Living with Grandma

The little badge was unearthed from a corner of my mother's ancient sewing box the other night, when she was sewing similar ones on to my children's scout uniforms.

British Association of Gymnastics Award: Level Four, it said. As usual, the children and I teased her for keeping it, pointing out that it is too late now for her to sew it proudly on to my leotard.Faded from its 30-year spell in the box, the badge is a reminder of just how relentlessly busy life can get. As a working mother of young children, my mother Sandra – who lost her own mother comparatively young to cancer – sometimes struggled to cover all the bases. And her memory of how that felt is one reason why she has come to live with us to help to bring up her grandchildren.

Live-in grandmothers are in the news with the announcement that US President-elect Barack Obama and his family are likely to take his mother-in-law Marian Robinson with them to the White House. The 71-year-old has been looking after her two granddaughters during the election campaign, and it is mainly for their sake that Obama and his wife Michelle have asked her to relocate from Chicago to Washington. Marian is said to be considering whether to get an apartment of her own near the official residence or simply to claim a corner of the mansion.

It is unusual for grandparents to live with their children’s families in Britain – only 5% of older people do it – but for those families that try it, it can work well. The Campanile family, who ran an Edinburgh chippie where the young Sean Connery was once a regular, now run La Cantina restaurant on Leith’s waterfront. Grandmother Yolanda, 80, a second-generation Italian immigrant who has suffered from Alzheimer’s for the last decade, shares a family home nearby with her son and daughter and their families, including five children.

Yolanda’s daughter-in-law, Wendy Spencer, says: “When the children were little, Nonna ( Italian for grandmother) was really in charge of the cooking, and she would cook for everyone. Every Friday she would make fish and chips for the children. At Christmas she and the children would make biscotti and other Italian dishes. There were always loads of people round the table.

“When their granddad was alive, he would sit them all round the table and make them bambaccinos, just frothy milk and chocolate sprinkles, and talk to them.

“If the children really wanted something, I suppose they could pretty much go from adult to adult until they found one who would give in.” Granddaughter Anita, 15, says: “If you fell out with your mum, you could go up to Nonna and she would say, Oh, why?’ and try to make it all right again.'” Chloe, 12, adds: “And if you hurt yourself by banging into a door or something, she would tell the door off and it was so funny.”

Recently, the balance has been shifting gradually towards her grandchildren helping to take care of her. “I think it is good for the children. They are learning to be responsible,” says Wendy.

A keen ballroom dancer and singer, Yolanda is still at the centre of the family’s life, full of stories and songs, often going round the house singing and clapping. “I have lived in my extended family all my life, since I was a child, and I wouldn’t like to live any other way,” she says.

“She’ll grab your hand and say, Remember this?’ and start singing I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles,” chips in Chloe. Anita adds, with affection: “Nonna has basically got a song for every word you say.”

LUCKY Kaur is a Sikh mother of three who lives with her older in-laws, also in Edinburgh. “It really depends on the people you live with,” she says. “We have a laugh and a joke whatever we are doing. You could never say you were bored or lonely. “On the downside, there isn’t any privacy. Everyone knows your business and you have to fit in.”

Lucky says she thinks that eventually she will move out with her family – and she doesn’t think she would live with her son’s wife. “I just think I want to do things my own way,” she says.

The psychiatrist Judy Greenwood, a former consultant at the Royal Edinburgh Hospital, lived with her daughter and granddaughter for several years. It was an arrangement that, while good in many ways, could be challenging.

“Mothers and daughters have a special relationship,” she says. “I coined the phrase, When I whisper, you hear a shout,’ because when I say something I feel is quite gentle, she thinks I am criticising her. And I think a lot of mothers and daughters are like that.” Child psychologist and American expat Linda Blair, whose new book is The Happy Child, says the arrangement can work well and is pleased that the Obamas have asked their older relative to move in. “I think it is wonderful that they have asked her,” says Blair. “I think it sends out the message that older relatives matter and they can make an invaluable contribution to family life. “There is a lot of awareness about how lonely many older people are today when families can be so far away. But it is not just the old. People of all ages can be lonely. Parents can be lonely. So can children.

