The hot-pink Facebook meme in bold print asked: “DO YOU THINK GRANDMA SHOULD BE DECLARED AN ESSENTIAL SERVICE?” I laughed and clicked my heartfelt thumbs up. I do find myself wishing I could be officially declared “essential,” so that I could sensibly risk helping care for my grandson. But who am I to compromise others’ health — especially his dear Grandpa’s — in the name of my grandma love?
How many grandparents in this pandemic share my dilemma? A treasured relationship with my grandson is now complicated by the confusing tension of caring versus corona risk. We live only 10 minutes apart, but his house includes several young people going out to work. Too many vectors of potential COVID-19 transmission there for us over-60s to be in close contact.
Now and for the foreseeable COVID-infested seasons, my grandson cannot come to “Grandma-Grampa” house to bake and fold laundry, read stories and plant vegetables. When we cautiously visit them outdoors with social distance, I must not touch him. I must not respond to his outstretched arms. I must not wipe his nose or feed him snacks. There are so many COVID commandments that my desire to snuggle with him begins to feel like an illicit affair. What is grandma love without a cuddle?
Being his grandma has been my calling since I retired from ministry. In the fall of 2017, when he was on his way into this world, I was meditating on what I was meant to do next with my life. I felt that familiar shiver of recognition, along with the telltale tears, as these words came to me: “Be his grandmother.” One true test of a calling is that no matter how much you give, you feel like you get more back. For me, grandmotherhood qualifies.
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I have learned to trust how both the home-based and wider world kinds of callings enlarge my spiritual learnings and my social justice motivations. From the start, my call to be a grandma included the dimension of racial justice. His parents are Canadian and South Sudanese.
I was unexpectedly blessed to be present when this first grandchild was born, at his home in Ottawa during a January snowstorm. Watching in awe as my daughter became a mother, I felt once again the passionate bond that can be ignited by the impossible-made-possible event of birth. Our culture is obsessed with romantic love stories, but so little is said about the uncomplicated healing love between grandparents and grandchildren. This skip-a-generation bond can somehow drop decades of emotional baggage and take off for the stars. Grampa calls just carrying our grandson “medicine.”
For the first two years of his life, our three generations were back and forth to each other’s homes several times a week. Grampa and I helped out by holding the beloved babe through many crying nights. Later we answered early calls on feverish mornings, when a sick toddler couldn’t go to daycare and his mom couldn’t take any more days off of work.
At each stage of his learning, our grandson’s enthusiasm for a world all new made cooking and shopping, home repairs and even house cleaning fun for us. In contrast to the years when I was a busy, stressed and sleep-deprived working mom, I now have time to savour each stage of a child’s development. I used to think that homeschooling would be a nightmare, yet here I am naturally turning every activity into alphabet rhymes and colour recognition.
But in March, the ground suddenly tilted under us. COVID-19 began to spread here and the terrain of grandparenthood changed. On Friday, March 13, without even a day’s notice, daycare closed down. That next week, I was delighted to provide daycare so that my daughter could do her work. But only 10 days later, we had to re-evaluate in light of the emerging science about COVID transmission. On March 22, at what I called “The Last Sunday Supper,” we all reluctantly agreed that Grandma and Grampa shouldn’t take care of their grandson anymore.
Like everything else in these times, our relationships went online. But as another grandma declared: “With little ones, the virtual thing just doesn’t cut it.” How do you communicate with toddlers without touch? What is grandma love without the snuggles?
Sometimes social distancing feels like betrayal of the Grandma Code of Ethics.
I am grateful that we still get more connection than most grandparents. After a couple of weeks of cold- turkey social isolation, we plotted how to go for weekly walks, keeping the prescribed two-metre distance between the three generations. At first, two-year-old energy was confined to a stroller. Then we discovered that he was able to absorb that he cannot go near Grandma-Grampa “‘cause cronavire.” (Such a sad thing for a little guy to learn!) Instead, every small need must be taken to Mommy. Grandma-Grampa can only applaud from a safe distance. Heartbreakingly, one day when he trapped his hand between two chair arms, I couldn’t respond when he held up his throbbing finger for me to kiss it better. How can a gesture so right suddenly be so wrong? Sometimes social distancing feels like betrayal of the Grandma Code of Ethics.
We are blessed to have my daughter and grandson close by and safe. We are so lucky to have the technology to stay connected. We are so comfortable in our homes with backyards, where we can get outside daily. We can access good, free healthcare. Most importantly, none of our loved ones has caught Corona, so far.
I feel a bit selfish for wanting my tender grandma role back, when all my other needs and wants are met. Do I dare admit that I’m actually jealous of cultures that house the generations together? Then I remember how Italy lost a lot of in-house grandmas and grandpas. And the generations all crowded into refugee camps don’t feel privileged to die together. Sobering realities and sad comparisons. Do they help?
Having a grandchild who is a person of colour has certainly amplified our human rights activism. During COVID-19, Chinese Canadians have been subject to ignorant racial slurs and African Americans take their lives in their hands for “jogging while Black.” When the murder of jogger Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia hit the news, my grandmother heart hurt far more than signing another Amnesty petition could heal.
Through our tenderness for our grandson, we experience the micro-aggressions of racial prejudice as personally felt barbs. I notice keenly when the news reports COVID-19 disproportionately affecting black communities. We want to be part of the cross-racial coalition, uniting white privilege and Black rage, that is needed for our society to evolve. How can a grandma become not just an “ally” but an active “accomplice” against racism? Now that we have ample time to read, Grandpa and I learn all we can about our own unconscious racial bias.
Reading to my grandson is perhaps my most treasured spiritual practice, even if it has to be on screen. So I’m always looking for stories with black boys in the picture. My next book delivery order will include “Black, White, Just Right,” written by a grandma like me, wanting a beloved child to see himself reflected in the pages and have lots of recognizable role models.
As the weeks roll into months, with likely many more ahead, the tension of staying at a COVID-safe distance from my grandchild grows. It was OK when it felt like a two-week quarantine, but I don’t think I can hold out for a six month sentence. Last time we left his driveway, he ordered us tearfully: “No leave! Everbody, (sic) no leave!” I snuck around behind him and kissed his back. I admit it. My daughter quipped: “Good job on the social distancing there, Mom!” Caught in the act of kissing a two-year-old, I laughed sheepishly. But I honestly don’t know how long I can do a good job of social distancing from my grandson. Maybe I would rather be declared “essential” and manage the risk?
Eleanor Barrington is an Ottawa writer and retired United Church minister.
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