragtime tunes on his piano, toasting slices of raisin bread in Nana and Papa's old-fashioned manual toaster, and putting on tap-dance performances for all of them.

When I had my four babies, I was living halfway across the country, so I learned from books how to fold a cloth diaper and from instinct (which sometimes faltered) how to nurse. And I'd fantasize about how nice it would be if my mom were around to help out and to listen patiently to my questions.

The majority of today's families are in long-distance relationships with grandparents. Two-thirds of the more than 60 million grandparents in the country have at least one grandchild, sometimes more, who lives at least a day's drive away, according to the Foundation for Grandparenting (www.grandparenting.org), an Ojai, California—based nonprofit organization. Families are pulling up roots for job offers, better climates, and educational opportunities.

What hasn't changed is the undeniable importance of grandparents. "They're role models, playmates, and teachers, and a close attachment between grandparents and their grandkids makes growing up a richer experience," says Martin Stein, M.D., president of the Society for Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, in Philadelphia. Grandparents not only tend to lavish attention on their grandchildren and love them unconditionally, but they can pass along special family lore like how Daddy was afraid to go to kindergarten or how Mommy became the best rope-jumper on the block. And since grandparents have the gift of perspective and a wealth of life experience, they can often see the big picture when parents feel mired in day-to-day snags and snafus. But, says Dr. Stein, "The support and advice you get over the phone just isn't the same as a hug."

Karen Miles's last article for Parenting was "Through Your Baby's Eyes," in the September issue.

More Than Just Miles Away

When Robin Bronk Weiss accepted a job offer that meant moving from Washington, DC, to New York City, she wasn't apprehensive about life in the Big Apple or about becoming director of a nonprofit arts organization. It was that she and her family would miss her parents. Poppy wouldn't be able to take her daughters (Eliza, 6 1/2; Danielle, 3 1/2; and Kira, 1 1/2) out for breakfast on weekends or give them wagon rides at birthday parties. And Nana wouldn't be able to pick them up from nursery school or take them on spur-of-the-moment shopping sprees.

Intimate parenting advice and support would be hard to come by too. "They were my safety net," says Bronk Weiss. "I knew the move would be hard on all of us, but we gave up even more than we realized. For months afterward, Eliza would say, 'Let's call Nana and Poppy and ask them to come over,' unable to grasp that they lived hundreds of miles away." And Bronk Weiss missed her parents as well: "We'd lived in different cities for most of my adult life, but after I had my first child, I wanted to be near them for their warmth and so that my child could share their heritage. Since the move, it has taken more of a concerted effort to keep our relationship strong."

Erin Dugery, her husband, David, and their kids (Reilly Jane, 3; Gracie, 2; and David, 7 months) have also found that distance can put a strain on staying close to a parent and grandparent. "When I try to tell my dad in Florida that the baby has started to walk, he just can't capture the experience on the phone the way he would if he were here to see it," says Dugery, who lives in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania.

Living in different time zones poses an even greater challenge when including grandparents in life events. "Often I want to call my parents and immediately tell them that my two-year-old daughter, Sophia, was asking for them or that she hit another milestone, but I have to wait because it's only four a.m. in Los Angeles," says Sallie Delaney of Boston. "To stay close, though, we've become more creative by mailing drawings and photos back and forth."

The Older Generation's Struggles

Grandparents can feel just as frustrated by the lack of opportunity to dote on and care for their grandbaby; they also don't have the joy of watching him change from day to day. And they may be concerned that without regular physical contact, they'll fade from the child's memory. "When my granddaughters and I get together, everything's great — they're thrilled to see me — but between visits, I can't help but worry that they'll forget me," says Shirley Falk of Miami, Florida, grandmother of Mikaela, 6, and Gianna, 3, of New York City.

Disappointment may also mount if another set of grandparents plays a bigger role in a child's life. Lynne Gold-Bikin, a grandmother of six and an advisory-board member of iGrandparents.com, lives within a comfortable driving distance from five of her grandchildren in Philadelphia. But her 1-year-old granddaughter lives in Santa Clara, California. "I'm very close to all my grandkids, but there's no doubt that my relationship with Marissa will be different," she says. "I'll do what I can to keep our bond strong, but it saddens me to know she'll feel closer to her other grandmother, who lives nearby."

Separate, But Equally Close

Here's how to get the practical and emotional support that you need, and to strengthen your family's ties:

Make plans to visit Whether you rendezvous at your home, Grandma and Grandpa's house, or a vacation spot, it's best when your kids can get to know their grandparents in person. And one happier aspect of living far away is that any time you spend together becomes extra special.

To prepare for a visit — and to keep everyone's expectations in check — think about activities that your parents and children might like to do together. Ask Grandma ahead of time if she'd like to teach her granddaughter about painting with watercolors, or if Grandpa would want to teach her about model trains. Older kids can show their grandparents around their neighborhood or school. No matter what, let them have some one-on-one time.

Pick up the phone Try to schedule calls between your kids and their grandparents at least once a week, and make time for impromptu chats. "Nothing is too trivial," says Katie Habib of Newburyport, Massachusetts, who lets her sons (Will, 7; Evan, 5; and Jude, 2) routinely call both sets of grandparents and their great-grandmother, who are scattered across the East Coast. "The call can be about a lost tooth, a special acknowledgment at school, or a dry night," says Habib. "It's usually quick, but it makes the distance seem shorter." If their budgets permit, you might ask your parents to set up a toll-free number so their grandkids can talk to them as often as they want.

Stamp and send it Kids love to receive mail, whether it's a postcard, a monthly magazine subscription, stickers, or an arts and crafts project. Sue Johnson, coauthor of Grandloving with her daughter-in-law Julie Carlson, keeps large envelopes handy to fill up with puzzles and games to send to her grandsons, Nicholas, 7, and Charlie, 3. She also mails tapes of herself reading stories and poems, and personalizes them with notes that say, "Climb up on the couch and pretend you're sitting on my lap," or "I read this story to your daddy when he was little. Now I'll read it to you." Meanwhile, Nicholas and Charlie send their Oma and Opa school papers, artwork, music programs, and movie-ticket stubs.

Get out the camera Ask Grandma and Grandpa to send pictures of themselves doing ordinary things, such as gardening and playing golf, and send them the same types of photos. Record your toddler looking groggy-eyed over her cereal, feeding the dog, or talking to herself in the sandbox.

Use the Internet If both families have web access, toddlers and preschoolers can dictate e-mail messages to their grandparents, while older kids can write their own. Set up your own website so that family members can keep abreast of each other's activities as well as the latest family pictures. A link at iGrandparents.com teaches grandparents how to build their own web page in just five minutes. You can also learn how to set up a web page at www.peachpit.com/home-sweet-home.

Be honest "To be supportive, we need to know about our grandchildren's shortcomings as well as their strengths, their mistakes as well as their successes," says Patricia Fry, author of Creative Grandparenting Across the Miles, and a grandmother of six. So while you don't want to overburden them, it's fine to talk about problems in preschool as well as triumphs with potty training. And don't be afraid to ask for advice. Even if you don't follow their words of wisdom, confiding in your parents will strengthen your relationship. Ultimately, these extra efforts, big and small, lay the foundation for strong love across the generations. And for families who go that extra mile, out of sight needn't mean out of mind.

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