“In the Obamas’ case, this is great for the children because Michelle will be so busy and I don’t expect their dad will have much time to hang out with them either. Their grandmother has a very special investment in these two little girls. She loves them and they will be good company for each other.”

However, Blair does warn that there can be problems. “There can be flashpoints,” she says. “Most women may want to rear their children as they were reared in some ways – but then there might be other aspects where they say, I’m not going to do what Mum did there.'” Blair advises that cross- generation families should have clear rules. “The adults should sit down and talk about what the rules are. If there is a disagreement about how much little Johnny should eat of his main course before he gets pudding, you need to settle that in private and then stick to what you have agreed at the table. It wouldn’t be good for little Johnny to be able to play the adults off against each other, because he might start to feel a sense of power.”

Certainly, there have been pros and cons for my family. The children love my mum’s cooking, as do I, and it is particularly enjoyable for me as a working mum to find Scotch broth, or mince and tatties, or the children’s absolute favourite, stovies, gently simmering when I come home.

But my mother was raised in a different time and probably has higher expectations of what is acceptable in terms of children’s table manners – and behaviour generally – than my more casual approach. Unfortunately, these disputes are often settled in a less-than-textbook fashion: as we come to them. There are times when I can completely understand why so many families don’t eat around a table any more, as we struggle with inter- generational squabbling, peas on knives, elbows (or even feet) on the table and spaghetti being sucked up Lady-and-the-Tramp style.

Chinese stir-fry has become a more popular option since we established that, when eating with chopsticks, it is actually acceptable to lean over your bowl and slurp. But a recent dispute about sugary breakfast cereal (bought to help lure kids out of bed on dark mornings) ended when my mother – a retired health visitor – silently weighed a bowl of cereal and then placed another bowl filled with what she estimated to be the proportionate amount of sugar on the table.v My mother has her own sitting room and the children love to play cards in there or lie on the sofa with her and watch TV with her. My daughter Mary, 12, tells me: “I think it’s great having grandma live with us because she cooks great meals. Sometimes I come back looking forward to a tea that she has cooked but she’s not there and I miss her.” My mother has an escape route. Being with us all the time was too much, so she acquired a cottage to which she can vanish at weekends. “I love my time in the cottage,” she says. “I found it hard to switch off when there were things needing to be done. When you are around all the time, the family can take you for granted. The children are also more likely to get cross with you when you are telling them what to do.

“But I love being part of the family and helping to bring up my grandchildren. I feel I have more time to be with them than I did with my own children and I enjoy it more. Also, it gives a focus to my week. Some retired people volunteer, but I would much rather help with the family.”

My husband Rob has positive memories of sharing a home with his maternal grandmother. “I think older people and kids have the same pace of life as each other. It’s a slower pace than midlife. I remember doing the same things with my gran as I see our kids doing now. “I think it has been life-enhancing for our kids to have Sandra around. My guess is it will be a bit life-enhancing for her, too. In any case, it’s not me who argues with her, is it?”

Despite the practical benefits, there are times when the compromises feel difficult and times when we question whether our family life is working. But so far we have managed to resolve our disputes and concentrate on the bigger picture. The gym badge is still in the sewing box. But my children’s scout badges are neatly stitched to their uniform shirts. They bear the motto of the burgh of Leith – the single word “Persevere”.

If grandma is moving in Clinical psychologist Linda Blair, author of the Straight Talking series of books, advises that families living together should

* Have regular family meetings where the adults discuss how it is going.

* Be clear about who sets the rules and where – but it doesn’t have to be the same person all the time. You could decide to follow granny’s rules in the kitchen and Mum’s or Dad’s rules at bedtime.

* Try not to let feelings of jealousy get the better of anyone. It may seem as if the children prefer grandma’s company, but it doesn’t mean they love her more than anyone else.

* Make sure grandmother finds uncontentious areas of domestic life to help with, such as the laundry or washing-up.

* Ensure children stay calm and show their grandparents respect, even if they don’t agree with them.

The Guardian
November 22, 2008