Pearls at Kindergym: An Ode to Grandparents

This week marked a recommencement of school term, and with it our activity schedule. I spent my years before children mostly unaware of this vibrant subculture. Just like other subcultures it has its own interests, its own music, and its own style. The people that inhabit this world come from all walks of life. There are the children of course, and their mums and dads. There are also early childhood professionals, aunts and uncles and friends. And then there are the jewel in the subcultural crown – the grandparents.

Today was our first day back at kindergym and there, as always, was an immaculately dressed grandmother, with her equally well turned out grandson. She in skirt and matching blazer, beautifully coiffed hair, pearls on her ears, neck and wrist. The little boy in crisp collared shirt under navy woollen jumper, trousers pressed and clean. Should royalty ever happen to stop in at our kindergym, these two would be ready to sit down to tea and scones. I look at them and self-consciously move Pords from one hip to the other side to hide the mashed banana smear that didn’t look so bad when I noticed it rushing out the door. Suddenly I think I should have changed Pickles out of the tracksuit pants he was wearing this morning when he was digging a hole in the back garden (so that we were prepared in case any bunnies wanted to come and live with us!). It is time for the toddlers to dance their choreographed warm up routine. The grandmother watches approvingly as her grandson performs every step perfectly in time. She counts him in and shadows his movements. They have been practising. Pickles casts a glance at the other children dancing and runs off to climb a ladder. Sigh. Maybe I would have more authority if I was wearing pearls.

At many of our activities grandparents either equal or outnumber parents. Last term one of the teachers at our local playgroup said to a grandmother who brings her two little grandchildren every week that it was so good of her to do it. She looked slightly confused by this, thought about it, and then replied: “I don’t see it that way. I feel privileged that my son and daughter-in-law allow me to spend so much time with them.” I was blown away. What a special gift those words must be for her children dropping their children off in the morning to go to work. To know that they are being left with someone who so treasures their time together. You can see it in the faces of many of the other grandparents that they share this sentiment. The joy as they watch their grandchild try something new, or run to tell them something they have done, is a beautiful thing.

Of course, this re-engagement with the lives of little children is not for every grandparent. They have done it all before and there should be no expectation that they want to do it again. They might not have the time, or the inclination, to do so. Not to mention looking after young children is exhausting. Grandparents can have a special connection with just occasional visits. When grandparents are coerced into a caring role it may even have a negative impact on the relationship. I once overheard someone saying that they dropped their kids off at grandma’s on their way to work for eight hours of jelly and telly. After more than a few days, that’s probably not good for anyone!

I grew up with just one grandparent. My dad’s mum passed away before I was born, as did both my grandpas while I was very young. From time to time, I considered how this impacted on my life. I wondered whether I would have gotten along especially well with them, or if one of them might have shared my temperament or interests. I imagined my paternal grandmother as my guardian angel and, given that this was a source of comfort during times of childhood worry, believing made it so. By and large though, my Nan was more than enough. For many years, she was a big part of my daily life. Her kind and generous heart, quick wit, and sweet tooth made for the perfect combination of grandmotherly attributes.

What I didn’t give much thought to as a child was the impact that this had on my parents’ lives. The fact that they both grieved for their fathers whilst caring for young children of their own. The limitation of their available support, advice, and assistance is something that I think about now. I frequently drop in on my parents with Pickles and Pords during the week just to catch up and to have some downtime. When I have some errand to run during the day, they are happy for me to leave the babies there. If it wasn’t for my parents I don’t really know what I’d do. I am doubly fortunate too because my parents-in-law also help out with regular babysitting. Already Pickles has a special relationship with each of his grandparents and he talks about them all daily. If he is building a house with his blocks, he considers whether there will be space for each of them to have a room. If he is picking fruit in the garden, he puts some in separate buckets for them. Somewhere in the squiggles and dots and lines on the paper are pictures of them. He asks to see one, and then if I say not today, he pauses only briefly before asking to see another. And when I say yes, his whole little being lights up: “Yipee!”

So here’s to grandparents: the pearls, the sugar highs, and the immeasurable, intangible goodness that they bring to the lives of their special little people.